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← An environmental historian's requiem for recycling | Bart Elmore | TEDxOhioStateUniversity

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Showing Revision 25 created 07/16/2019 by Rhonda Jacobs.

  1. If you used a plastic bottle
    in the last week,
  2. and you didn't recycle it,
  3. there's a good chance
    that 450 years from now
  4. that plastic bottle might
    still be here on this planet.
  5. And that's because NOAA researchers
    have recently discovered
  6. that it takes about 450 freaking years
  7. for a PET, polyethylene
    terephthalate bottle,
  8. PET bottle, to fully decompose.
  9. So I can imagine the scene
    450 years from now
  10. when some poor soul
    picks up your bottle from the ground
  11. and turns to his friend
    for a conversation.
  12. It might go something like this:
  13. "Hey bro," - they'll still be saying bro,
    by the way, in 450 -
  14. "Can you believe this?!
    I mean, wait a minute,
  15. they took a finite natural resource,
  16. fossil fuels,
  17. and tell me this -
    they turned it into a container
  18. that they used one time?
  19. And then, after they were
    done with that container,
  20. they threw it away?!
  21. I mean, that's crazy!
  22. What sort of advanced
    civilization does that?"
  23. I think they're going
    to be looking for an explanation.
  24. And if I was going to try
    and offer an explanation to them today,
  25. I would turn to this logo.
  26. A logo that we've been surrounded by
    since we were in elementary school,
  27. something we see every day.
  28. It's the recycling logo, of course,
    and it was created in 1970
  29. by a graduate student named Gary Anderson,
  30. who was at the University
    of Southern California.
  31. Recycling was just
    coming online at the time,
  32. and he wanted to figure out a way
    to describe this system
  33. that would be this kind of closed loop.
  34. You know, a system
    in which everything within it
  35. would be used over and over again.
  36. We would just have
    this world without waste.
  37. It looks great, and it makes us
    feel pretty darn good, I think,
  38. when we go to the recycling bin
    and we put our stuff in that bin.
  39. But the problem with this image,
    is that it's a lie.
  40. Because today, only about 30%,
  41. 30% of PET plastic bottles
    used in this country are recycled.
  42. That means that 70%, 70% of these bottles
  43. end up in landfills, in our rivers,
    and ultimately in our oceans.
  44. And this of course is contributing
    to a problem of epic proportions.
  45. Scientists have recently said
    and predicted that by the year 2050,
  46. there might be more plastic
    in our oceans than fish by volume,
  47. which is absolutely crazy.
  48. And if we think about
    all that plastic churning around,
  49. one of the issues is that particles
    are ending up in our water supply.
  50. Microplastics.
  51. A study that was recently conducted
  52. showed that 94% of tap water
    tested in this country
  53. had microplastics within it.
  54. You're drinking it.
  55. This is not something, in other words,
    that's just out there in our oceans.
  56. This is something
    that's right here inside of us.
  57. And it's something
    that we have to figure out.
  58. How do we end this plastic pollution
    plague that we're confronting?
  59. Well, to answer that, I want to suggest
    that we don't some new technology
  60. or even a new gadget
    to solve this problem.
  61. What we need is a better
    understanding of our past,
  62. a better understanding of history.
  63. And I can think of,
    when I think of plastic containers,
  64. no better history to turn to
    than the history of this company:
  65. The Coca-Cola Company.
  66. A company I spent 10 years or so
    traveling around the world,
  67. to Peru, India, and beyond,
  68. to understand the ecological footprint
    of this firm that started in my hometown.
  69. And I get it.
  70. This is an unusual place to start
  71. when thinking about a solution
    to the plastic problem.
  72. Because I think when we think about Coke,
    we think of the corporate villain.
  73. This plastic, these bottles
    that they're putting out.
  74. Greenpeace, for example,
  75. said that Coca-Cola put out about
    100 billion plastic bottles in a year.
  76. That's about 1/5 of all the plastic
    bottles that are produced on the planet!
  77. So they're part of the problem.
  78. But if we turn to their past,
  79. if we turn to Coke's history,
    buried in the archives,
  80. I think there are solutions
    for the future.
  81. So, let's go back to the past,
  82. and let's visit with this guy,
    John Pemberton,
  83. who was the creator
    of the Coca-Cola formula.
  84. John Pemberton was a pharmacist.
  85. He came to Atlanta in the 1870s
  86. trying to strike it rich
    in this patent medicine market.
  87. But unfortunately, his business
    burned down not once, but twice!
  88. And he went bankrupt
    by the end of the 1870s.
  89. It doesn't sound like the guy
  90. who's going to be the best-selling brand
    in the world, right?
  91. It sounds like somebody
    who's never going to make it.
  92. So what do you do when you're out of luck
    and you want to make a buck?
  93. Well, you look at the world, and you say,
  94. okay, what's a drink
    that's really doing awesome right now,
  95. and I'll try and imitate it.
  96. And that's exactly
    what John Pemberton did.
  97. He saw this drink, Vin Mariani,
    coming out of France.
  98. It was named after a guy
    named Angelo Mariani.
  99. And it was selling like wildfire.
  100. Here's why, it was
    a Bordeaux wine, a red wine,
  101. mixed with the coca leaf
    from South America
  102. that would've infused it
    with small tinctures of cocaine.
  103. So we're talking about, folks,
    cocaine-infused wine.
  104. (Laughter)
  105. It was stimulating,
  106. (Laughter)
  107. and quite exhilarating.
  108. Our president Ulysses S. Grant
    drank this stuff.
  109. "Mmm, makes me feel good."
  110. Of course it does, Ulysses S. Grant,
    it's got cocaine in it.
  111. (Laughter)
  112. And the other thing is,
  113. he's sitting there saying
    this is good stuff.
  114. It was like the Four Loko, really,
    of the 19th century if you think about it.
  115. Even the Pope drank this stuff, okay?
  116. So if you're not Catholic
    out there, imagine this.
  117. If communion had Vin Mariani,
  118. I think we'd all be signing up
    to be Catholic today.
  119. So John Pemberton's out of luck
  120. trying to figure out
    how to make some money,
  121. sees this and says,
    alright, let's go do this.
  122. And folks, this is the precursor
    to what becomes Coca-Cola.
  123. This is the first advertisement
    for it in the 1880s.
  124. It was called
    Pemberton's Wine of Coca.
  125. Not very original, completely
    copying that drink, Vin Mariani.
  126. And it was a red wine
    mixed with the coca leaf.
  127. Yes, it would have had wine in it.
  128. And it would have had
    small quantities of cocaine.
  129. He made it!
  130. Yes, this great drink is selling!
    But, there was a problem.
  131. And the problem was not the cocaine.
  132. The problem was the alcohol
  133. because the city of Atlanta moved
    to ban the sale of alcohol in 1885.
  134. Oh my gosh, he's got this great drink,
    now he's got to give it up!
  135. What's he going do?
  136. You know what he's going to do -
    he creates Coca-Cola.
  137. It is a non-alcoholic version,
  138. a temperance version
    of that earlier wine-based drink.
  139. And it became this great thing
  140. years later.
  141. Now, Pemberton did not put it in bottles.
  142. It was sold just at soda fountains
  143. in little cups like
    the cute cup you see here.
  144. And he would never actually see
    this drink become bottled
  145. or go global because he dies.
  146. It's a sad story.
  147. He finally makes it, and he dies.
  148. And so the person that follows after him
    is Asa Candler, his successor.
  149. And that's the real success of Coke.
  150. Asa Candler's a pharmacist
    who incorporates Coca-Cola in 1892.
  151. And he's going to create this great brand.
  152. Asa Candler, by the way,
  153. was a kind of workaholic, puritanical
    Sunday-school-teacher kind of guy.
  154. I scoured the archives
  155. for the happiest picture
    I could find of Asa Candler.
  156. This is Asa Candler on a good day.
  157. This is Asa Candler smiling.
  158. And the important point here
  159. is that like Pemberton, these guys
    were in the Reconstruction South.
  160. They did not have a lot of money.
  161. They didn't have a lot of money,
  162. so they knew the only way
    they could spread this drink far and wide
  163. is if they partnered with people.
  164. And Asa Candler's brilliant idea
    was to bottle Coke.
  165. In 1899, he makes the decision
    to bottle Coca-Cola.
  166. And that would change not only Coca-Cola,
    it would change the world,
  167. creating one of the biggest
    distribution networks
  168. the world has ever seen,
  169. stretching from Alabama
    all the way to Zimbabwe.
  170. It was an incredible system.
  171. But the only way that it worked
  172. was if small businessmen
    in little towns across the country
  173. and then ultimately the globe
    put forward a little bit of money
  174. to build these bottling plants
    in basements,
  175. in little small buildings
    across the country.
  176. And these were folks, again,
    with not a lot of money.
  177. They cared about everything,
  178. all the costs, the bottles,
    the laborers, the trucks.
  179. They had to think about all that.
  180. When it came to packaging,
  181. they couldn't afford to waste
    their packaging.
  182. They had to reuse it
    over and over again to save on cost.
  183. So they used returnable glass bottles,
  184. returnable glass bottles
    in the early 20th century
  185. so that they would save on cost.
  186. But here's the key.
    How did that returnable system work?
  187. Well, they put a deposit
    on those containers.
  188. A deposit of one to two cents.
  189. And if you, as a consumer,
  190. brought your bottle
    back to your distributor,
  191. you got one to two cents back.
  192. You got paid!
  193. And it was an incredible system!
  194. It worked!
  195. I went through the archives
    to look at this system.
  196. We're talking about
    80% of Coca-Cola bottlers
  197. were using a deposit system in 1929.
  198. The trade journals of the time said
    the only sane and logical,
  199. literally "sane and logical" thing to do
    is to put a price on packaging
  200. if you want it to be returned. Right?
  201. And you've got to understand
  202. this is at a time when
    the drink's selling for five cents.
  203. So you're talking about a two-cent deposit
    on a five-cent drink.
  204. Heck yeah, I'm bringing that thing back!
    I want my two cents back!
  205. Forty percent markup. Incredible.
  206. I have evidence in 1960s
    that shows bottles doing 40, 50 trips
  207. back and forth between their bottler
    and their consumer.
  208. Folks, it worked.
    It worked really, really well.
  209. So what happened?
  210. Well, in the 1960s and 1970s,
  211. Coca-Colas began switching
    to throw-away single-use containers
  212. that we see today.
  213. First steel cans, then aluminum cans,
  214. and then finally
    plastic bottles by the 1970s.
  215. And when they switched to that system,
  216. they said, look,
    this is a new automobile age.
  217. People are on the move.
    People want convenience.
  218. They want to be able to put the packaging
    wherever they want. Right?
  219. We don't need a deposit system
    or a returnable system.
  220. We got rid of those deposits.
  221. And as you might predict,
    trash started piling up everywhere,
  222. national parks, rivers, oceans.
  223. And people said this is a problem.
  224. But Coke, one of the biggest movers
    and shakers in the beverage industry,
  225. said, don't worry,
  226. because there's this new thing
    called recycling,
  227. that was just emerging in the 1970s.
  228. And this is what's going
    to reclaim all this waste.
  229. We don't need a deposit system.
  230. That recycling technology
    can reclaim it all.
  231. It was a huge bet. It was a big gamble.
  232. And they thought it would pay off.
  233. But the thing is we now as historians
    can look back at over four decades of data
  234. to see whether that gamble paid off.
  235. And looking at the late 1990s
  236. when curbside recycling
    was really in full steam here
  237. in the United States,
    coming up to today,
  238. this is the reality of what happened.
  239. Not only did recycling rates not skyrocket
  240. when we started really imposing
    these curbside recycling systems,
  241. for many years it declined.
  242. And in recent years
    we're seeing this kind of stagnation
  243. with this rate around 30%.
  244. This is a system in absolute crisis.
  245. You see that circle? It's not a circle.
  246. So how do we fix it?
  247. Well, we know the answers, right?
  248. We know from history
    that when you put a price on packaging,
  249. when you value that packaging,
    it will be reclaimed.
  250. And we don't have to guess
    whether that system will work today.
  251. We can see it in action.
  252. I'm mentioning Michigan
    at Ohio State thing, I know.
  253. But this is Michigan
    doing a great thing here, okay?
  254. They have got a system
    that has deposits in place.
  255. The citizens of that state and in Maine
  256. have enforced their own deposits via law
  257. to say that you have to
    put a price on a container.
  258. In those states if you go
    and deliver those containers,
  259. you get some money back.
  260. And I just wanted to show you,
    the rates are through the roof -
  261. 80, 90% recycling rates.
  262. And if we go to Denmark or Germany -
  263. I could list a lot of different countries,
  264. whose nations have taken it
    upon themselves to do this system -
  265. we see the recycling rates
    through the roof.
  266. It works.
  267. And we can make it work here
    across this nation.
  268. So Coca-Cola said that by the year 2030,
  269. they're going to reclaim and recycle
    every single container
  270. that they put out into the environment.
  271. This is the pledge
    they have recently made.
  272. They're going to reclaim
    every single container.
  273. There will be a world
    without waste, they say.
  274. And I applaud them for this.
  275. There's a lot of well-meaning
    people in the companies
  276. thinking about these big strategies.
  277. But the problem is, in 2016,
    as recently as 2016,
  278. in a leaked corporate document,
  279. Coca-Cola said that it was going to,
  280. "fight back against deposit systems
    in the European Union."
  281. Folks, we don't have to wait
    for Coke to get woke.
  282. (Laughter)
  283. We, the citizens of this country,
    can make the conscious choice
  284. to end the unconscionable practice
    of not putting a price on packaging,
  285. especially finite resources like plastics.
  286. If we do that,
    if we learn from our history,
  287. then I think we'll make history.
  288. And it will be a history
    that our descendants can be proud of
  289. 450 years from now.
  290. Thank you.
  291. (Applause) (Cheers)