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← A radical plan to end plastic waste

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Showing Revision 12 created 10/14/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. Chris Anderson: So, you've been
    obsessed with this problem

  2. for the last few years.
  3. What is the problem, in your own words?
  4. Andrew Forrest: Plastic.
  5. Simple as that.
  6. Our inability to use it for the tremendous
    energetic commodity that it is,
  7. and just throw it away.
  8. CA: And so we see waste everywhere.

  9. At its extreme, it looks a bit like this.
  10. I mean, where was this picture taken?
  11. AF: That's in the Philippines,

  12. and you know, there's a lot of rivers,
    ladies and gentlemen,
  13. which look exactly like that.
  14. And that's the Philippines.
  15. So it's all over Southeast Asia.
  16. CA: So plastic is thrown into the rivers,

  17. and from there, of course,
    it ends up in the ocean.
  18. I mean, we obviously
    see it on the beaches,
  19. but that's not even your main concern.
  20. It's what's actually happening to it
    in the oceans. Talk about that.
  21. AF: OK, so look. Thank you, Chris.

  22. About four years ago,
  23. I thought I'd do something
    really barking crazy,
  24. and I committed to do a PhD
    in marine ecology.
  25. And the scary part about that was,
  26. sure, I learned a lot about marine life,
  27. but it taught me more about marine death
  28. and the extreme mass
    ecological fatality of fish,
  29. of marine life, marine mammals,
  30. very close biology to us,
  31. which are dying in the millions
    if not trillions that we can't count
  32. at the hands of plastic.
  33. CA: But people think of plastic
    as ugly but stable. Right?

  34. You throw something in the ocean,
    "Hey, it'll just sit there forever.
  35. Can't do any damage, right?"
  36. AF: See, Chris, it's an incredible
    substance designed for the economy.

  37. It is the worst substance possible
    for the environment.
  38. The worst thing about plastics,
    as soon as it hits the environment,
  39. is that it fragments.
  40. It never stops being plastic.
  41. It breaks down smaller
    and smaller and smaller,
  42. and the breaking science on this, Chris,
  43. which we've known in marine ecology
    for a few years now,
  44. but it's going to hit humans.
  45. We are aware now that nanoplastic,
  46. the very, very small particles of plastic,
    carrying their negative charge,
  47. can go straight through
    the pores of your skin.
  48. That's not the bad news.
  49. The bad news is that it goes
    straight through the blood-brain barrier,
  50. that protective coating which is there
    to protect your brain.
  51. Your brain's a little amorphous, wet mass
    full of little electrical charges.
  52. You put a negative particle into that,
  53. particularly a negative particle
    which can carry pathogens --
  54. so you have a negative charge,
    it attracts positive-charge elements,
  55. like pathogens, toxins,
  56. mercury, lead.
  57. That's the breaking science
    we're going to see in the next 12 months.
  58. CA: So already I think you told me
    that there's like 600 plastic bags or so

  59. for every fish that size
    in the ocean, something like that.
  60. And they're breaking down,
  61. and there's going to be ever more of them,
  62. and we haven't even seen the start
    of the consequences of that.
  63. AF: No, we really haven't.

  64. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
    they're a bunch of good scientists,
  65. we've been working with them for a while.
  66. I've completely verified their work.
  67. They say there will be
    one ton of plastic, Chris,
  68. for every three tons
    of fish by, not 2050 --
  69. and I really get impatient with people
    who talk about 2050 -- by 2025.
  70. That's around the corner.
  71. That's just the here and now.
  72. You don't need one ton of plastic
    to completely wipe out marine life.
  73. Less than that is going
    to do a fine job at it.
  74. So we have to end it straightaway.
    We've got no time.
  75. CA: OK, so you have an idea for ending it,
    and you're coming at this

  76. not as a typical environmental
    campaigner, I would say,
  77. but as a businessman,
    as an entrepreneur, who has lived --
  78. you've spent your whole life thinking
    about global economic systems
  79. and how they work.
  80. And if I understand it right,
  81. your idea depends on heroes
    who look something like this.
  82. What's her profession?
  83. AF: She, Chris, is a ragpicker,

  84. and there were 15, 20 million
    ragpickers like her,
  85. until China stopped taking
    everyone's waste.
  86. And the price of plastic,
    minuscule that it was, collapsed.
  87. That led to people like her,
  88. which, now -- she is a child
    who is a schoolchild.
  89. She should be at school.
  90. That's probably very akin to slavery.
  91. My daughter Grace and I have met
    hundreds of people like her.
  92. CA: And there are many adults as well,
    literally millions around the world,

  93. and in some industries,
  94. they actually account
    for the fact that, for example,
  95. we don't see a lot
    of metal waste in the world.
  96. AF: That's exactly right.

  97. That little girl is, in fact,
    the hero of the environment.
  98. She's in competition with
    a great big petrochemical plant
  99. which is just down the road,
  100. the three-and-a-half-billion-dollar
    petrochemical plant.
  101. That's the problem.
  102. We've got more oil and gas
    in plastic and landfill
  103. than we have in the entire oil and gas
    resources of the United States.
  104. So she is the hero.
  105. And that's what that landfill looks like,
    ladies and gentlemen,
  106. and it's solid oil and gas.
  107. CA: So there's huge value
    potentially locked up in there

  108. that the world's ragpickers would,
    if they could, make a living from.
  109. But why can't they?
  110. AF: Because we have ingrained in us

  111. a price of plastic from fossil fuels,
  112. which sits just under what it takes
  113. to economically and profitably
    recycle plastic from plastic.
  114. See, all plastic is
    is building blocks from oil and gas.
  115. Plastic's 100 percent polymer,
    which is 100 percent oil and gas.
  116. And you know we've got
    enough plastic in the world
  117. for all our needs.
  118. And when we recycle plastic,
  119. if we can't recycle it cheaper
    than fossil fuel plastic,
  120. then, of course, the world
    just sticks to fossil fuel plastic.
  121. CA: So that's the fundamental problem,

  122. the price of recycled plastic
    is usually more
  123. than the price of just buying
    it made fresh from more oil.
  124. That's the fundamental problem.
  125. AF: A slight tweak
    of the rules here, Chris.

  126. I'm a commodity person.
  127. I understand that we used to have
    scrap metal and rubbish iron
  128. and bits of copper lying
    all round the villages,
  129. particularly in the developing world.
  130. And people worked out it's got a value.
  131. It's actually an article of value,
  132. not of waste.
  133. Now the villages and the cities
    and the streets are clean,
  134. you don't trip over scrap copper
    or scrap iron now,
  135. because it's an article of value,
    it gets recycled.
  136. CA: So what's your idea, then,
    to try to change that in plastics?

  137. AF: OK, so Chris,

  138. for most part of that PhD,
    I've been doing research.
  139. And the good thing about being
    a businessperson who's done OK at it
  140. is that people want to see you.
  141. Other businesspeople,
  142. even if you're kind of a bit of a zoo
    animal species they'd like to check out,
  143. they'll say, yeah, OK,
    we'll all meet Twiggy Forrest.
  144. And so once you're in there,
  145. you can interrogate them.
  146. And I've been to most of the oil and gas
    and fast-moving consumer good companies
  147. in the world,
  148. and there is a real will to change.
  149. I mean, there's a couple of dinosaurs
  150. who are going to hope
    for the best and do nothing,
  151. but there's a real will to change.
  152. So what I've been discussing is,
  153. the seven and a half billion
    people in the world
  154. don't actually deserve to have
    their environment smashed by plastic,
  155. their oceans rendered depauperate
    or barren of sea life because of plastic.
  156. So you come down that chain,
  157. and there's tens of thousands of brands
    which we all buy heaps of products from,
  158. but then there's only a hundred
    major resin producers,
  159. big petrochemical plants,
  160. that spew out all the plastic
    which is single use.
  161. CA: So one hundred companies

  162. are right at the base
    of this food chain, as it were.
  163. AF: Yeah.

  164. CA: And so what do you need
    those one hundred companies to do?

  165. AF: OK, so we need them
    to simply raise the value

  166. of the building blocks of plastic
    from oil and gas,
  167. which I call "bad plastic,"
  168. raise the value of that,
  169. so that when it spreads through the brands
    and onto us, the customers,
  170. we won't barely even notice
    an increase in our coffee cup
  171. or Coke or Pepsi, or anything.
  172. CA: Like, what, like a cent extra?

  173. AF: Less. Quarter of a cent, half a cent.

  174. It'll be absolutely minimal.
  175. But what it does,
  176. it makes every bit of plastic
    all over the world an article of value.
  177. Where you have the waste worst,
  178. say Southeast Asia, India,
  179. that's where the wealth is most.
  180. CA: OK, so it feels like
    there's two parts to this.

  181. One is, if they will charge more money
  182. but carve out that excess
  183. and pay it -- into what? --
    a fund operated by someone
  184. to tackle this problem of -- what?
  185. What would that money be used for,
    that they charge the extra for?
  186. AF: So when I speak
    to really big businesses,

  187. I say, "Look, I need you to change,
    and I need you to change really fast,"
  188. their eyes are going
    to peel over in boredom,
  189. unless I say, "And it's good business."
  190. "OK, now you've got my attention, Andrew."
  191. So I say, "Right, I need
    you to make a contribution
  192. to an environmental
    and industry transition fund.
  193. Over two or three years,
  194. the entire global plastics industry
  195. can transition from getting
    its building blocks from fossil fuel
  196. to getting its building
    blocks from plastic.
  197. The technology is out there.
  198. It's proven."
  199. I've taken two multibillion-dollar
    operations from nothing,
  200. recognizing that
    the technology can be scaled.
  201. I see at least a dozen technologies
    in plastic to handle all types of plastic.
  202. So once those technologies
    have an economic margin,
  203. which this gives them,
  204. that's where the global public
    will get all their plastic from,
  205. from existing plastic.
  206. CA: So every sale of virgin plastic
    contributes money to a fund

  207. that is used to basically
    transition the industry
  208. and start to pay for things
    like cleanup and other pieces.
  209. AF: Absolutely. Absolutely.

  210. CA: And it has
    the incredible side benefit,

  211. which is maybe even the main benefit,
  212. of creating a market.
  213. It suddenly makes recyclable plastic
  214. a giant business that can unlock
    millions of people around the world
  215. to find a new living collecting it.
  216. AF: Yeah, exactly.

  217. So all you do is, you've got fossil
    fuel plastics at this value
  218. and recycled plastic at this value.
  219. You change it.
  220. So recycled plastic is cheaper.
  221. What I love about this most, Chris,
    is that, you know,
  222. we waste into the environment
    300, 350 million tons of plastic.
  223. On the oil and gas companies own accounts,
  224. it's going to grow to 500 million tons.
  225. This is an accelerating problem.
  226. But every ton of that is polymer.
  227. Polymer is 1,000 dollars,
    1,500 dollars a ton.
  228. That's half a trillion dollars
    which could go into business
  229. and could create jobs and opportunities
    and wealth right across the world,
  230. particularly in the most impoverished.
  231. Yet we throw it away.
  232. CA: So this would allow the big companies
    to invest in recycling plants

  233. literally all over the world --
  234. AF: All over the world.

  235. Because the technology
    is low-capital cost,
  236. you can put it in at rubbish dumps,
    at the bottom of big hotels,
  237. garbage depots, everywhere,
  238. turn that waste into resin.
  239. CA: Now, you're a philanthropist,

  240. and you're ready to commit
    some of your own wealth to this.
  241. What is the role of philanthropy
    in this project?
  242. AF: I think what we have to do
    is kick in the 40 to 50 million US dollars

  243. to get it going,
  244. and then we have to create
    absolute transparency
  245. so everyone can see
    exactly what's going on.
  246. From the resin producers
    to the brands to the consumers,
  247. everyone gets to see
    who is playing the game,
  248. who is protecting the Earth,
    and who doesn't care.
  249. And that'll cost about
    a million dollars a week,
  250. and we're going to underwrite
    that for five years.
  251. Total contribution is circa
    300 million US dollars.
  252. CA: Wow.

  253. Now --
  254. (Applause)

  255. You've talked to other companies,
    like to the Coca-Colas of this world,

  256. who are willing to do this,
    they're willing to pay a higher price,
  257. they would like to pay a higher price,
  258. so long as it's fair.
  259. AF: Yeah, it's fair.

  260. So, Coca-Cola wouldn't
    like Pepsi to play ball
  261. unless the whole world knew
    that Pepsi wasn't playing ball.
  262. Then they don't care.
  263. So it's that transparency of the market
  264. where, if people try and cheat the system,
  265. the market can see it,
    the consumers can see it.
  266. The consumers want a role to play in this.
  267. Seven and a half billion of us.
  268. We don't want our world smashed
    by a hundred companies.
  269. CA: Well, so tell us, you've said
    what the companies can do

  270. and what you're willing to do.
  271. What can people listening do?
  272. AF: OK, so I would like all of us,

  273. all around the world,
  274. to go a website called noplasticwaste.org.
  275. You contact your hundred resin producers
  276. which are in your region.
  277. You will have at least one
  278. within an email or Twitter
    or a telephone contact from you,
  279. and let them know that you would like them
    to make a contribution to a fund
  280. which industry can manage
    or the World Bank can manage.
  281. It raises tens of billions
    of dollars per year
  282. so you can transition the industry
    to getting all its plastic from plastic,
  283. not from fossil fuel.
  284. We don't need that.
    That's bad. This is good.
  285. And it can clean up the environment.
  286. We've got enough capital there,
  287. we've got tens of billions
    of dollars, Chris, per annum
  288. to clean up the environment.
  289. CA: You're in the recycling business.

  290. Isn't this a conflict of interest for you,
  291. or rather, a huge business
    opportunity for you?
  292. AF: Yeah, look, I'm in
    the iron ore business,

  293. and I compete against
    the scrap metal business,
  294. and that's why you don't have
    any scrap lying around to trip over,
  295. and cut your toe on,
  296. because it gets collected.
  297. CA: This isn't your excuse
    to go into the plastic recycling business.

  298. AF: No, I am going to cheer for this boom.

  299. This will be the internet
    of plastic waste.
  300. This will be a boom industry
    which will spread all over the world,
  301. and particularly where poverty is worst
    because that's where the rubbish is most,
  302. and that's the resource.
  303. So I'm going to cheer for it
    and stand back.
  304. CA: Twiggy, we're in an era

  305. where so many people around the world
    are craving a new, regenerative economy,
  306. these big supply chains,
    these big industries,
  307. to fundamentally transform.
  308. It strikes me as a giant idea,
  309. and you're going to need a lot of people
    cheering you on your way
  310. to make it happen.
  311. Thank you for sharing this with us.
  312. AF: Thank you very much. Thank you, Chris.

  313. (Applause)