Ep.10 Transcript

 Music – Plink by Dorian Roy

Anja
Welcome to the Plastisphere, the podcast on plastics, people, and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger. When it comes to solving the issue of plastic pollution, what would you say, who’s responsible? Is it individuals like you and me, is it the corporations that produce plastics or products made from it, or is it the government with its rules and regulations? That’s the question Brooke Bauman asks in her 4-part podcast series “Guilty Plastics”. Brooke is a student in environmental science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an amazing young audio storyteller. For Plastisphere, she’s produced a special edit of one of her episodes, which you will hear later in the episode. But first, I wanted to chat with her about her project, so we connected via Skype.

Brooke
I didn’t really start thinking about my plastic usage until probably high school. And thinking back just to when I was a kid, you know, sometimes you’ll go back and look back at old movies of when you’re playing with your toys, and I would notice in those videos that most of the toys I was playing with were made of plastic. And so once I was in high school and was just kind of realising what materials I was using, I was really thinking about my individual impact. And so every day at school, I would bring my own lunch and I would package my sandwiches in plastic bags, and chips, crackers in plastic bags, and didn’t really think twice about it. And I had a friend at lunch, her name was Danielle, and she would have these reusable containers, and she would also have like old yoghurt and pesto containers that she would wash out and put snacks in. And I think at first, I just kind of started asking her about it. I was really intrigued by what she was doing. And so over time, I think I just got to be more familiar with the idea of reusing and reducing my waste. And so as I got into college and decided to study environmental science, I just became immersed among more people who were striving to live sustainably and also reduce their individual waste stream. And so I think just kind of that collection of people around me influenced me to just start thinking more about how to make small changes to reduce my plastic usage.

Anja
So you did start making changes. But I also read in a blog post, you wrote that you still had your doubts. Maybe you can describe a little more like, what exactly did you change in your life, which steps did you take? And why didn’t that still seem enough to you?

Brooke
Well, I think the main changes that I made originally, as I was starting to get into college, and I had some space to kind of just start my own life as a young adult, I would use reusable bags, going into grocery stores, I committed to that. And then also, talking about those bags, I would start to bring reusable containers to school if I was bringing my own lunch. But of course, there’s always that question, is my action of bringing my own bags going to discount the person behind me who’s getting plastic bags. So I was kind of thinking of it as like a plus and a minus, whether my plusses would kind of count out someone else’s negatives, you know, because you’re just trying to figure out how you fit into this bigger picture. So I think it’s really hard for people. And an important point to make is just that we all have different levels of privilege. And I think that not everyone has the privilege to be able to commit to not using plastic bags because the system is designed around plastic. And it’s hard to figure out.

Anja
Right, right. And I can totally relate to what you’re saying that there’s this nagging doubt that you ask yourself, does it even matter if I go out of my way if the whole world basically runs on a system that promotes the opposite and on a big scale, change is not really happening. And then you know, you hear that even though you sort your trash, your plastic packaging, only such a small fraction of it will get recycled. Or you think about all the plastic products that are being produced, turned out in the millions or even billions. And you know, what impact can you really make?

Brooke
Absolutely. And I think that kind of big question was really interesting to me. And so I would go down these rabbit hole Google searches at night sometimes, in my free time, just kind of like trying to learn more about it because I think it’s important to educate yourself before you can make changes. And so, I would find these really cool scientific studies and personal websites and articles exploring the different facets of this issue. And then after reading all these sources, I whittled my concerns down to a question: Who is responsible for fixing our plastic addiction? Is it individuals, governments or corporations?

Anja
Right, and that’s what your podcast is about! And we’ll get to listen to that in a minute, to your special edits you made for Plastisphere. One of the people that we hear from in this episode is Rob Greenfield. And I wanted to ask you before we listen, why did you choose him as an interviewee for your second episode of Guilty Plastics?

Brooke
So I think Rob Greenfield is a really interesting character to bring into this conversation, because he’s not a scientist, and he hasn’t been an activist his whole life. And so I think his ability to empathise with most people who are confused about where to start gives him a really powerful platform. I was first introduced to him on Instagram, from a recommendation from a friend. I have been following his projects and his work on Instagram and so I’ll see his work in my feed sometimes. But I was reminded of him while I was working on this project, and I reached out not expecting to get an answer, but I was really, really grateful for the opportunity to interview him.

Anja
So let’s start the tape to hear more. This is from episode 2 of Brooke’s podcast, Guilty Plastics.

Music Daymaze by Blue Dot Sessions

Brooke
This is Guilty Plastics and I’m your host, Brooke Bauman. I’m a college student who uses plastic like most everyone else. Frankly, I like eating packaged granola bars and chips. But when I throw away bags and wrappers, my stomach sinks. This feeling has been building enough to make me consider reducing my waste. But is it worth it? Am I responsible for our society’s plastic addiction? And what role do individuals play in finding solutions? Today we’re talking to two individuals who can help answer these questions. First up, it’s Rob Greenfield. He’s dedicated his life to reducing waste, but that wasn’t always the plan.

Rob Greenfield
Yeah, I was in many ways living a fairly typical American life for you know the beginning years of my life. My goal was to be a millionaire by the time I was 30 years old. I was very focused on material possessions, you know, my car, I would shine it every Sunday, and clean it up, make sure it looked real good. And you know, I kind of was buying into what I saw on mainstream media, in movies, in TV, of what it meant to be successful, and really, of what it meant to be an American. In 2011, when I was about 25 years old, I started to watch a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books, and just started to realize, wow, that life that I was living, was destroying what I loved. People around the world, other species that we share the earth with and just the natural environments that we depend on as a whole, and so that’s when I decided I had to start changing my life.

Brooke
Rob started to reevaluate his wasteful habits. He was looking to reconnect with the earth and himself.

Rob Greenfield
Basically, our daily actions, most of them we just go about and we don’t really think about everything involved in them – how resources get to us and the repercussions of our actions. And one of those is how much garbage we make. We mostly just put it in the garbage can. We have a pretty good system of getting rid of it – you know, taking it out of sight, out of mind. It goes – the garbage trucks pick it up and then it’s put into landfills where we don’t have to see it and you know, because of that, it’s very easy to create a lot of garbage. And so what I wanted to do was create a visual that would help us understand just how much one of us creates. And that visual was for one month, I lived like the average American, just shopping, eating, consuming like the average person does. But I had to wear every piece of trash that I created and so each day, I was accumulating. It ended up being about three pounds of trash per day and by the end of the month, I was wearing 87 pounds of trash everywhere that I went around New York City. And I was basically a big walking trash monster.

Sound: City/ Car

Brooke
Ok. So imagine you’re walking through the streets of Manhattan. There’s hustle and bustle. And suddenly you see it. A man that has paper plates, takeout boxes and even a Men’s health magazine in big plastic bags hanging off his body. He can barely fit through doors. So, what did people, New Yorkers and tourists, think of such a sight?

Rob Greenfield
So the responses, you know, the responses were generally really great. One of the main things was just “what are you doing?” And I would say “well I’m just living like the average American for a month and I’m wearing all of my trash. And the light – you could see all of the light bulbs just going off in their heads. They were like “oh that’s me.” You know – I am what he’s representing. But I didn’t tell them that, the light bulbs just went off in their own heads. My main goal wasn’t to get people to do this project themselves. It was to get people to take action in their own lives to live in a way that creates less trash and is better for our earth, less detrimental for our earth, humanity, and other species. And so I got a lot of responses of people saying, you know, that they were making positive changes.

Brooke
This wasn’t Rob’s first rodeo as an activist. A couple years before inventing the trash monster, he embarked on a journey across the country with a mission.

Rob Greenfield
I was doing a project where I was biking across the United States off the grid. The idea was to bike across the country and have as little of an environmental impact as possible and a large positive impact. So I set all of these rules for my actions: you know, what I could and couldn’t do in order to live an extremely sustainable life. The rule for food was that I could only eat local, organic, unpackaged food, which is not always easy to find. Most grocery stores don’t carry a lot of that. And I learned that really quickly. So I had made one exception to that and that was that I could eat any food that was going to waste because food that’s going to waste is ultimately one of the most environmentally friendly ways you can eat. If you can rescue food that would have gone to the landfill but instead eat it, that means you don’t need virgin resources for yourself and you’re diverting stuff from the landfill. So I looked into a dumpster, a grocery store dumpster, and first one I ever looked into was filled with perfectly good food. And so I started to go more and more around back to the treasure chests and I kept biking and biking and that summer, 70% of my diet ended up coming from grocery store dumpsters. And you know, for me, that was a testament of how much food is going to waste all across the nation.

Brooke
And it’s not just food going to waste.

Rob Greenfield
You’re talking about eating a bag of potato chips and it takes you five minutes to eat that bag, but then that plastic is going to be around when your kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids are here on earth. So it’s just, it’s a big deal because when you have 7 billion people and a huge fraction of those people are eating food that’s in packaging we’re talking about trillions of pieces of plastic everyday that are being created just for momentary usage, a lot of it, and then it’ll be around for hundreds of years.

Brooke
Rob feels empowered to educate people and inspire them to change their lifestyles. Right now, he’s taking on a particularly challenging project. He has decided to grow and forage 100% of his food for a year. So that means…

Rob Greenfield
…no grocery stores, no restaurants, no dumpster diving either. None of that. That means I haven’t had any packaged food, no processed food whatsoever. Everything has been a single whole ingredient, that I’ve taken from the garden, that I grew or that I went out into nature and foraged. Now, I should say that that doesn’t mean there’s no plastic actually involved in my food. Because some of the plants that I started were from pots that I bought at a nursery and those were in plastic. Those can be reused, but they do eventually break down. You know, I had a small greenhouse and that photodegraded in the sun and plastic got everywhere. So there is still plastic involved, and it is tough to get away from it completely. In the long term, there’s solutions to that, for example having a greenhouse made of glass and using biodegradable pots. But in the short term of me immersing in this project, I took some of…. It’s really just truly hard to be perfect in a world that’s designed largely around plastic today. It’s a full time job just to try not to get plastic.

Brooke Bauman
He’s right. It’s hard to avoid something like plastic that’s so common in our daily lives. So is it worth it to even try?

Rob Greenfield
It’s all about starting somewhere. It’s easy to look at what I’m doing and say “he’s growing and foraging 100% of my food. I can’t do that.” But that’s not the point. It’s about starting where you are: embracing your situation, the time that you’re in, the location you’re in, and you, yourself and then starting somewhere.

Music OneEightFour by Blue Dot Sessions

Brooke
Figuring out how to reduce your waste is a tricky game to play. But to start, think about what you use for convenience, the stuff you don’t necessarily need. Once you start to make changes, the world around you may start to look different. People sipping from plastic water bottles may become like nails on a chalkboard. But Rob recommends that you make a conscious effort to not judge any friends or strangers who depend heavily on plastic.

Rob Greenfield
I base my life, though, around what I think will be effective at really shaking people up and getting them to go deep within themselves. And so that’s what I really try to do. I just use my life, primarily, first and foremost as an example.

Brooke
Rob says individuals are part of the solution, alongside change driven by governments and corporations. Public pressure and cultural shifts can create change.

Rob Greenfield
So, if everybody as individuals decides to change, then that can carry over into everything else. But we can only do so much. So embracing the fact that none of us are going to change the whole world, but if we can have a positive effect on those around us in our community rather than a negative effect, that’s something to be respected for, that is something to be proud of the day that we die.

Music Lead Shroud by Blue Dot Sessions

Brooke
If you take Rob’s advice and make gradual changes to lower your environmental impact, you’ll need to choose materials to replace plastic. So say, we’re back at the grocery store. You’re making a cake for your friend’s birthday. So you buy all of the flour, butter, sugar, eggs, the whole works. Then you head to the cashier and you’re asked the classic question: paper or plastic? And you hesitate: what’s the right answer?

David Tyler
My name is David Tyler. I’m a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon.

Brooke
Professor Tyler tackles the question of paper or plastic by analyzing each material’s life cycle.

David Tyler
The life-cycle assessment is when you look at all the inputs and all the outputs during the whole life of, let’s say, a specific product.

Brooke
Common inputs are land use, materials or energy involved in manufacturing a product. Outputs could be gaseous, solid, or liquid waste or in some cases, radiation. All of these factors contribute to a product’s environmental impact. So going back to our first question about paper and plastic, what’s the answer?

David Tyler
What the life-cycle assessment shows is that plastic bags, a one-use plastic bag has a far, a far smaller environmental impact in terms of energy use, and so that correlates with carbon footprint, it uses far less water. And believe it or not, there’s much less waste going into landfills with a single-use plastic bag, than for let’s say a reusable tote bag made out of cotton or a paper bag. So a paper bag uses more energy, there’s more waste from the manufacturing process that goes into a landfill. And uses far more water.

Music The Yards by Blue Dot Sessions

Brooke
So now we’ve got a new enemy: paper bags. But as we’ve discussed, there are also serious implications for ocean life when you use plastic.

David Tyler
Now, where a paper bag stands out in comparison to a plastic bag is that a paper bag will decompose. things like that. So if your number 1 goal is to get rid of all that plastic waste in the ocean, then by all means let’s ban or cut back on the use of plastic bags. But if your number one goal let’s say is global warming or water use or we’re running out of landfill space, then you’d probably say, well it makes more sense to use plastic bags than it does paper bags.

Brooke
Ultimately, the choice is yours. And safe to say, it’s not a simple decision to make.

David Tyler
By the way, do you wanna know what life-cycle assessments tell us the best bag for shopping is?

Brooke
I think I can speak for everyone when I say “yes please.”

David Tyler
Apparently the best thing we can do as consumers in terms of bags like that you would use at a grocery store or just shopping in general. Just get a tote bag made out of recycled plastic.

Brooke
You may have seen this coming, but the ideal answer to paper or plastic is really neither. Reusing a bag made from recycled plastic is the safest path to decrease your environmental impact. I know the paper or plastic question turned out to be a slippery slope. But it’s a good exercise to compare the impacts of materials so you can decide which environmental impacts matter most to you. Professor Tyler recommends googling life cycle assessments for any products you’re curious about.

Music Hash Out by Blue Dot Sessions

Anja
This was a special edit of episode 2 of the mini-series Guilty Plastics, by Brooke Bauman.
I was actually surprised about Professor Tyler’s answer to the bag question. Because, I mean, it totally makes sense that a paper bag has its own footprint. And most of the paper bags, at least here in Germany, don’t very last long, I mean mine usually rip right after the first or second use. So that makes total sense to me. But I wanted to ask you about my cotton bags, because I have been re-using these cotton bags for many years to go shopping. And I do want to believe that they’re still better than a bag made out of recycled plastic, which is what Professor Tyler suggested, right?

Brooke
So Professor Tyler’s point was that recycled plastic bags that you can reuse are the best option. And so I think that kind of gets us to the question, what about reusable bags that are made from other materials like cotton? And from the research that he’s done and other folks in this area have done, we learn that cotton is really water-intensive. So when you use this bag, you’re digging yourself out of a deep hole to get enough uses out of this bag to make up for this impact. The point to make here is that these issues are very complicated. And there are a lot of different environmental factors to base your actions off of, there’s water usage, there’s greenhouse gas emissions associated with their usage. You could even think about the chemicals involved with producing them. So pesticides are really common when producing cotton. So there are just so many different factors to educate yourself about and try to understand so that you know which ones are most important to you. But the main point to drive home is that reusing is an important kind of tactic that we can use to reduce our waste in the long run.

Anja
Right and “reuse” is just one of the many R’s that there are. Another one is “refuse”, and I thought Rob Greenfield’s idea to grow and forage your own food as a way to cut plastic was really interesting. And it’s strange but it had never crossed my mind that if you’re getting the fruit or veggies right from your garden or the forest, then you don’t need the wrappings or the plastic, or the paper or whatever. And also this fruit and vegetable doesn’t need to be shipped. So you save a lot of packaging and energy. And you can also control how you grow it, if you want to use pesticides or grow organic. And I thought that was really interesting. And I checked Rob’s website, because your interview with Rob is already a while ago and I saw that he actually successfully did that. In the meantime he got a house in Florida and he convinced a lot of neighbours to let him grow crops on their lawns and now all the lawns are like gardens instead of just plain green grass.

Brooke
Right, and I think his accomplishment is incredible. He grew over 100 different foods, including greens, sweet potatoes, yams, yuka, papayas, bananas, the list goes on including herbs, a variety of different products and also honey. That’s a fun one. And then he also was able to forage over 200 foods in the area. And he says this is food freedom and advertises how healthy and low waste this is. And so I think this project is not meant to be something that everyone can completely follow to the tee. But I think it’s meant to be kind of an introduction to foraging and growing your own food.

Anja
Yeah. And I mean, I think it sounds so beautiful and cool, but I have to admit it I live in a big city in the north of Europe and growing even a fraction of my own food would be so unrealistic. I have a few tomatoes growing on my balcony and some strawberries and the strawberries, I already ate them. But the tomatoes are slowly slowly going red now, going through all the colours, and I love that. But I mean, I will be able to make like one salad with that or maybe, I don’t know, one pasta sauce. Yeah, and I mean, even if I had a bigger garden, it would still not be enough. We because we just don’t have the climate here in Berlin to grow plants all year round. I mean, the winters can get pretty cold.

Brooke
Right. No, I totally understand where you’re coming from. So I think one point to make here is that even if you can’t necessarily do this all on your own, you could look in the area for maybe a community garden that you could partner with or join, so that you get some some local produce or if there’s a farmers market in your area, then you may be able to expand your reach. There are also Community Supported Agriculture programmes or CSAs, where farmers will be able to create boxes of food with the kind of leftover or abundant produce that they have. And it may vary from week to week, but it helps you get in touch with the seasons and realise what types of foods are grown at certain times of the year. And just get more in touch with your food.

Anja
Right. Yeah, that’s true. What else can we hear about in your podcast? Can you give us a little teaser for the other episodes?

Brooke
Sure, sure. So the first episode really covers the marine pollution. And we hear from Bonnie Monteleone, a researcher at UNCW about some really cool… I shouldn’t say cool, but they’re really interesting effects that plastic pollution has on the environment, and the creatures that live within our oceans. And then episode 3 is all about global waste trade. And it’s a really complicated process just because there are so many players involved based on you know, the countries that are trading our waste and then figuring out where it ends up in the end, and we learn about the environmental justice impacts of where our waste ends up. And then in the fourth episode, we kind of bring it all home and look at corporations and we get to hear a bit about this initiative, a social enterprise called rePurpose, which is seeking to create plastic credits similar to carbon credits, and help individuals and businesses rethink their plastic usage.

Anja
Yeah, I think you put together a really great series and all your episodes can be played and listened to for free on soundcloud.com/guiltyplastics. And I’ll paste the link in the show notes. Thanks for being a guest on Plastisphere, Brooke!

Brooke
Thanks so much for having me, Anja!

Music – Plink by Dorian Roy

Anja
This was the Plastisphere with Brooke Bauman, producer of the Guilty Plastics podcast, and me, Anja Krieger. The Plastisphere theme song is by Dorian Roy, and cover art by Maren von Stockhausen.

Brooke Bauman
Many many thanks to Rob Greenfield and Professor Tyler for being guests on this episode. And of course, thank you for listening.