5.8 — Recycling: Turning Trash into Treasure

Host Walter Isaacson and guests discover recycling's humble roots in scrap metal salvage and trace its path to an everyday practice in homes around the globe, also paying close attention to where the recycling industry is heading in the future.
Transcript
Subscribe
All Trailblazers Podcasts

In this episode:

  • Paul Revere's recycled ride (0:00)
  • A stigma against recycling (3:14)
  • Overconsumption: the American recycling story (6:35)
  • "Keep America Beautiful" (12:20)
  • Where does it all go? (15:38)
  • The problem with plastics (18:40)
  • One approach out of many (21:58)
  • A truly circular economy (26:18)

Recycling is commonplace across the globe, but it wasn’t always that way. This practice has turned gathering up garbage into a multibillion-dollar industry. How did it get here, and where is it going? Listen to find out.

Listening to this episode is just the beginning of your recycling journey. Here are some deeper dives.

Guest List

  • Carl A. Zimring is Professor of Sustainability Studies at Pratt Institute. He is the author or editor of several books about the history of waste and recycling, including Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective, and Coastal Metropolis: Environmental Histories of Modern New York City.
  • Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in the collection and repurposing of complex waste streams. TerraCycle operates in 20 countries, working with some of the world’s largest brands, retailers and manufacturers to create national platforms to recycle products and packaging that otherwise go to landfill or incineration. It also created a new circular reuse platform called Loop that enables consumers to purchase products in reusable packaging.
  • Peter Christensen holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of British Columbia, he is a reverse logistics expert, and is the co-founder of FLO Materials: Infinitely recyclable plastics, enabling circular design.
  • Veena Sahajwalla is an internationally recognised materials scientist, engineer, and inventor revolutionising recycling science. She is renowned for pioneering the high temperature transformation of waste in the production of a new generation of ‘green materials.’ In 2018, Veena launched the world's first e-waste micro factory and in 2019 she launched her plastics micro factory, a recycling technology breakthrough. She is producing a new generation of green materials and products made entirely, or primarily, from waste.
  • Jim Puckett is the Founder and Executive Director of Basel Action Network, where he provides strategic oversight and implementation of the e-Stewards, Advance+, Green Ship Recycling, and Plastic Waste Transparency Project and Basel Advocacy programs. As an activist for over 30 years, his work on toxic and plastic waste and their trade has helped prevent pollution, safeguard fragile ecosystems, protect the world’s poor from health hazards, and conserve the Earth’s limited resources.
  • Martin Bourque is a renowned recycling industry expert who has led the Berkeley Ecology Center since 2000. Under Martin Bourque’s leadership, the Ecology Center operates the nation’s first and longest-running curbside recycling program and pioneers Zero Waste policy solutions at the local level. Martin has been a voice helping to keep recycling true to its original values and challenging the myths of the “collect, sort, export” model. Martin presents at local, state, and national conferences, and has testified on plastic exports at key international negotiations.

“This stuff's got value. Why are we throwing it away and putting it in a hole in the ground or burning it?”

— Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA

Walter Isaacson:

To his fellow citizens of Boston, Paul Revere was known for many things. He was an accomplished silversmith and engraver, a successful industrialist and innovator, and he built America’s first copper mill. And of course he was a political agitator who fought to overthrow British rule in the American colonies. His midnight ride on April 18th, 1775 to announce the arrival of British forces is the stuff of legend.

Walter Isaacson:

But here’s something that not many people back then or even now know about Paul Revere. He was one of America’s first recyclers. Much of the iron, tin and lead he used in his metal shop was melted down from old farm implements and cookware and refashioned into new products. In fact, it’s likely that the shoes his horse was wearing on the night of his famous ride were made from recycled metal.

Walter Isaacson:

Back then, nobody referred to what Paul Revere was doing as recycling. He did it because he had to. The British restricted the forging of new metal out of ore. And it made economic sense. Scavenging materials for reuse was widespread. The idea that something could be discarded simply because it had reached the end of its natural life was not how Americans thought in the 19th and well into the 20th century.

Walter Isaacson:

Today’s environmentalists would call it a circular economy. Our “linear” economy, where the vast majority of everything we make and use winds up being buried, burned, and abandoned, would have made no sense to them. But we are now living with the consequences of our modern mindset. The planet is choking on garbage. Very little of it ever gets recycled. We put toxic metals and chemicals into landfills. Our rivers, lakes and oceans are filling up with plastic waste whose lifespan exceeds our own.

Walter Isaacson:

But change maybe on the horizon. There’s a growing recognition that we can continue to produce and consume at the same levels as before. Like Paul Revere, we’re being forced into becoming recyclers. Necessity is spurring innovation that may help save us from our wasteful selves.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

I think it’s going to end with everybody changing their habits.

Speaker 3:

We must manage better the present demands. We must conserve.

Speaker 4:

Do you part. Put empties in the rack.

Speaker 5:

This is aluminum.

Speaker 3:

Manufacturers can now collect and recycle metal containers.

Speaker 5:

To thousands of fabricators who will reshape it into a hundred thousand useful things.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, recycling is widely viewed as a civic virtue. People who don’t present a fully stuffed blue bin at the curbside on pickup day run the risk of being scorned by their neighbors. But in the early days of the Republic, when peddling scrap metal and old rags was a way of life for many people, the attitude was decidedly different. Carl Zimring is the author of the book Cash For Your Trash: Scrap Recycling In America.

Carl Zimring:

The very top of the industry was part of the elite businesses. Paul Revere was considered to be upper crust Massachusetts, but the vast majority of people involved in this not only were seen as poor, but often dirty. Recycling had a bit of a stigma. The people who were doing this were trawling around in the discards of other peoples. And you only did this if you needed to subsist, or you’d starve to death.

Walter Isaacson:

The stigma against recyclers continued well into the 20th century. Scrap dealers were widely viewed as dishonest and unethical. Some believed they were corrupting the morals of young people, encouraging them to turn stolen scrap into easy cash.

Walter Isaacson:

But as America became an industrial powerhouse after the Civil War, the demand for steel to build its railroads, ships, tractors, and cars grew, and the appetite for scrap metal became nearly insatiable. The scrap business attracted thousands of eager entrepreneurs. Many of them were new immigrants who were excluded from other trades. But they found themselves in the scrap metal business, a path to the American dream. One of them was a Jewish immigrant named Sigmund [inaudible 00:05:12].

Carl Zimring:

Sigmund [inaudible 00:05:13] came to the United States in 1866. And within 10 years, upon coming to New Jersey, he was making over $100,000 a year trading about 4,000 tons of scrap iron and 1700 tons of car wheels to steel mills. Sigmund [inaudible 00:05:32] was able to be effectively in what 21st century money would be a millionaire without learning to read or write English. And so in the late 19th century, thousands of people in the United States enter the scrap tray. Many of these people are doing this for subsistence, but you also get some people who realize this is a great way to start a business.

Walter Isaacson:

A survey undertaken in Chicago in 1919, found that there were more than 1800 individual scrap metal dealers in the city. By the 1930s trade associations tried to reverse the outlaw image of the industry by establishing codes of ethics and setting standards for weights and measurements. Today, almost 250 years after Paul Revere set up shop in Boston, scrap metal recycling is a $26 billion industry in the United States. And it’s one of the few bright spots on the recycling landscape.

Walter Isaacson:

Take aluminum, for example. It’s used in beer and soda cans, cars, airplanes, home siding, and in thousands of other products. In recent years, the proportion of scrap and aluminum production has ranged between 55 and 60%, compared to under 10% for plastic. Recycling is the primary source of aluminum in the United States. And Zimring says it’s not hard to understand why

Carl Zimring:

Recycling is fundamentally an economic activity. It happens because businesses have demand for affordable raw materials. It’s a cost benefit analysis ultimately. Throwing away an aluminum can is throwing away a lot of economic value. PepsiCo, for example, is very much interested in recycling because if they can get aluminum from the recycling industry, they may save 70% of the processing costs associated with mining virgin bauxite and then turning it into aluminum. Not only that, they can also use recycling as part of their public image as responsible corporate citizens.

Walter Isaacson:

Aluminum recycling works because it’s relatively easy and cheap to do. It lowers the cost for both companies and consumers. And there’s a market for that recycled product. The happy result is that millions of tons of metal do not end up in landfills.

Walter Isaacson:

But aluminum is the exception in the American recycling story, not the rule. Of the nearly 270 million tons of solid waste that Americans generate every year, only about 67 million tons gets recycled. And while that number is not nearly high enough and we need to do better, many people believe the root of today’s recycling crisis lies in the first number, the amount of solid waste we produce. To put it simply, we buy too much stuff.

Tom Szaky:

It’s the answer to every environmental problem we face everything.

Walter Isaacson:

That’s Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle. TerraCycle specializes in finding innovative ways to keep hard-to-recycle products out of landfills.

Tom Szaky:

Climate change, species reduction, air quality, water quality. I mean, deforestation, you pick the environmental topic you care about. It is all linked to the act of buying.

Walter Isaacson:

So the question becomes, how do we better address our relationship with consumption and the outputs that materialize? Szaky started TerraCycle in 2001 while he was still a freshman economic student at Princeton. The inspiration for his company came after he discovered what his friends were using as feed for their small organic plant business.

Tom Szaky:

One day they started feeding worm poop to their plants. And what got me really inspired was that they were taking garbage, which is a material with negative value. Someone’s willing to pay you to take it and converting that into a useful output that someone would be willing to pay to use. And that sounded really interesting to me.

Walter Isaacson:

Finding and extracting value from things that appeared to have none. That in essence is what TerraCycle does today. They have two main divisions. The first collects and recycles things that are not locally recyclable.

Tom Szaky:

Like dirty diapers, cigarette butts, flexible food packaging, toothbrush, and so on and so forth. Our second division focuses on integrating waste back into consumer products like ocean plastic into shampoo bottles, and many other examples.

Walter Isaacson:

TerraCycle partners with some of the world’s biggest brands to help recycle billions of pieces of potential waste. But Szaky knows better than most that there is far too much garbage out there for even the most innovative and efficient recyclers to deal with. And he traces the problem of over-consumption back to some important changes that took place in American society in the boom years that followed World War II.

Tom Szaky:

You know when people say, “Oh, garbage has been with us since the time of Romans,” it’s just not true because garbage was invented really in the 1950s, the modern concept of it. Though, the type of garbage that’s destroying our world is 70 years old as an idea, because back before that, in the 1940s to the dawn of man, yes, we had outputs. Every organism in the world has outputs. What is unique about the human organism starting in the 1950s, the human species, is that it created outputs that are useless to it. And here’s the punchline, useless to any other organism. That’s really the definition of waste is a useless output. Something that no organism wants, and that equals garbage.

Walter Isaacson:

Postwar affluence introduced two new concepts into American consumerism, disposability and convenience.

Speaker 5:

Sanitary, attractive, disposable.

Walter Isaacson:

Products that were once sold in glass bottles that could be washed and reused multiple times were now packaged and light, inexpensive, single-use plastic that too often wound up as litter in lakes, rivers, and alongside roads.

Speaker 5:

Only efficiency like this makes it possible to produce containers so inexpensive that we can afford to throw them away after using them only once.

Walter Isaacson:

By the 1960s, Americans were seeing ads urging them to pick up their litter and to keep America beautiful. On April 22nd, 1970, the first Earth Day, millions of people came together to clean up their parks and beaches. It was the beginning of the modern environmental movement. And with it came a spotlight on the growing problem of waste.

Martin Bourque:

Well, Earth Day had a big cleanup concept to it.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Martin Bourque. He’s the executive director of the ecology center in Berkeley, California,

Martin Bourque:

When they’re doing shoreline or river or even neighborhood cleanups, they’re getting a lot of press of this cleaning up the dirty environment. And then they were like, “Okay, what are you going to do with all this stuff?”

Walter Isaacson:

In Berkeley, the initial response to the question, “What are you going to do with all that stuff?” Was to establish drop-in centers where environmentally-conscious residents could bring their newspapers, cardboards, cans, and bottles for recycling. Then in 1973, the ecology center set up the country’s first curbside collection program. In those early days, residents had to sort their recycling into six different bins at the curb, different colors of glass, newspapers, aluminum, and tin cans. It required a lot of work. Everything had to be cleaned before it was put into the bins, but Martin Bourque says most people embraced the opportunity to make a difference.

Martin Bourque:

There was a sense at the time that people would build another, a new world, a new future and get to live in it. And recycling was kind of just a baseline kind of, “Duh, this stuff’s got value. Why are we throwing it away and putting it in a hole in the ground or burning it?” At the time people critiqued the project and the ecology center and others and said, “A bunch of conscientious objectors and hippies aren’t going to change the world or waste.” And despite its shortcomings, it certainly hasn’t lived up to the utopian or eco-topian dream of the time, but it has created great benefit.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, recycling is a $200 billion global industry. In the United States, more than 74% of single-family homes have access to curbside recycling services. And those homeowners no longer have to sort their recyclables themselves. Instead, they can dump everything into a single blue bin.

Walter Isaacson:

But that convenience comes at a cost. Mixing all those cans, bottles, and papers together makes sorting more expensive. And too often the contents get diverted to landfills because they’re too dirty or never should have been put there in the first place. So what happens to all those recyclables after they leave the curbside? To the extent that Americans think about this question at all, most probably assume the contents of their blue bin will be sold to a local recycling company and eventually reappear in their stores in some other form.

Walter Isaacson:

But the reality is significantly different. For decades, almost everything in the world’s recycling bins has ended up overseas, mostly in China. In 2017, 95% of plastics collected for recycling in the European union and 70% in the US was sold and shipped to Chinese processors. But that all changed in January, 2018, when the Chinese government announced it would no longer accept waste from outside the country. The new policy was called the National Sword.

Jim Puckett:

I think they largely made the calculus on economics, which is really important because they started to calculate the externalized costs, the harm to their groundwater, the harm to their public, the health costs, the cost to the air quality. These are real costs and they’re too often overlooked.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Jim Puckett. He strongly supports the Chinese ban and has been waiting for them to do it for years. He’s the founder and director of the Basel Action Network, an NGO dedicated to monitoring compliance with the Basel Convention, a treaty that attempts to control the international trade and waste. Signed in 1989, the Convention bans the export of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries for any reason.

Walter Isaacson:

In 2019, the Convention agreed to broaden its definition of hazardous waste to include plastic. The National Sword policy has been devastating for the global recycling industry. Many cities have abandoned or significantly cut back their blue box program because they no longer have anywhere to sell their recyclables. And while that may cause short-term environmental pain, Jim Puckett believes there’ll be long-term gain if this crisis convinces governments in the West and around the world to look beyond recycling as the path towards a circular economy.

Jim Puckett:

The circular economy is a great idea, but it’s focused too heavily on recycling, and recycling on the waste management hierarchy is not step one. It’s step three. So before that, you need to prevent waste. You need to then reuse materials. And then only third do you look at recycling. And then finally after you can’t recycle it, you look at disposal and incineration. So that’s the waste management hierarchy.

Jim Puckett:

If you’ve got a bathtub overflowing with waste and it’s overflowing into your room, you don’t grab a mop. You go to the tap and you turn it off first. That’s the key to all of these waste issues, but particularly with plastic waste, because you’re not going to be able to recycle your way out of the plastics waste problem.

Peter Christensen:

Plastics were never designed to be recycled.

Walter Isaacson:

That’s Peter Christensen, the CEO of FLO.materials, a California-based company that is developing a new, infinitely recyclable plastic called PDK.

Peter Christensen:

I mean, they were designed to be an easy-to-manufacture material. I mean, you can melt them, you can shape them into any different form. And they have a lot of different, very good uses. I mean, they were designed out of these byproducts of oil that no one knew what to do with. And there was never a consideration of reuse and redesign when we designed the chemistry initially to make plastics.

Walter Isaacson:

In a truly circular economy, the plastic packaging that you put in your blue bin will get ground up, remelted, and turned into a new, reusable product. But it rarely works out that way. Less than 10% of all plastic waste currently gets recycled, making it perhaps the biggest obstacle to achieving a circular economy.

Peter Christensen:

The problem with that is that you have the previous history of all of these materials that went into it. So you’ll have residual colors from other plastics. You’ll have the plasticizers and the dyes and all the additives that went into the previous plastic products, which is then compounded even further by the problem that when you grind up these plastics and melt them back down, you’re actually physically degrading that material. And that then generates material that has a lower quality and a lower performance. And so in applications where performance is essential and aesthetics in particular are of concern, recycled materials often can’t be used.

Walter Isaacson:

The grim reality is that it’s very difficult for recycled plastic to compete with virgin plastic when it comes to cost, performance, and aesthetics. Christensen is trying to change that with PDK plastic.

Peter Christensen:

The process that we’re using is called chemical recycling. And so what we designed, PDK is our plastic, to be able to do is at the end of life, you can chemically disassemble the plastic. And so we take the plastic and turn it back into the building blocks to make that plastic again. And in doing that, we can take out all the additives, all of the dyes, the flame retardants, the colorants, everything that went into that material and get all of these pieces, these building blocks, back to reassemble at the end of life. And so in doing that, in chemically disassembling the material and then reconstituting it in it’s second or third life, you can always achieve the same level of mechanical and aesthetic performance that you need out of your product.

Walter Isaacson:

So far, Christensen’s company has been focusing on producing PDK plastic for use in cars, shoes, and electronics. Other companies are working on chemical recycling for food packaging and water bottles. It’s too soon to know if chemical recycling will make much of a dent in our plastic waste problem, but it’s only one approach out of many. In labs around the world, researchers are looking at other innovative ways to deal with the rising tide of waste.

Veena Sahajwalla:

To me, when we get to that point for our planet, it’s going to be such a perfect outcome where we don’t see any materials as throwaway items, that we really see each and every material and product that can really be harnessed.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Veena Sahajwalla. She is the founding director of the Center For Sustainable Materials Research And Technology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. In 2003, she developed a way to use old tires to replace [coke 00:22:48], which is a gray and porous industrial fuel in the production of steel. She called her product Green Steel. She pitched the idea to Australian steel makers on both economic and environmental grounds. They liked what they heard. They tried it and discovered that Green Steel actually worked. The result is that millions of tires have been kept out of landfills.

Walter Isaacson:

More recently, she’s been trying to address the problem around electronic waste. In 2018, it’s estimated that 50 million tons of e-waste was generated around the world. And only about 20% of it was recycled. Sahajwalla is developing a way to convert plastics found in electronic devices into filaments that are then used as feedstock for 3D printers. And these conversions take place not in giant, polluting smelters run by big companies, but in e-waste micro factories.

Walter Isaacson:

Her e-waste micro factories are the first of their kind. They can be installed on a site as small as 550 square feet, and offer a decentralized means of transforming e-waste into commercially viable resources. The micro factories will be locally owned and have the potential to decentralize and restructure the e-waste economy. She has no problem with the traditional Rs of the waste management hierarchy, reduce, reuse, and recycle, but she prefers to put her emphasis on a fourth R, reform.

Veena Sahajwalla:

I think this is what it’s all about. It’s about constantly looking at how circular economy in our technosphere is going to work. We can’t just have a throwaway society where now suddenly we’re throwing away all kinds of important devices and systems. Just because a product is obsolete doesn’t mean that the materials in there are obsolete. Those materials can be harnessed forever if we could help it. And so I think to me, that whole strategy of reform and the full [inaudible 00:25:02] around what the science could prove, it’s so exciting.

Walter Isaacson:

Sahajwalla believes there’s no such thing as waste. There are only opportunities waiting to be seized. One of the challenges she’s currently thinking about is what to do with the billions of phones that potentially could be discarded over the next few years as people trade their 4G models for 5G. The plastic and metals in phones are notoriously difficult to reuse or recycle, but she has a plan.

Veena Sahajwalla:

I can imagine a whole ecosystem of different micro industries, where there’s a beautiful collaboration between different types of businesses, and somebody’s processing plastics and somebody else is processing the metals and glass and harnessing all those different types of materials, and out comes reformed materials at the other end. And someone is then sitting and manufacturing phones again. And I think to me, imagining what that circular economy could look like for all kinds of technological devices means that it doesn’t have to come back in the exact same form. It doesn’t have to even come back as a phone. It could come back as a whole new device. A whole new system.

Walter Isaacson:

Is a truly circular resource economy even possible, or is it a far-fetched utopian dream? Tom Szaky thinks it’s not only possible, but inevitable because the growing environmental and economic pressure to reach it will only intensify. But he worries there’ll be a lot of pain and suffering on the road to circularity. Szaky already sees it in the form of hurricanes, fires, and other climate disasters, nature’s way of telling us to take better care of the planet. But he believes we have not yet reached our moment of enlightenment because we have not yet had an honest reckoning about our relationship with consumption.

Tom Szaky:

I think the real cause of garbage is not plastic. It’s using things once. It’s dishonoring the plastic by giving it one incredibly short life, because it’s not that plastic is evil. Plastic is actually a pretty amazing material that helped us land on the moon. And the same goes for alloys, for fibers, for glass. What is, I think, the evil is this exact idea of dishonoring it by throwing it out after a short use.

Tom Szaky:

Think about a coffee cup. A coffee cup starts as a tree that is grown, harvested, pulped, made into paper. It also has some polymer, some plastic. It’s formed into this thing that is this beautiful object, a cup. That takes a lot of time, energy, so many stakeholders involved. And then what, it’s used for 10 minutes and then disposed? That just is somehow strange, you know? And then if you go back to just before the 1950s, to any part of human history, when we made an object, that object was honored to have as long as a life as possible.

Walter Isaacson:

And that brings our story back to Paul Revere. He understood the importance of honoring the objects he worked with by extending their lives in however many different forms he could. Recycling that old idea might be the most useful thing that today’s recyclers can do.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of the guests on today’s show, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.