Matt Shears: Good afternoon and welcome to OLLI @Berkeley’s Wednesday Lunchtime Speaker Series. Today, we’re excited to have Kate O’Neill with us. Kate is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia, and was a postdoc fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Of Government. She’s written three books: Waste Trading Among Rich Nations: Building a New Theory of Environmental Regulation, the Environment and International Relations, and most recently, Waste, from which today’s talk, “The New Global Politics Of Waste,” derives.
Her research interests are broad and the collaborations she has undertaken have yielded impressive results, including a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. We’re fortunate to have her with us today. Please join me in welcoming Kate O’Neill.
Kate O’Neill: Alright. Thank you, Matt. Oh, good, the mic was on for that lovely introduction. That first very clunky book title was, in fact, my dissertation. This one is just called Waste, which demonstrates the fact that my career has progressed since then.
So I’m going to talk to you about pieces of the book today, but also connecting it to this broader theme about how wastes are so globalized. Not just waste, but generically, the things we throw away that may or may not still have value and certainly have afterlives after we get rid of them. The themes, and one of the things that I try to do, is to show to people how, even though we think we’ve put things out on the curb and never really think about them again, they, in fact, go through entire life cycles.
They may have value, they may not. They may travel the globe, they may not. But I think it’s becoming increasingly important to think about what we throw away, where it goes, what value it has, and also what costs or risks it might be imposing on other people around the world.
So I’m going to illustrate some of this by focusing on how a decision made in Beijing in 2017 changed how and what people in Berkeley and many other communities around the world recycle. And even our daily practices of buying coffee, tea, other takeaway foods and soft drinks also, those practices are starting to change, partly as a result of this decision.
But before I get to that, just a little bit of a flavor of where I’m coming from. Again, this theme that all waste is global. What we throw away has value. What we throw away often travels the globe. And that’s not just the things we know about like electronic wastes, but also plastics, as I’ll talk mostly about today. But also things like cars — used cars, secondhand cars, clothes, bikes, even discarded food will actually travel to some other countries someplace where it may or may not be used. What we throw away provides a livelihood to millions around the world. The profession of waste picking is indeed one of the oldest, perhaps actually the oldest, profession.
The way that people have made livelihoods from time immemorial by collecting waste, by digging through piles of waste and selling it on. It’s estimated that there are about 20 million informal waste pickers, waste workers around the world, and you’ll see them even here in this part of the world as people collect cans off the street to sell and engage in other sorts of pickup and recycling activities. I think the more you think about it, the more you notice how we live in a fairly thriving local waste economy that is magnified to the rest of the planet. But on the same time, while I talk about value and resources, what we throw away is still piling up in landfills and waterways in other parts of the world everywhere. And it has many associated and somewhat magnified risks as wastes have globalized.
Just to introduce this briefly, this is my new book, and these are themes that I look at starting from this assumption, this understanding that all waste are global, but also this book appeared in a series called Resources from Polity Press. And this is just a series of short, fairly accessible books that all have this great one-word title and brightly colored covers that are about food and timber and oil and cotton and fish and all of these traditional resources. And, in fact, the basis of the series is to say, “Well, all the resources on this planet are coming under a lot of pressure through globalization, resource extraction and so on, and therefore we need to look at them.”
Well, I found myself thinking that I’ve actually got the only resource on the planet that’s actually expanding. So this is quite an exciting way to think about: how waste becomes a resource and a resource frontier. As we run out of virgin resources, companies, even large multinational mining companies are turning to the reservoirs of value that are contained in piles of waste and extracting the value from them and selling that on. So it is, in a sense, a new resource frontier. As I mentioned already, there are many risks still involved with waste, even as we think about it as something of a value, and those have been magnified by this very globalization and by the increase in amount of waste we produce.
Some of the landfills that exist around the world are many thousands of acres and hundreds of people each year can be killed in waste slides, this is a very serious issue. Things like piled-up old tires can catch fire and burn for months and be visible from outer space. The plastics that we’re very concerned about right now, and which I’ll talk about again, travel the world. And they’ve been found as they break down in not only all parts of the ocean, including the deep sea bed, but also in marine life and also in our own tissue and blood and other parts of our bodies.
So again, that is a magnified risk that we didn’t really understand when we started our love affair with plastics back in the 1950s. And because what I study is global environmental politics and governance, of course, understanding waste in these new ways as a globalized resource frontier with all these massive globalized risks of course means that we have to rethink how we govern and regulate wastes, not as this end of pipe thing, which all we have to do is pick it up and make sure it’s disposed of safely. But we have to think about, well, the fact that these things do travel the planet, they are exploited for resources everywhere.
Every time we’ve tried to stop the waste trade — people have tried to ban the electronic waste trade and has failed dismally — so we need to work out, well, how do we work with those new realities? And hopefully I’ll get to some of that towards the end of the stalk. So the cases in my book, just generally, I look at waste work, waste labor, what I was talking about just now. Used electronics or e-waste and food waste and plastic scrap, which again will be my focus today. Other themes that have popped up and again, which I’ll talk about because China is really central to what’s going on in the global waste economy right now. Waste activism, which is truly quite exciting, the way that you see transnational waste activism emerging.
There are a number of connections now between waste and climate change — I can talk about those in Q&A, if you’d like. And then, of course, the trade and other used goods, like textiles, cars, and so on that I mentioned, alluded to earlier. So that’s the overview of the book and where I’m coming from. And when I start talking about this story of the connections forged through the trade in plastic waste between this decision made in Beijing in 2017 and what we can put out on the curb now for recycling. How many people here have heard about something called Operation National Sword? Operation National Sword?
Anyone know about China and its plastic scrap ban? Yeah, you see, that’s cool. That’s actually Operation National Sword. It’s a cool name. So that’s where I really got involved in this field, I worked with a student in 2013, who was doing her senior thesis on how plastic was dealt with on campus once it was thrown into the blue bins. And she found in her research that once it was picked up by the City of Berkeley, cleaned, put into bales and picked up by brokers, that those brokers actually shipped that plastic to China. Now, this was a huge eyeopener for me. And in fact, increasingly this became more and more visible to a lot of people, but only really visible to many people in 2017 when China decided to change this practice.
And the chart here, which may be a little hard to read, shows U.S. exports of plastic scrap on on itself to China. The U.S. was not the only country doing this. Australia, my home country, did it a lot. The UK, my other home country, also. And even the European Union, though they’re always a little reluctant to admit this. And so you see this massive increase, which coincides, starts really with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. And that was the time that China started this massive economic boom, massive GDP growth and massive demand for inputs such as plastics into this growing manufacturing center.
And China simply did not produce enough on its own, so it started to make sense on both sides for them to start taking plastic scrap from us. And especially as the initial deal was supposed to be of high-quality, clean, fairly easily recyclable plastic. Quick footnote here: Plastic is very hard to recycle on the whole. It can be, and certain kinds are, but it downgrades very quickly. So it’s not the same to recycle plastic as it is other kinds of scrap. I should add, not only does China take plastic scrap and paper and textiles, but what we think of as the good scrap as well, aluminum, copper, other kinds of metals.
So basically, it became the place that took and reprocessed the things we throw away. And some people call it the world’s dumping ground, other people call it an entrepreneurial sector. It was a bit of both. But what happened essentially for us is that it made sense because rather than build expensive recycling infrastructure here, we could just basically pile the scrap into the shipping containers that had brought consumer goods from China. So rather than sending them back empty, they could go back filled with the scrap to Chinese industries imports that would actually use them because, not only did we outsource our recycling, but as we all know, we also outsourced manufacturing.
So it’s not like that would be a lot of use for the scrap materials here in this country. So it was a very good deal on both sides of the equation, until… actually, you can see China first tried to do this in 2013, but on March 1, 2018, following an announcement in July of 2017, this ended. I’ve been following, I was writing the book at the time, so I’ve been following the trade magazines and papers in the waste field. And there was a lot of muttering about something was coming down the pipe from China in terms of restricting plastic and paper scrap imports, but no one in the industry was really ready for what Beijing announced.
And this came from really the very highest level of the Politburo. This was the ministry of the environment and other really high level actors in Beijing that made this decision. And they said in July 2017 that they were just simply going to stop all imports of these kinds of scrap, unless they met very tight contamination limits. And this is important. People talk about it being a ban, but it was actually a crackdown to the point that we couldn’t actually meet those standards. And this was huge. This was a seismic shock for the recycling industry.
The Institute For Scrap Recycling, AKA ISRI, talked about the ban having a devastating impact on the recycling industry — loss of tens of thousands of jobs that has not happened, and the closure of many recycling businesses throughout the United States. And indeed there has been a huge shift in the landscape. Car Recycle referred to it as the end of recycling as we know it. And that’s also been true, certainly on the industry side, but it’s been not just the shock and devastation, but many people in the industry and beyond have seen this as a great opportunity for many reasons — to change our recycling practices and to change our use of the plastics that have contributed to this crisis.
So Operation National Sword, which one of my students, for whom Chinese is her native language, told me once the characters actually stand for sharp sword at the gates of our country, which is an even better title. National Sword has become the shorthand for this event, this decision by China that just caused shifts and waves, ripples right through this industry that continues to play out today. Some of the stuff I’m going to talk about at the end of the talk happened a week ago, so it really has been this ongoing saga and really, really interesting to follow. It’s been really exciting to be in on the ground floor.
So why did Beijing do this? The announcement itself contained the phrase “No more foreign garbage.” And so in many ways, people say, “Well, Beijing just decided that China would no longer take foreign garbage and be seen as the world’s dumping ground.” There are environmental reasons for this — that obviously China’s going through a huge pollution crisis that a lot of this plastic was just piling up and not being used. I will say that a lot more of it was being recycled there than it is here. Recycling rates here are notoriously low for plastics.
There’s this documentary that, I don’t know how many people have seen it beyond the festival circuit, but Plastic China is directed by a Chinese documentary maker who’s well known for making these documentaries about waste and environmental conditions in China. And it was released in China. It’s also shown, as I said, on the film on the film festival circuit here, and it was seen again by high ranking politicians in the Politburo. They were appalled because a lot of it is about the ways in which foreign plastics, and you can see the labels and they show like the piles of plastic trash within the piles of plastic trash, are actually being reprocessed.
So while I say, “Yeah, China took it in… actually a lot more of it was recycled than it would have been here,” the big question is, under what conditions? And the conditions of informal labor that were being revealed by documentaries such as this were very harmful and very harmful to China’s international reputation.
So there is that environmental concern — straightforward, don’t want to be the world’s dumping ground. Then also this question of all China’s international reputation that it be seen as a power as a rising superpower, not only in economic terms, but also as setting an example.
In the last decade or so, China’s been taking a lead as the U.S. has pulled back in global climate policy. It is trying to establish networks of green cities, a display for the rest of the world about how green it is and therefore, how good an international citizen it is. So there was that motive happening as well, as well as some domestic politics. It’s not as straightforward as getting rid of the plastic scrap… this is slipping. So China was actually planning not just to stop using recycled scrap, but to replace foreign scrap with plastic scrap of its own. So in a sense, there could be no real change to environmental quality.
And that really actually irritated the Chinese companies who were using the recycling. They wanted the foreign scrap that was better quality than what was produced domestically. So they subsequently have relocated very quickly to Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, which is another part of the story, and actually moving into the U.S. market, at least have been. So this was a very this was a big, big change, a big political change in global recycling. It also made us very aware of how much we really had dropped the ball on recycling at home, or even really trying to reduce the use of disposable plastics.
And that has become one of the focal points of what happened next. I’m always telling my students, by the way, because everyone’s so very concerned about single-use disposable plastics and bottles and straws and so on, and I think they assume that we, my generation and above, were equally responsible if not more so. And I keep having to tell them that for me, and I’m in my early 50s, plastic straws were a huge treat when I was growing up. My goodness, we had paper straws. No, we didn’t always drink water out of plastic bottles, we just didn’t drink water. I was very impressed at how hydrated you all are, so this is good. There’s always a bit of a surprise to this, just a little aside about that.
What was seen next is more landfill, more landfill and incineration that has been the dominant trend as National Sword unfolded. Also, some policy change across the United States and the industrialized world. Many, many communities have changed what they will pick up. Many communities will no longer take the lower-quality plastics. Glass has been collateral damage in this whole picture. We can still recycle glass here, we have a facility up in Sonoma I think that will still take it, but in a lot of the rest of the country, facilities have closed down. Glass is awfully expensive to ship, it’s so heavy, there aren’t that many uses for it, so municipalities that have facing these massive costs are actually having to just cutting things like glass out of the recycling stream.
And just to put it in perspective, prior to National Sword, say in 2012 and times when the trade was at its peak, you would get $300 a ton of plastic from Chinese brokers. So municipalities were making huge amount of money from that that helped bolster a lot of their trash collection initiatives. Now, that costs money, like $70 to $100 per ton to get rid of the same amount of plastic. And that is just to take it to landfill and pay the landfill fees. And this is actually resulting in a lot of conflicts. My sister lives in New Bedford or near New Bedford, Massachusetts, and their local waste company — it’s a small company — is suing the city to get out of a 10-year contract because the city will not pay the extra $160,000 a year, and new Bedford is not a big place to maintain trash collection, it has actually to cut off all trash collection.
That’s an extreme move and unlikely to happen, but that’s where it’s going. That legal conflict is also unfolding in many communities around the country. So this has been something that has really shaken up recycling markets, and they have not yet recovered. On the positive side, there’s been a lot more public awareness, those have been driven by public concern about plastics in the oceans as well, which we know is a huge issue. But the other thing that happened right away is that plastics were diverted to other Asian countries. As I mentioned, Chinese companies started shifting to other parts of Southeast Asia. The wonders of global capitalism led this to happen very quickly, and very soon countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand were being overwhelmed with plastic from the U.S., UK and Australia and other countries.
So here you see over time the changing value and locations of where the plastic scrap went. And while in China, there was something of an infrastructure and industry and areas willing to take this plastic and actually capable of dealing with it, that was not the case so much in Malaysia and Thailand and Vietnam. So from late 2018 through 2019, these countries gradually closed the doors to plastic scrap shipments. And that, again, pushed for another wave of effort in the U.S. and other countries, both for recycling, but also to come up with ways of controlling the use of plastics, especially single-use consumer plastics. So Malaysia in May 2019, in fact their new environment minister announced that they were going to actually start shipping the plastic scrap back to where it came.
I’m not actually sure whether this happened or not, I’m going to have to track that down, but that was a big announcement and led to a lot of acclaim from activists and other governments around the world who wanted to change this whole practice and really highlight at the environmental justice issue of all of this problem. So that left us, in late 2019, with very few international options. So we had to start thinking about what would be next for recycling around the world. And I’ll talk through a few of these options. One thing I will say is that we actually haven’t stopped shipping waste overseas, that is actually still ongoing. Some countries like Turkey are taking more and more. Latin America, I think Argentina recently lifted restrictions about importing scrap, which meant it could potentially take this as well.
A couple of other countries in Latin America followed suit. And there’s just a hint of a trend, it’s a tiny hint of a trend, that the UK might start taking this waste. There’s a little bit of a shift in the numbers that makes me wonder. I’m not the only person today. I’ve heard the woman who’s the president of ISRI, The Scrap Recycling Industry, mention the UK and the list of countries that they were talking to about taking this. Who knows? Brexit just unfolds in so many interesting ways. But what’s next? And I think we all know recycling is challenged. It’s challenged in the best of times in terms of actually turning what we throw away back into something valuable. We only recycle, and by this, I mean, put into the blue bin, 10% of the plastics that we use. So we’re still dealing with massive flows of plastics and paper, etc, going into landfills.
So what have we been trying to do? We’ve been trying to rebuild domestic recycling infrastructure and markets. As one of my colleagues in this field, Adam Minter, who’s just written a fabulous new book, too, has pointed out that recycling is not a function of our values. As much as we believe that we should be recycling, and it is a value of environmentalists, it is not driven by technology, like available technology to recycle products efficiently. It is driven by markets for the recycled goods. And if those markets do not exist, like the global market in China no longer exists, then the whole system breaks down.
So one of the focuses is finding markets for plastic scrap and so on. And there’s been some forward motion here, companies such as Coca Cola, Unilever have started talking about using more secondary plastics in their manufacturing, so that’s all to the good. As I mentioned earlier too, and that’s the bottom left photo there, Chinese companies are moving into the U.S. and other markets to build recycling facilities here, to ship cleaned plastic scrap back. There are a number of things, not just coronavirus, but some other things that are really interrupting this process right now. But I can also talk about those in Q&A, but I touch on them at the end of this talk.
Then we’ve seen also some closures of particular facilities, you know redemption centers that would see… I know the Safeway parking lot on Shattuck and Rose had one for a long time, run by this one company, RePlanet. And for many of us, these are a bit of an eyesore. There were piles of bottles and cans, people bringing them in their shopping carts. A lot of people were involved in some dubious transactions around all of this, but they shuttered very quickly. They just closed overnight around California. And that actually stripped a lot of people who’ve lived very marginalized lives of a certain source of income very quickly.
We haven’t had a chance to look into those impacts yet, but it had an impact on the California recycling — on the West Coast recycling practices and on the people who work in this field in this country, that was quite significant. So again, it’s continuing to unfold, all of these developments. This was also very recent.
But another area where we’re seeing some action is in creating and amending international law around plastics and the shipment of plastics to and from different countries. Of course, the quantity of plastics in the oceans is partially a driver for this, and there’s been a lot of conversation about maybe we need some international plastics convention, and this is one of those conversations that’s ongoing.
It takes a long while to gear up to actual action globally. There’s been some talk, there’s the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, there’s a lot of marine pollution conventions that could also handle plastic scrap and waste. But where the international NGOs and governments like Norway, who are very much in favor of doing something like this, focused on was a little known treaty that regulates the international trade in hazardous waste, like your old-school industrial waste. And it’s been churning away in the background. It’s a very weak treaty in many ways, but it’s been doing its work as effectively as it can for a long time.
It was created in 1989. And in last year, all of a sudden Norway announced that this was the place, we need to start thinking about plastic scrap as hazardous waste and ban the trade that way. So this has been another area where we’ve seen movement forward in addressing this problem and addressing plastic waste by saying, “Let’s stop the trade at the global level.” And that’s going to force countries to actually take action and deal with it themselves. So that’s another way in which we’ve looked at that… of problems with it, and there’s going to be some challenges to say, well, from countries that are not allowed to import plastic scrap now, to say, “Actually this isn’t waste, it’s something that has value. We can actually use it and resell it. We can reprocess it and resell it.”
And for me, that’s interesting because what it does is show how difficult the distinction is between what is a waste and what is scrap, like what is something that has no value that we throw away we don’t want to deal with and something that does have value. And plastics are right on the cusp of that distinction. And I think that’s something in the waste world that we encounter all the time at different levels.
I’m going to give another little example of that, which is a friend of mine, a high school friend of mine, who worked for the International Red Cross. And her husband worked for the British Foreign Aid Ministry. They went to Zambia and they were unpacking, they had just moved there. They lived in all kinds of exotic places. But they’d moved to Zambia and were unpacking the boxes. They had a whole bunch of cardboard boxes and someone came and knocked on the door and wanted to take the boxes, so they negotiated a price. And my friend and her husband thought this was the price that they were going to pay this person for taking the cardboard. And in fact, the person taking the cardboard, that was the price he was going to pay them for the cardboard. That’s really critical in understanding both these very micro-transactions, but also these huge transactions, the movement of plastic wastes, the shipping of plastic — is it waste or is it scrap? Used tires — are they waste or are they scrap, from one part of the world to another.
Electronic waste, another area where we have a lot of these conversations. International law is maybe one place this could be negotiated and arbitrated. There’s no fixed decision. The current decision is that plastic’s a waste, but there’s all kinds of ways maybe through the World Trade Organization that this could be contested. So it’s an ongoing and very interesting struggle for those of us who are interested in international environmental law as well.
And then finally moves to restrict single-use consumer plastics in cities and towns. And here I’ll go from Berkeley back to China. How many of you aware of the Berkeley single-use foodware and litter reduction ordinance that is coming into effect? I haven’t really noticed the changes yet, I have a fabulous graduate student right now who has an army of undergraduate researchers who are going around and doing the surveys. They did a whole bunch of baseline data surveys about how many plastic cups and lids and accessories were being given out before this ordinance came into effect in January, at and are moving on to do the secondary measurement. The measure has been in effect for a while, but essentially in January of the last month that all regular plastic accessories should be replaced with compostable plastics and businesses charge 25 cents for any requested disposable cup.
Yes, the plastic ones. I think the paper ones are okay. Another, no. No, they’re not. I should know that, but it’s an interesting charge, it’s not a tax. The businesses get to keep it, it’s an incentive for them, but it is something that might create significant behavior change. And in fact, that’s something we’re going to look at both how the businesses themselves implement this charge and whether or not it actually changes consumers’ behavior in significant ways. Is this enough? Or is it too much? What’s going on? And then in July of this year, eating establishments must use reusable plates, cutlery, etc. And that might sound okay, fine. Some holes in the wall are going to get rid of the tables or maybe some will add some. But it involves dishwashers and it involves McDonald’s.
There are two McDonald’s in Berkeley and actually the owner is the same franchisee, and he’s really interested in this. He got very involved in the support of this measure, but McDonald’s has a dishwasher, but it’s only for washing the things that it cooks with, it has no dishwasher for any non-disposable plates and so on. So that’s also going to be another interesting angle as to how this unfolds. Hyper-local, I’m really excited to be involved in that particular project, really just supervising my fabulous student. And that’s going to be interesting to find out what happens there, but then this is the two weeks ago. China moved itself to ban single-use disposable plastics.
And by that, the government is going to ban the production and use of plastic utensils, single-use straws and products containing micro-beads by the end of this year and ban the use of single-use plastic bags in major cities by the end of this year and across the country by 2022. Also a complete ban on plastic scrap imports, which is actually a little bit of a blow because, in fact, one of the directions that people were looking at was to actually create facilities that would clean the plastics to the required specifications and actually ship them as useful scrap, not just as contaminated mixed bales of plastic that were the problem. It was announced by the National Development and Reform Commission, as well as the Ministry of the Environment.
It’s really unclear, of course — this happened a week ago, two weeks ago — what the impacts will actually be. You’re not going to be surprised that there’s some skepticism about China’s ability to enforce this. Again, it will involve Beijing really tackling local authorities and their willingness to enforce this, but people say a lot about the ability of an authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian government to enforce environmental regulations. That is quite an interesting, again, debate within the environmental community about the utility of democracy at certain times, which I try and steer away from that particular topic.
But nonetheless, China is a strong state in the way that you might look at Sweden as a strong state. And that Sweden has also been able to enact measures that have radically reduced its flow of municipal solid waste into landfill and other undesirable disposal routes. So we’re not sure what the enforcement capabilities of Beijing are going to be, or even again, just to that theme, how much they’re willing to violate people’s rights even more in terms of dealing with this problem, is that worth it? And of course, it’s all up in the air right now with the coronavirus, going to Plastic Recycling Conference. And I think in a couple of weeks to find out more about this, and unfortunately, I think probably the Chinese delegations won’t make it, but again, we have yet another unfolding global crisis that is distracting attention from this.
Well, it means I can follow it from under the radar screen, under the radar, I should say, but we don’t know really what the impacts will be. This is really new, but it’s interesting to see China again, taking the stance about, “We are not a dumping ground, we are committed to cleaning up our environment,” in a way that probably makes up a stronger reputational statement than we’ll necessarily be with action on the national level. So do plastics, discarded plastics have a global future? I don’t know the answer to that. Specifically, I would say yes, but I don’t know in what form. Will we continue shipping plastic, again under the radar, to countries that will take them?
Do we keep just dumping them here at home? Do we come up with rules and regulations that will actually create a legitimate plastic scrap trade in the way that many people are pushing for a legitimate electronics trade with proper labeling and proper product design that will make it easy to disassemble and recycle those products? That’s, again, something that we’ve been talking about in the electronic waste field. But there’s no doubt that wastes, in general, are going to remain globalized and become even more. So I think one of the really interesting pieces of this is that it’s no longer an issue of… We tend to look at it here like the rich North dumping on the poor South and the poor South not doing anything with it.
Well, in fact, the picture when you actually look at waste movements is very different. There’s a huge South waste trade, like waste — all kinds, scrap and so on — going from one poor country to a medium-income country or vice versa. And there’s evidence that a lot of it is actually being reused, refurbished and resold. It’s not all being dumped or burned in hellish scrapyards. In Ghana, in fact, a lot of it’s being dealt with in thriving markets and store facilities and repair facilities. So there’s a lot of interesting developments here that we really need to fully understand. To understand that waste is going to carry on moving around the world, it’s how do we make that safe for the people who are assembling them?
So there’s a lot of pieces, all of that puzzle, that make this field so intensely interesting to look at. For me, if it was just that question of stopping the North dumping on the South, it would be a lot less interesting to be spending the last five years of my life and the next 20 years of my career on this. But I’m finding that, in fact, all of these dynamics make it intensely fascinating.
People often ask me what you should recycle. I don’t always know exactly, but I can always take a guess, but this comes from an earlier rule that the Chinese government put in Shanghai that enforces citizens to separate their waste into wet, dry and hazardous.
So the saying “If a pig can eat it, it goes into the wet bin. If a pig cannot, it is dry waste. If a pig is likely to die from eating it, the waste is hazardous. And if you could sell it and buy a pig with the funds, that is recyclable waste.” So there you go.
So I will stop there. Thank you for listening, I’m happy to take questions. You can follow me on Twitter. I know that there are people circulating with microphones. You got your hand up first, so maybe we can just pass the mic along. Yes.
Audience 1: Yes. Moving the waste from one country to another, it doesn’t go in and solve the problem of climate change with all this plastic you’re talking about and other things. I just want to let you know, I received an email from Israel, a chemist woman came up with making a plastic-like material that can dissolve in water, but you can use it as plastic, but once you want to get rid of it, just put it in the water, it will dissolve.
Kate O’Neill: Yeah. There are a lot of alternatives to plastics coming up. I think one of the concerns is about that issue, I think the Holy Grail is to find something that is just as functional as plastic, or at least almost as functional, but not as dangerous. And we managed to do that with ozone-depleting substances. We found a substitute that was not ozone layer-depleting that worked. We’re still looking for that for plastics, but there’s a ton of innovation going on. And it is important not just from a waste perspective, but also from a climate change perspective that plastics from cradle to grave from extraction of the fossil fuels use to create plastics and the pollution caused by the petrochemicals industry, the way through to manufacturing and disposal, plastics have a huge carbon footprint. And I think that’s something that we are already really starting to understand.
Audience 2: Has there been any discussion at the international level in regard to not just plastics, but waste in general with the use of outer space?
Kate O’Neill: Yeah. There’s already a treaty on outer space that has something about satellite debris in it, but that’s… Waste, we can’t really, we have already put as much waste as we can into outer space. A lot of satellite debris and so on. So that is something that is specifically not being discussed. If you want me to talk a bit more generally about international regulation of waste and governance of waste that there’s not been a lot, there’s very little. I was talking with someone about this the other day that it’s really waste has fallen in between the… The most direct place would be the World Bank and agencies actually to deal with waste pile up in developing countries, which is one of the big issues that we’re seeing as people urbanize and start using consumer goods.
And it falls between immediate needs and longterm planning. I’m finding that, too, as I’m increasingly looking at disaster waste, is another project. And again, that falls through the cracks of not being immediate relief and not being longterm construction. So very little in terms of that kind of development, some as I mentioned in terms of plastic waste and shipping hazardous waste, but it’s been slow to get onto the agenda. But the waste in space, it’s a thing, it’s a real problem, and I doubt that we’ll be shipping anymore up there, unless we figure out how to get nuclear waste up there, which would also be very problematic. Yes.
Audience 3: Thanks so much for your presentation, it was excellent. You were talking about single-use disposable launch here in Berkeley. I recognize that that’s not going to happen with the current administration on a federal level, but since California is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, is there any regulation under foot at the state level?
Kate O’Neill: I will blank on the exact details, but one thing about the U.S. is it’s one of the countries that has next to no federal legislation around waste at all. The Superfund hazardous waste nuclear waste, but about recycling, apart from the EPA maintaining data on it, that’s really all. And interestingly, it’s one of the few parts of the EPA that has not disappeared from the website, its center. My theory is everyone is concerned about waste, no matter what, but yes, California, last semester, at the end of last legislative year, had two awesome bills going through to create a circular economy, to have zero-waste goals across the state and to cut the use of plastics and single-use disposables.
KAnd those went through a very complicated process of amendment and so on. They were quite likely to get through, but we simply, it got out of time. It was being debated on the very last night of the state assembly meeting, and unfortunately, right before was an anti-vaxxer bill. And that wound up taking up all the oxygen from the room and left little time, but it can be revived and there’s a ballot measure around these issues that’s coming up and will hopefully be on the ballot in November. So that’d be something to vote for. So California is really being very proactive.
Audience 4: Could you comment on the problem with cardboard waste, the enormous increase with the internet commerce, etc?
Kate O’Neill: Oh yeah. I don’t know that any of us really have a handle on the Amazon business. Yes, the one good thing is that cardboard is still very recyclable, clean boxes is still actually shipped to China, at least for now, I think plastics is the one thing they’re targeting. I find that Amazon is just shape changing the way we live in so many ways and is so unaccountable that it’s very hard to think about what to do. So I do suggest from the consumer point is to make sure that you do recycle the boxes, flatten them and remove any tape or labels. That means that they can easily be recycled. There’s more of a market for cardboard and paper.
So that end is probably more a matter of like they’re reopening some pulp and paper mills in the Midwest, and that’s good for local economies, maybe less more problematic for the environment there, but there are things going on. But just in terms of the sheer consumerism and the things that come through. My stepdaughter, who’s 16, gets plenty of makeup shipped to us. And I found one box that was packed full of polystyrene peanuts. And I’m like, “Who does this anymore?” Feel like two little cardboard things of something expensive. And that to me, packaging is just the single largest use of plastic of cardboard on the consumer level and does need some very serious attention.
Audience 5: Hello. I’m not sure if this is in the scope of your study, but I read not too long ago, I don’t remember the details, maybe if you know, you could share those. I read that there’s a scientific effort to create some an enzyme or something magical that would actually eat micro-plastics in the ocean, and so we can use technology to solve the problem. Did I imagine that, or do you know more about that, or?
Kate O’Neill: I know that there are definitely ways people are shooting to develop those sorts of enzymes. There is definitely a lot of stuff happening. There’s actually a pretty huge startup culture around all of this, both in terms of novel ways to incinerate or break down plastic waste in safe ways and also to create types of plastic that doesn’t need that in the first place. Yeah, the problem is it’s really hard to scale up and expensive, and I think people probably should be a bit concerned about rushing these sorts of solutions, implementing them before we really know what’s going to happen. But yeah, there are plenty of people working away. And again, that’s where I meant Operation National Sword was a catalyst for a lot of exciting research and so on, that’s ongoing around dealing with these things.
Audience 6: Hi, if I can squeeze in two-part question. You just told someone to recycle our boxes, but make sure to take the labels and the tape off. My expectation is that 95% of the boxes that are recycled have the label and the tape on them. So what happens then? That’s part one. And part two is, in all of this stuff we’re talking about in recycling, what are the implications… I’m following up on the question there, in terms of climate change, might we find that yes, we can recycle this plastic, but the overall impact in terms of transporting it, processing it and all that, the carbon footprint of all that is such that we would have been better off from a carbon standpoint, just throwing it into a landfill?
Kate O’Neill: Yep. Well, the boxes, most of them probably do have the tape still attached, things don’t have to be entirely clean or uncontaminated, but I encourage people to make the best effort possible, because if there’s too much tape and so on, then it’ll just be thrown out. And so the infamous pizza box example, which is a very famous one is the greasy food, stain peanut pizza box, if the bottom of it is uncontaminated, you rip off the top and you can throw that in the landfill and you can still recycle the bottom of the box, but that greasy pizza box is not welcomed by the recycling community.
Compost? Yes. I guess you could compost it. I’m not sure about backyard piles of compost, but you’re right, I always forget that part. I think I always go straight to the compostable plastic folks, which are not actually very compostable at all when I think about compost and this kind of waste, but that is a good point.
What was the other thing? Climate change. Climate change looking at plastics just simply says it’s serious, we should really stop using plastics, making plastics. There are so many things that are wrong with it. In waste, in general, recycling is being really encouraged in a lot of ways because simply for example, extracting metals from old cell phones and so on is so much less pollution intensive and carbon-intensive than mining them. So there are real reasons that you could save there. The other thing to think about with waste is, ultimately methane gas from landfill.
It sounds like it’s not very much, but it’s something like 3% to 4% of overall global carbon greenhouse gas emissions, because methane is pretty potent, so there are ways in which you have to deal with landfills. And you can actually cap them, exploit the methane pretty easily. It’s fairly safe, if done correctly, to generate energy so that all these connections are quite important, but plastics are bad for the climate, full stop. And I think I don’t have my slide with those studies, but if you’re interested, the Center for International Environmental Law put out a really good study on this late last year.
Audience 7: Two things the first is China was taking our newspapers, are they still doing that?
Kate O’Neill: Not newspapers, just cardboard.
Audience 7: And the other: Over at the Berkeley and Nature Center, we show the children, it’s a field trip for them, but one of the things we showed them were pictures of the waterfowl. When you carry a beer package or a soda package stuff, that the waterfowl wind up putting their nose through the hole in that thing that we carry them in. And I just wonder if in your travels, through the plastic industry, whether there’s any effort to get these people that produce this to stop producing it because it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the oceans, our fowl are disappearing, and very, very largely due to that.
Kate O’Neill: Yeah. I think that product redesign is so essential in so many ways, both to create that to be more safe, but I don’t know of any direct efforts around that in particular, nor about the hot plastics that go with water bottles, plastic water bottles, and changing that design. Some changes have happened, a little rim on some yogurt pots was actually designed so that animals who got their snout caught in them in landfills could actually have some leverage to pull it off, which is sad, but I really encourage people to suggest to companies that’s something citizens can do is say, “Hey, stop doing this.” And for plastic water bottles, yeah, leave the cap on. I had this long conversation, this is what Terry Gross was super obsessed with, it was a two-hour long conversation that I had with her the day before the interview.
And she went over half an hour about plastic bottle lids. And I said, “I didn’t really know exactly what you should do with them.” So the next day I talked to both the head of ISRI and my graduate student, and they both told me that you actually leave them on, they bought some equipment for dealing with that. But that was, it’s like taking this really terrifying exam, I have to say.
Audience 7: Can you say more about leaving them on?
Kate O’Neill: Well, they shouldn’t technically be on, but if you take them off, there’s much more chance that they’ll float around the general rubbish stream and wind up in oceans and streams and they’re intensely dangerous. And so in the rebate, if they get to recycling facilities with the bottle cap still on, they have special equipment to remove them. Again, I’m not sure how effective that all is, but that’s actually the advice. I do it just because if it’s going to wind up in the landfill, I’d rather the caps not escape into the water.
Audience 8: As a college professor, could you comment on the level of interest and commitment that the next generation has towards these problems?
Kate O’Neill: Yeah. I would say from, again, my audience is Berkeley students, so I found that the interest is becoming tremendous. I’ve been at Berkeley 20 years, so you see these issues move through and food has been one, and we’ve got a very strong constituency there, but the interest in waste and doing something about it is huge. There’s a Student Environmental Resource Center on campus that has a zero waste group, and I would say it’s probably about 100 students involved in those. I’m starting a waste course, hopefully in spring 2021 and a ton of people are interested in taking that, but I’m really noticing a huge commitment. I think it’s partly just the thrill of like, oh, a group of students I worked with pulled on the hazmat suits and did a waste inventory up the Clark Kerr campus the other day, it was life changing. They couldn’t stop talking about it when I saw them.
But yeah, there’s a huge interest and commitment. There’s also interest in commitment on the part of the waste industry to making sure young people come in and be innovative and getting involved in resource recovery and recycling as well. But I see true commitment and the fact that you see those water bottles everywhere often like under my podium when I’m lecturing, there’s a whole little collection, but that is something that has become natural for all students, not just my enviro students, but I’ve seen that everywhere, and I think that’s a positive. So I think they’re internalizing it. And I think they see it as something that they can handle as much as climate change is not. So that is something that they’re doing.
Audience 9: So when we recycle today, put things in the recycling bins and they get hauled off, what still has viable markets? And I assume aluminum cans are still…
Kate O’Neill: Aluminum cans are good, that way they’re perennially good. Let’s see. The plastic ones and twos, specifically, if you just put those in, I strongly advise taking the fours through sevens and not recycling those, although if you bundle up the plastic bags and take them to Target, I think takes them back, there’s things that they can do with those. It’s not unrecyclable, but they just can’t be mixed. So those can be retaken and reused, they are recycled here and reprocessed here, the ones and twos, paper to some extent. E-waste is such a complex stream here. I don’t know whether a lot of that, depending on where it goes, gets actually recycled, but that should contain value.
So quite a lot still does, but it’s a lot less than it used to be. And there’s a lot more reluctance on the part of recycling companies to take anything, but the most clean, the most valuable, say plastics in particular that they can actually resell, the rest, they just don’t want to deal with at all.
Audience 10: Hi. What has happened with the big floating waste out in the ocean, what’s the latest there? And the other question that I have, this doesn’t work for a lot of people in apartments, but if you have any garden, a little worm cafe works terrifically with all the food waste, it just makes the best soil.
Kate O’Neill: Yeah, from a culture. So the plastic waste in the oceans? Argh, not really. We’re not really there in terms of taking it out, we’re trying to stop it going in. There’s a lot of evidence, in terms of beach cleanups, that’s become something that’s very important. I think one of the positive things with all the plastic bag restrictions is that not only do you have anecdotal evidence from people who do beach cleanups, that they’re seeing fewer and fewer of them showing up, but there have been studies being done that have looked at the shallow ocean floor around areas that have the bands and there’s just far fewer floating around this.
Audience 10: I meant the big floating Island that they talked about that’s larger than Texas or whatever.
Kate O’Neill: The difficult thing about that is it’s not actually visible trash. I think that there’s some, but it’s really a bit of a misnomer. What it is, is broken down plastics which are often broken down into tiny micro-beads, which are the ones that don’t directly kill wildlife by having them choke on it, but are very persistent and another ones that can bio-accumulate and get through into tissue and be transmitted across generational lines too. But the plastic that is whole is still there and still an issue. It tends to be more on the coastal areas as well, and it is just a terrible thing. And we also realize that a lot of it is coming off the coast of Southeast Asia and South Asia. And what I’ve noted is a lot of effort being put there to build facilities to stop that happening.
Audience 11: I have seen references that San Francisco Recology is like the most high-functioning recycler in the nation, and that is supposedly because everyone in San Francisco pays a fee for the recycling, so they have a positive market. Is this a solution anyone else’s talking about or is it economically unviable in the United States?
Kate O’Neill: Well, I think we all pay a fair bit. Recology, it’s a strong example, I think it has a strong community in San Francisco. It’s still been scrambling, it’s really trying to figure out where it’s going to take everything. They’re actually interestingly quite difficult to talk to. I had an interview with a reporter, someone who’s doing a story, she was doing some background research, for KALW and she’s like, “I got nothing from them.” So the college here is much more open and you can talk to them a little bit more, but yeah, I’m still getting to the bottom of Recology. Not that I’m saying that they’re sinister, they’re really good, but they’re just not as forthcoming.
And I think San Franciscans pay so much for so many things that I guess recycling is… I do think it’s a model, we make people pay to get rid of things, but again, go back to that New Bedford example. And New Bedford is a relatively poor community, it’s starting to turn the corner and get its act together, get more vibrant and suddenly to impose $160,000 annually on a city is going to bankrupt it pretty quickly. And if that’s passed on to the local community members, they’re going to have a really hard time paying that as well. So it depends on how the costs are passed on.