A plastic neutral plan that buys the planet some time and innovation
Author: Grist Creative
Going to a pet shop to purchase dog food is a stark reminder of how limited the choices are for people trying to avoid plastic. All kibble is sealed in thick plastic bags to preserve freshness. Unless consumers want to prepare all their own dog food, there aren’t many alternatives.
That’s why the CEO of pet food company Nature’s Logic, David Yaskulka, went on a quest to find a better option. He scavenged trade shows for any viable recycled, recyclable, or biodegradable options to package his company’s pet food. But he soon became frustrated by the greenwashing of the packaging marketplace. The few options that existed “either fooled the consumer about recycling or compromised product freshness and safety,” he says.
Bottom line: It’s hard for pet owners to avoid plastics in this day and age.
We’ve likely all seen the 2017 video of scientists removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose, which led to plastic bag bans and prohibitions on straws around the world. But 2020’s plastic consumption is on pace to increase by 30% since the pandemic began. That’s in part because of the abundance of PPE and takeout containers.
But on top of that, some environmental scholars suggest that because fossil fuels are waning as an energy source, major companies are pushing for a massive scale-up of petroleum-based plastic production. Big Oil’s message to consumers: It’s your fault; you’ve created the demand (as opposed to their own glut on the supply side). And the solution they’re pushing? You, as consumers, should be better recyclers.
But Yaskulka knew that recycling was not all it’s cracked up to be. Very little of the planet’s plastic can be recycled easily. Not many pet food or chip bags, eye cream samples, chocolate wrappers, diapers, sanitary pads, toothbrushes, or the plastic wrap Amazon uses to enshrine most everything we order can be effectively recycled with curbside pickup programs.
“True recycling programs, while critical, take a long time to ramp up,” Yaskulka explained over Zoom. And in general, recycling isn’t the silver bullet to ease consumers’ environmental consciences. Sure, socially and environmentally conscious businesses are trying to improve recycling, but change is slow.
“I don’t want to wait a year to help consumers recycle their bags,” he says. “I want 100% recycled now.”
Certified plastic neutral
That’s where rePurpose came in. Founded by three former Wharton students aiming to address global poverty, the company “went in from the ground up and saw what was happening at the very end [of the supply chain]—how plastic usage impacts people,” says co-founder and chief marketing officer Peter Hjemdahl via Zoom from Goa, India.
What the founders discovered in India was that some solutions to the plastic problem existed and were already being practiced. These solutions were simply underfunded. Since then, rePurpose has built a company that supports these and other innovations to address the global plastic problem, funded with the proceeds from helping businesses, brands, and even individuals become Certified Plastic Neutral. Nature’s Logic went Certified Plastic Neutral in 2020 — the first pet food company to do so.
It works like this: A company like Nature’s Logic or Safe Catch, which sells packaged seafood, begins by calculating its plastic footprint. (Consumers can do this too; try it out). Using the calculations, rePurpose determines how many kilograms of plastic are produced by the company’s packaging, shipping, office supplies, and the like.
To offset this plastic consumption, companies then pay for an equivalent amount of plastic to be processed in a vetted waste-collection project in India, Indonesia, Colombia, or another developing country — places where most plastic processing already takes place or where the U.S. dollar stretches farther.
The goal is to start taking responsibility for the enormous amount of plastic Western countries use every day.
For decades, the waste of Westerners has been shipped overseas to be picked through by low-wage workers called waste pickers. Waste pickers collect trash from landfills and natural spaces, sort it, and sell the most valuable remnants for cash. Understandably, waste pickers favor cola bottles and other recyclables that are worth more money. They overlook the low- or no-value, single-use plastics like candy wrappers, which then end up in landfills, dumped into waterways, or left in natural spaces.
In 2018, when China lifted the veil about where Westerners’ exported plastic ends up when it gets “recycled,” the world began to see that much of what we toss into the recycling bin actually cannot be recycled at all.
To address this problem, rePurpose has helped waste companies monetize plastic that never had value by co-processing (i.e. burning) it in closed-chamber kilns to create energy for cement production. “We use toxic gas capture methodology to replace coal so that the plastic is not put in a landfill nor openly burned and flushed into the environment,” Hjemdahl explains. When pressed about this, he argued that this was the current best option to address non-recyclable plastic waste.
Waste Ventures India began partnering with rePurpose in 2019, which has enabled the company to gain the trust of waste pickers who are often exploited by employers offering low wages for this kind of work, according to manager Sahithi Bhupathiraju, who corresponded by email. She says Waste Ventures India currently employs 6,000 waste pickers “to enable them to collect low-value plastics and Tetrapak which would have otherwise gone to the landfill or burnt openly.” Because of the company’s alliance with rePurpose, it can now hire more informal waste pickers, too, many of whom were farmers no longer able to grow food due to inconsistent rains caused by the climate crisis.
Bhupathiraju tells the story of one female employee who started as a waste picker and is now an expert plastic sorter in the company’s warehouse. Her husband has since joined the company as a driver. Today, they both have health and life insurance, safer working environments, 20% more income, and better education as well as healthy food options for their kids.
Other organizations, like the Plastic Bank, are also working to fight plastic waste, but whereas they pay people in developing nations to collect bottles and other recyclable plastic, rePurpose has found a way to monetize single-use plastic that gets overlooked. “We’re subsidizing the recovery of plastic waste with no economic value — chip wrappers, pet food bags, candy wrappers, plastic bags,” Hjemdahl says.
By their count, rePurpose has funded the collection of 1.5 million pounds of plastic a year from developing nations in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
Innovation and impacts
When a company becomes Certified Plastic Neutral, it makes possible the work of innovative organizations like Bangalore’s Saahas Zero Waste, which turns plastic into new products like masks and cookware. Other projects include building a new waste treatment plant in Bangalore, India, or funding the availability of Saathi Pads, biodegradable sanitary pads, to low-income Indian women. But maybe the most far-reaching impact of rePurpose is how they actively mentor companies to reduce their plastic footprints. “We help companies think through the challenge of reducing the virgin plastic they use in the supply chain using our network of innovators on the ground,” Hjemdahl says.
In the end, consumers have the power to sway business decisions. While it’s clear this is not a singular solution to our plastic problems, eco-minded companies are investing in becoming Certified Plastic Neutral at the behest of their customers in order to support better solutions.
“To address the climate crisis, we need drastic action from everybody,” Hjemdahl says. “We see this change happening now.”
Nature’s Logic is a line of 100% natural, premium pet food and treats that contain NO synthetic vitamins and minerals. Along with partnering with rePurpose, Nature’s Logic acts in other sustainable ways, such as only selling their Nature’s Logic Distinction products at locally owned stores, using MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) sustainably certified seafood in their newest diets and producing all kibble and bags with 100% renewable electricity. They are also incorporating new packaging with more post-recycled materials and higher recycling value.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A plastic neutral plan that buys the planet some time and innovation on Dec 9, 2020.