Audrey Choi: You’re listening to At Scale – A Sustainability Podcast from Morgan Stanley.
That’s the sound of a kitchen mixer. It’s in a Boston food lab, blending an innovative new way to
And it might just be part of the solution to one of the biggest environmental problems of our time: Plastic waste.
If you’re like me, you bring your reusable bags to the grocery store. You fill up a resuable water bottle before leaving the house. Maybe you even toss every piece of plastic into the recycling bin. We’re doing a good job, right? Unfortunately, not even close.
I’m Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Morgan Stanley. On this season of At Scale, we’re exploring the complex and confusing world of plastic waste. We’ll discover the surprising places we find it, what it takes to create real change. And we’ll meet the innovators working to solve the problem, like the inventors at that Boston Food lab.
David Edwards: It needs to be seductive. It needs to be beautiful that people want it.
Choi: We’ll figure out why your recycling bin is really there to make you feel better.
Recycling Inspector: And unfortunately even if these products are marked with the recycling symbol, it’s not recyclable in our stream.
Choi: And we’ll discover how entire industries that rely on plastic are reimagining how they do business from the ground up.
Maine Fisher: That’s what these guys do. They want to conserve the environment in which they make a living. They want a good clean ocean.
Choi: It’s really only recently that we’ve admitted that we have a big plastic waste problem. Growing up, I remember when plastic came into my house. Glass bottles were replaced by this amazing new product. It didn’t break. It was light. And it came in pretty much every shape and size.
And overnight, homes all over the country - all over the world - fell in love with plastic.
Jenna Jambeck: The fact that it can be a film, the fact that it can be stretchy. It can be rigid. It can be any color, any color under the sun
Choi: That’s Jenna Jambeck. She’s a leading expert on plastic waste, and a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia.
Jenna: It's allowed technology and medicine to advance. It's been sort of this material that just ubiquitously entered our lives.
Choi: And Jenna’s right. Since the 1950’s, plastic has revolutionized our lives. It liberated us from the kitchen. It made hospitals safer. It even helped put people on the moon.
[PLASTIC WRAP MONTAGE]
Choi: But it all comes with a cost. Plastic waste is everywhere it shouldn’t be – our neighborhoods, our oceans, even in our bodies. And it’s a financial drain. Plastic that becomes trash results in a staggering loss of nearly 120-billion dollars from our economy every year. and that’s in plastic packaging alone. So how bad is the problem?
Jenna: We find it in the highest peaks in the world and the deepest depths of our ocean. And in many cases like that, it's actually gotten to the location before we did. And that's what really hits home for me. It's like, oh, here's a place, an unexplored place in the ocean, which there aren’t many left. And you get there and you're like, wait, there's a P.E.T. bottle? You know, that got here before we did? That's just not right.
Choi: Honestly, it’s shocking. Researchers found a plastic grocery bag in the mariana trench. That’s the deepest part of the ocean, 36-thousand feet underwater. And microplastics, little chips of plastic, have been found near the top of mount everest, 27-thousand feet high.
We use plastic every single day - think about bike helmets and iv bags. Protective gloves and even your toothbrush. What is it about plastic that has made it so hard to deal with when we’re done using it?
Jenna: I mean, it's almost the same answer. Right. Like what has made it so great. Right. The pigments run the gamut just like paint. You can treat it with various additives. So it's UV resistant. It can have a texture, be molded into any shape. It immediately just gets very complex.
Choi: The result? 91-percent of all plastic is never recycled. Think about that. The peanut butter jars and soap dispensers - most of that actually ends up in a landfill or worse, in our environment. Since the 1950’s, we’ve produced over 9-billion tons of plastic. And most of it will outlive us. According to the world wildlife fund, a plastic straw takes 200 years to degrade. A toothbrush? 500 years. Fishing line… 600 years or more.
Choi: in 2015, Jenna and a team of researchers were the first scientists to measure how much plastic waste is dumped into the oceans. The study was a wake up call.
Jenna: So it is hard because the numbers are really big and it can just kind of, you know, blur in your mind. But our initial calculation of plastic ending up in the ocean on an annual basis was eight million metric tons. And if you want to imagine that value, it's equal to about a dump truck of plastic entering the ocean every minute.
Choi: Jenna and her fellow researchers recently published a follow up report. And sadly, the amount of plastic waste going into the oceans every day has only gotten worse.
Jenna: Even with some of the work that we're doing, by 2030, that quantity would more than double. you know, even be like five times that value. So you can just multiply that several dump trucks per minute. Right. It starts to get unimaginable. It really does.
Choi: And to put Jenna’s latest research in perspective, if we don’t change anything, by 2030 we will have a football stadium full of plastic waste being dumped into our oceans every day. As a parent, what also worries me is how plastic waste is coming back into our food, our water, even our table salt. I read a recent study that showed 90% of table salt tested had micro particles of plastic in it.
Jenna: And the ocean is literally spitting it back out at us.
Choi: In 2014, Jenna was part of a research expedition to study the causes and effects of plastic waste. They sailed from the canary islands to Martinique in the Caribbean.
Jenna: I looked down and every wave was just filled with a confetti full of plastic pieces and it just really hit me. This material's going into the ocean and getting, chewed up and spit back out in our faces, you know, and that's that's sort of literally and figuratively, because we are then consuming it ourselves.
Choi: You’ve probably seen it yourself or on TV. Waves of plastic trash washing up on beaches.
So, in an effort to gather more data on the problem and to empower citizens, the sustainability team here at Morgan Stanley is working with Jenna to support a mobile app called the marine debris tracker. It’s the first crowdsourcing tool for researching plastic waste.
Jenna: So if you are out walking your dog or just walking in between your workplace and your car and you see litter on the ground, you can pull out your phone and report what you're seeing with Debris Tracker. And that data gets sent to our database to contribute to that global data set.
Choi: So far, more than 3 million pieces of litter have been logged into the debris tracker. Recently, someone in San Diego logged 149 pieces of trash while walking on the beach - things like juice pouches, candy wrappers and plastic straws.
So what difference does it make if you know exactly what kind of plastic waste is on your local beach or in your neighborhood park?
Well, that crowdsourced information lets local communities know where plastic waste hot spots are. Cities and towns have real data to shape policies that improve recycling collection or cut back on things like single use plastic bags.
I asked Jenna what some of the big surprises have been as she looks over the data.
Jenna: So you know, we're in a global pandemic. And, when COVID came to be we needed to immediately start using personal protective equipment. But that immediately impacted our waste stream. So it was even just as short as a week, right? And we were getting reports through the tracker of PPE ending up in our environment.
And disposable gloves and things like that, and // so if you went to the grocery and put on things, you probably I think they were just not wanting to get in their car wearing the PPE that they had just worn and had not really had a plan or thought about what can I do with this and just take it off and just put it on the ground.
Choi: Yeah, that's amazing. A week for it actually be in the environment so not just in a dump.
Choi: Rolling into a river or the ocean. Wow.
Jenna: So we have a whole list in the debris tracker now for PPE and so it’s not even the items themselves but they’re actually singly packaged in single sleeves.
Choi: i recently had my own frustrating experience. I needed to order new face masks and found a company that makes them out of recycled marine plastic. Sounds great, right? So i ordered them. And they came individually wrapped in plastic.
And that’s a disconnect that touches so many parts of our world. Sure, you can find a product that’s made out of recycled plastic. But what impact does it have if shipping and distribution systems still rely so heavily on plastic packaging?
Jenna: Yep, you're exactly right. It’s really complex and it involves a lot of different entities. You've got manufacturers. But you've also got distributors. Even I think in some cases a brand owner or manufacturer wants to make a change. And it's not necessarily easy because they have to coordinate with lots of different entities around that whole value chain. So that can make it hard.
Choi: This past has only heightened the plastic waste problem. Along with the PEP Jenna talked about, we’re getting more things delivered, which means more plastic waste. And it’s adding up. The us produces the most plastic waste of any country in the world. 42 million tons a year. 
Until recently, most of that was shipped to china. But in 2018, china stopped taking our plastic trash. And that sent U.S. cities and states scrambling because suddenly, we had to deal with it.
So I was curious, if Jenna could magically summon anyone she wanted - innovators, corporations, governments, scientists - anyone, really, who would she call on to solve the plastic waste problem?
Jenna: Wow. Who has to make change? That's just about every one that you named, to be honest. I mean, it's going to require researchers coming up with, you know, new methods. It's going to require government. Sometimes they may need to rethink regulation. So let's just take a little company that started in Chile called Algramo, and they're trying to do reusable laundry Soap so they have a little truck that goes around and you can come out and refill your laundry soap.
Choi: And these little trucks are essentially mobile vending machines. You bring your own reusable containers to buy laundry detergent, hand soap, even dog food.
Jenna: And it's actually kind of within your community. So, A, you're sticking with the convenience of, you know being able to get the brands that people know and are familiar with. And, then, of course, the resources that have gone into this company as a startup. So it needs the support of the investment community as well.
Choi: This idea of skipping the plastic packaging is catching on. This year, the Chilean company Jenna mentioned set up their first vending machines in New York City.
And we have to think big and bold when it comes to getting rid of plastic waste. The entire life cycle of plastic has to be reinvented… the products, the business process, investment - the entire plastic economy.
Jenna: Absolutely. And I think it has to be for us to really get to that true circularity. You really have to look at this as a large, complex and interconnected system.
Choi: This complex interconnected system isn’t some abstract concept. It’s our daily lives. The way most of us interact with plastic is packaging. We go to the grocery store, buy food wrapped in plastic, and within moments of getting home, that plastic becomes trash.
So it got me wondering - could we envision a day when we go to the grocery store and come home with no plastic trash at all?
David Edwards: I had the observation that the coconut was sort of the perfect food package.
Choi: That’s David Edwards. He’s an inventor and professor of engineering at Harvard university. And he is obsessed with food. He’s been developing an edible food packaging. Imagine no more containers or plastic wrap, nothing. Just food.
David: If you think about it, you cut a coconut off of a tree and it's full of coconut water and you can send it around the world and you can cut it open at some point. And the water is fresh and pretty delicious, actually. So I thought, gosh, why couldn't we do that?
Choi: So he decided to turn his food passion into a solution to eliminate plastic waste.
David started by taking a closer look at fruit… foods that have their own natural wrapper. And in the lab, his company - incredible foods - developed snacks that have edible packaging.
Choi: I have some here, some super berries, which are strawberry and banana, and they sort of look like red grapes.
He sent me some of them to taste.
David: I invite you to do this today, Audrey, if you take the berries out place them on your desk on a plate and eat them over the course of the day, and you can come back tomorrow and you can eat them and you'll find that they are delicious and they remain delicious, very much like a grape. Okay. And so they have a grape-like stability. And in a world where you are picking these off a vine, well, they would be really wonderful just as they are without any plastic.
Choi: Well I have to say, these food forms are, they're very attractive. They're all these beautiful colors. And I will confess, I've been snacking on the super berries very quietly.
David: Good, good, good. I'd like you to try. I don't know if you like hummus actually, but you should try the roasted red pepper. Yeah. Just take a bite out of that. So that's what's interesting here is you've got a very soft food form and hummus wrapped in red pepper.
Choi: That is really unusual but it’s really tasty.
That's great. So but I have to ask you, David, so I've got this package and these super berries which looks sort of about the size of whoppers or Milk Duds - revealing my nutritional prowess here. It's wrapped in a little plastic pouch. So what's happening?
David: Yeah. What's happening. Yeah, totally.
So where the plastic comes is in the food system that we have today, where to make this economically viable, we need to be able to ship this around the country and make it available for a very long period of time, actually with refrigerated conditions for one to two year shelf life stability. And so it's that challenge of the distribution and retail system today that is leading to this kind of redundancy of plastic that you're pointing out.
Choi: in David’s ideal world, grocery shopping at a big retail store would look more like a farmers market. Instead of food in plastic packaging, imagine bins of food that you’d scoop out and put into your own reusable bag to bring home.
DAVID: Absolutely, And it's worth making another point here, Audrey, that when this company began several years ago, the awareness of the massive problem that we have today was growing. But it was not really at a consumer level and it was not really in the boardrooms of the major food providers as it is today. So the awareness today is very great. To a point where there is now an investment motivation to invest in companies like Incredible Foods and really transform the food system and so what you're seeing here in these super berries arriving in your office with all this sort of added packaging is really a reflection of the fact that this company has emerged with this technology, which can ultimately eliminate plastic from food and has really made do with a food system that works today.
Choi: One of David’s first inventions did wind up on the shelves of a major supermarket chain. He created frozen yogurt balls wrapped in an edible skin of fruit and seaweed.
David: We argued that these should be sold in bulk and people just grab them. They drop them in a bag. And then you wash them. But again, as you know, you go into stores today and they wrap potatoes.
Choi: This is when an innovative idea ran into trouble. Consumers weren’t ready to buy frozen yogurt unwrapped the way you’d buy a head of lettuce, even though the yogurt balls could be rinsed off when you got them home. And retailers weren’t sure how to display them because frozen yogurt should be in a tub, right? So they put them in - you guessed it - packaging.
Choi: But that was back in 2014. And since then, as Jenna Jambeck pointed out, the plastic waste problem has become one of the biggest environmental concerns of our time. So I was curious, how do we accelerate innovative ideas like edible food packaging?
David: One way to make that happen is to create with investors local solutions that are sort of soup to nuts, or cradle to cradle that solve this problem and make it economically incentivized for people to engage. And it will scale. The problem is not going away. It's only gonna get worse.
Choi: Well, I guess the challenge now, though, also with things like this in the COVID era is I imagine that everyone wants things shrink wrapped and double wrapped in bubble wrap before they'll touch it.
David: Food solutions like what we're describing here that are integrative food solutions are not only addressing issues of plastic packaging, but they're addressing issues of essential nutrition in food. They're addressing issues of retail and distribution, I think that the COVID pandemic is, again accelerating those changes. So I am an inventor and inventors tend to be very optimistic and I am optimistic that we'll see a lot of change here in the next few years.
Choi: We have to be optimistic if we’re going to create better products, better systems, and better ways of doing things.
But I’m also thinking about something Jenna Jambeck said - that solving the plastic waste problem means bringing about a massive, systemic change. And that means that sometimes - a great idea alone - isn’t enough.
Over the next five episodes, we’re going to dig into recycling and policy, investment and design. We’ll talk to people seeking solutions from every angle and every part of the value chain.
Next time, we explore the challenges facing an entire industry that relies on plastic - commercial fishing.
I’m Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Morgan Stanley. You can find out more about what we’re doing to tackle plastic waste at morgan stanley-dot-com slash plastic waste resolution.
1. MacArthur, D. E., D. Waughray, and M. R. Stuchtey. "The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics." World Economic Forum. 2016.
2. Kara Lavender Law, Natalie Starr, Theodore R. Siegler, Jenna R. Jambeck, Nicholas J. Mallos, George H. Leonard, The United States’ Contribution Of Plastic Waste To Land And Ocean Science Advances 30 Oct 2020 : Eabd0288