Can I Recycle This with Jennie Romer

June 24, 2021

Jennie Romer, Esq. is a writer, a lawyer, and a sustainability expert, and the author of Can I Recycle This?, an illustrated guide to better recycling and how to reduce single-use plastics, which was released by Penguin Books in April 2021. As a Legal Associate at the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative, Jennie leads policy efforts and litigation efforts to reduce plastic pollution across the United States. Her knowledge is routinely sought by legislators, environmental nonprofits, and businesses across the U.S., and she helped author plastic bag bans in California and New York.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and we’re so excited and honored to have you with us today, Jennie Romer. She has written this great book that I’ve read, ‘Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling’. This book is long overdue. It’s a wonderful book. And of course, you can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other great book stores. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Jennie Romer.

Jennie Romer: Thanks so much for having me.

John: Jennie, before we get talking about your book and the other great work you do at the Surfrider Foundation, I want you to share a little bit of your back story. How did you even get here? Where did you grow up? What were some of the influences that got you to lead such a life of great impact?

Jennie: So I grew up in Northern California, Bay Area, and the City of Richmond, California. But my mom took me to the local recycling center a lot of the time on the weekends, the El Cerrito recycling center. It’s a beautiful place. Now, they’ve upgraded it. There’s a whole reuse center. But I just kind of like hanging out there sitting in the magazine bin and looking for some new magazines, or new used magazines. In college, I went to UC Santa Barbara. I was an Environmental Studies major. So it’s not surprising that I ended up here, but it was a little bit of a roundabout path. After college, I managed a record store for quite a few years in San Francisco called Rasputin Records where we bought and sold used CDs, records, DVDs, and things.

And then, I went to law school. I was studying environmental law and I was in San Francisco at the time that San Francisco adopted a plastic bag ban. I decided to volunteer for the Board of Supervisors, learn more about it, write an article. And then, I kind of became the go-to person for plastic bag laws in part because no one else was at that time. I made a website and became the expert. Now, I’m an attorney at the Surfrider Foundation where I work on plastics policy full-time.

John: Oh, that’s wonderful. When you talk about your mom influencing you and bring you to the recycling center, you were a little girl seven, eight, nine ten years old at that time?

Jennie: Yeah, probably around then we started going. I just liked kind of sorting all of the things and thinking that they were being recycled.

John: Nice. You’re never too young to start really. That influence is a big influence. When you’re young and your mom does something like that, that’s a little bit of a larger-than-life experience and it leaves an indelible mark. Is that sort of the truth?

Jennie: Yes. I also kind of tried to start my own recycling business at my school collecting the bottles and cans from events, and then, selling them. But the principal caught on and they ended up doing it for the school instead. That was great to start a business then.

John: It’s always good to be industrious no matter what age, so that’s good on you. For our listeners and viewers that want to find Jennie and her great colleagues doing the important work at the Surfrider Foundation, you could go to surfrider.org, or you can find Jennie at jennieromer.com. Jennie, you’re at the Surfrider Foundation. You’re doing the play. You’re the plastics’ go-to expert there. What led you to write this wonderful little gem of a book on recycling all different types of products not just plastic?

Jennie: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time researching plastic bags, in particular in plastics and that led me to watch a lot of recycling webinars. Go on a lot of tours of recycling facilities. Go to conferences. In part because the plastics industry kept saying that recycling is the answer that we shouldn’t try to reduce the amount of plastic that we’re using, reduce plastic bags. And so I had to come up with arguments and, you know, evidence to say, “No, we need to reduce the amount of plastic we’re using.” And so that’s what I was doing at all these conferences. But I learned a whole lot along the way and I have a different perspective on how we look at recycling or I think we should look at it. Where I really see it, it’s a commodities market. That all of these municipal recyclers are gathering our recycling, sorting it, and then selling it on this market. And with low-value plastics, there just isn’t a market for it. So if I wrote a book that just said that, I don’t think I get too many people that would want to buy it.

John: Good point.

Jennie: But instead I wrote an illustrated book for adults with beautiful watercolor illustrations that really looks at sixty different items whether they’re recyclable. In my definition of recyclable, that means they have to have someone on the other end that has to buy, want to buy those items.

John: Right, and it’s so true. I just opened up the book here just randomly, but it’s so beautiful in terms of– And I don’t think, even though you say it’s just for adults, I would show this even to my granddaughter. I think this is illustrated so beautifully and done so elegantly. I think this can inspire the next generation even behind us to start getting with the recycling program right now. But I mean, the artwork is beautiful throughout.

Jennie: Yeah, I think it works on a couple of different levels. I think it’s great for kids for the pictures. It’s great for adults who just want to look at the pictures, but it has more levels to that than that. It really gets into if you want to learn a lot about plastic resins and what all those numbers mean. And if you want to learn about policy because I go through all this stuff and one of the big take-homes is that our recycling system isn’t working right now for plastics, particularly, because there’s so much low-value stuff in the market. I also talked about policies at the end on how to fix it.

John: Which is great because– And while we’re going to get to that in a little bit but I what I love about you is like you said, it’s not only taking action. Not only take action and do things yourself but effectuating policy change. You got to understand it first before you can go to your local elected officials, public servants, and tell them your point of view, and ask them to consider that as well. So I think your book works on so many levels. Let’s go back to what you said. First, give us some surprising facts that you learned along the way in your journey about recycling, number one. And I’m going to ask some specific questions about like you said, low-value plastic, and other things as well.

Jennie: Sure. I mean, one big thing is that only nine percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled. And so, that’s a real shocker to a lot of people because we’ve really been taught to feel good about recycling. If we put something in our bin, we get kind of a warm fuzzy feeling. But that isn’t by accident, the plastics industry spends a ton of money on marketing to make us feel that way so we don’t want to do anything different. There are about eleven million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. So that’s another major [inaudible]. At Surfrider, I work on plastic reduction policy and I do it from a lens of ocean protection. At the the Surfrider Foundation, we’re protecting the ocean and a large part of that is protecting the ocean from plastics because there’s so much of it out there right now.

John: It’s so interesting, Jennie, going back and this is part of plastics but it’s more of a bottle thing. I’m still shocked that in 2021, and you tell me if I’ve got this right or wrong, is only eleven states in this great country that have bottle bills or some form of legislation around bottle recycling.

Jennie: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I believe it’s ten states plus Guam at the moment. So that’s something where in the deposit system, we’ve seen really does a great job of getting those bottles and cans back into the system. So you pay a deposit. You get the deposit back when you turn in your bottle or can and that’s really the best way to make sure that we’re getting those back. And those tend to be much higher value materials that are actually recycled into something else. But I’d also like to see some refill systems. So right now, we’re just recycling those, and that saves some greenhouse gases. Save some extraction of new materials but if we can get into a refill or reuse system like they have in Germany or there’s a pilot program in Oregon, then we really see a much more effective system to really refill and avoid all those other emissions.

John: When you mention the terminology ‘low-value plastic’, can you explain to our listeners and our viewers, and for those of you who just turned in, we’re so honored to have with us today, Jennie Romer. She’s written this great new book, ‘Can I recycle this?’ You can buy it, of course, Barnes & Noble, great book stores around the nation, and of course, on amazon.com. And she’s also in charge of plastics and plastics recycling at the Surfrider Foundation. You can find her at the Surfrider Foundation at surfrider.org. Jennie, low-value plastic as opposed to what would you consider high-value plastic, and what’s the differentiating terminology and substance behind those terms?

Jennie: Yeah, so my book gets pretty deep into the details. But just to kind of an overview is there are little numbers inside of the chasing arrow symbol at the bottom of most plastic containers. So most people see that and think, “Oh, that’s recyclable.” Throw it in their bin and don’t really think about it. But those numbers represent a type of plastic that something is made out of. So it’s a resin code. Resin code for number one, and number two. Those are the higher value, generally. But the highest values are bottles and jugs. So something like a milk jug or water bottle. Those have the highest value in the commodities market. Companies want to buy them and turn them into something else.

I did some research. There’s a nice little graph in the book about the commodities market. So milk jugs at HDPE number two resin, those are the hottest and are the most expensive plastics on the market right now. It’s about a thousand dollars a ton, but the stuff like the other numbers, number three through six, particularly, the higher like number six, nobody really wants to buy and to turn into something else. Those, even if you put them in your bin, they’re probably going to get sent to a landfill or incinerated.

Things like the party cup like those ones of those red cups, you might buy it for a party, nobody’s going to want to buy them. We don’t have any domestic processing in the US for them. And those are worth about negative seventeen dollars on the commodities market. Meaning, you have to pay somebody to haul them away. So one of the take-homes is that all plastic isn’t equal. There’s some plastic that there is a market for and that is very likely to get recycled into something else. But there’s a whole lot of it that really no one wants to buy. And so, we’re kind of being fooled into continuing to use this and feeling good about putting in our recycling bin.

John: So contamination also besides the substance that makes up the plastics, isn’t contamination a big deal? Like when I speak to my friends at Alcoa, they explained to me I learned through their the lens of their thinking, how a can of soda or beer once washed is a wonderfully, recyclable, aluminum can. But why aluminum foil, which is typically contaminated with food and other types of products is, typically, not that recyclable. Is this the same hole for Plastics, as well?

Jennie: Yeah. Contamination is a big problem. So make sure that you’re washing out, whatever you’re using it before you put it in your bin. I will say too that when I say that we’re being fooled about putting all this low value stuff in our bins. My number one take-home is to follow your local jurisdiction’s guidelines. They’ve put a lot of thought into what they want to accept and don’t want to accept. So some jurisdictions might say just, “Give me all of your rigid plastics.” So give us everything. A lot of them don’t want or ninety-seven percent of them don’t want the plastic bags because those that will get caught in the machinery, but all the rigid plastic. Some of them will take, they’ll sort out what’s good. And, you know, let them do that. Other jurisdictions will just say, “Give me the high-value stuff.” So they’ll specifically say, “Only give us number one, and number two bottles and jugs,” because they know that there’s a market for it. They don’t want to do all that sorting and figure all that out.

So number one take-home, follow the local jurisdiction guidelines, clean out your containers, and if you’re following those guidelines and they don’t want certain stuff that saves you some energy because a lot of people will spend so much time cleaning out their recyclables and maybe there’s stuff that their jurisdiction doesn’t want anyway. So those are the two big things.

John: Jennie, you’ve lived on both coasts, obviously grew up in California. You live in New York now. What’s coming? I mean, you’re a young woman. You have a long– You’ve done so much already, but you have a lot of runway in front of you to accomplish so much more. It seems as though as opposed to great folks like your mom who were recycling years ago before was ever cool to recycle that the world is sort of caught up with that kind of mentality, that ESG, the move, the shift from linear to circular economy is truly here and here to stay. Not only in Europe anymore. Not only in South Korea and Japan and other wonderful Asian countries that are geographically challenged, just like most of Europe is. But America, the United States, North America, Canada are finally catching on to that. This is an imperative issue. Where we going to go from here in terms of recycling and then plastic such as legislation from how you see it in terms of federal and also state by state?

Jennie: At first, I think we need to be careful about greenwashing. So I think so many people and companies really see recycling is something that is popular and then they want to push for. But there are a lot of companies who want to maintain their status quo or not really change but just kind of put a recycled bin and recyclable claim on something. So I want to see more regulation of what recycling means, recyclable means. The Plastic industry is pushing for things that a lot of different policies including what they call chemical recycling which is essentially just kind of plastic to fuel technology like creating a made [inaudible] of fuel out of plastic and then burning it. That’s not what most people think of when they think of recycling. So, I’ve been working to make sure that state laws aren’t changed to allow for that.

One big push is made is the break free from plastic pollution act at the federal level. I’ve been working on local plastic policies forever for over ten years. Those are bag laws, foam food were banned, straws upon request policies. I just made a map at Surfrider Foundation. We just released a map a couple of months ago of a thousand local laws that have been adopted in the US. There’s a cool interactive map but now we’re moving beyond those individual items and really talking about wider policy. So, all that other stuff that we see on grocery store shelves, having further regulation of that. So, having manufacturers pay for the recycling, the disposal, and the cleanup of the other packaging. Because right now, there’s really no incentive for a manufacturer to use a material that’s really recyclable, that’s made of recycled content that is using less packaging because they really want to leave their hands. They’re not responsible for it at all. So I see that shift coming and we’re talking about it at the state level as well. It’s called extended producer responsibility for packaging. We already have it for things like E-Waste and for carpet, batteries. And so it’s something that we’re talking about for packaging that as well.

John: Let’s talked about– So you focus on governmental legislation in the legalities behind it. Let’s also talk about business coming in and transcending legislation. So for instance, recently in the last two weeks or so, we’ve seen BlackRock come out and say, “Listen, all our portfolio companies are now going to have to every year own up to us, an answer up to us as to their ESG behavior. And we’re going to reward our leadership teams at these companies based upon some sort of scoring value on how they are performing on ESG metrics.” Similarly, the SEC has come out and said, “They’re now going to make publicly traded companies report it up on ESG issues.” Now, once those two types of organizations, huge massively success of iconic brands come out and say that it’s hard for me to believe that other private equities and financial institutions are not going to also mandate that both on privately traded companies and privately-owned companies and publicly traded companies. So how will that interact with the legislation that you’re highly involved with, and that train that’s coming as well?

Jennie: Yeah, and I think that’s a great trend. At Surfrider, I don’t work with on the corporate side, really, but I work with other organizations that really keep tabs on it or much more interactive with those initiatives. But I do see that packaged goods companies are coming to the table more than they were before. I think to talk about policy, to talk about extended producer responsibility because I think they do have more internal pressures happening and some of them already have programs happening internally. And so, when that happens, then they’re more likely to come to the table and talk about policy rather than just having the got reaction of fighting everything. I think that’s really helpful and I think we’ll see a lot more of that going forward or at least fingers crossed that we will. So yeah, there’s been so much has happened in the last year as far as talking with these bigger brands about plastics policy. It’s moving quickly.

John: If you’ve just joined us today, we’ve got Jennie Romer. She’s the author of this great book, ‘Can I recycle this?’ A guide to better recycling. You can find it on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, other great book stores. Also, you can find Jennie at jennieromer.com., or at surfrider.org. Jennie, talk a little bit about machinery and technology. There are so many great brains innovative people. We’re an innovative nation besides these innovations coming out of China, India, all over Europe. This is the innovation period in history. Why can’t there be technology that’s created to responsibly recycle these plastic materials before they tragically end up in our oceans and our waterways and stuff like that? What’s the hitch? What’s their hurdles that we need to still yet cross? Because as you and I both know, recycling is a domestic deal. It should be done with anywhere from a three to the five-hundred-mile radius from where those materials are used so we don’t have to also destroy the carbon footprint of the reverse logistics and getting them to some sort of responsible recycling center. Why can’t we create technology on this planet to keep our oceans and our waterways cleaner and recycle these plastics that are so ubiquitous in our lives?

Jennie: I have faith that we can and make this happen. And I think one big thing like I said, is that manufacturers aren’t responsible for the end of life of this packaging of this material and so there isn’t that motivation to really create that circular system right now. And so, we know that some plastics are a whole lot more recyclable than others. We do have some MRFs there, Municipal Recycling Facilities but the industry calls them MRF’s. But there’s an MRF’s of the future that really sorts out everything. And I have an illustration of the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City that has all the cool gadgets like cameras that can sort plastic depending on the resin type and they use all kinds of electric currents, and magnets and to do this sorting. But the problem is that once you do all of that, where does it go? And so, if we do start using of the higher value stuff and we start making or doing more recycling domestically, I think we can see a lot more jobs and see a lot less of the lower value stuff in circulation. A lot less going to landfill, a lot less going into the ocean because it would be actually worth something.

And then, but I also want to see more innovation for refill and reuse. So being able to go to store and buy refillable beer bottles, be able to return them for a deposit, and then they go to a local beer or– I say beer but it could be other stuff on your local bottler to wash and refill them and put them back to the stores. And so, that takes more innovation. To do it for not just beer, but for stuff like shampoo or having dispensers at stores for things like household cleaning products and dog food. So that every time you buy something, you’re not getting all of the packagings automatically with it.

I also want to see policies that really incentivize companies to create those systems. Right now, it’s just a one-way system but that’s not going to happen unless we have more carrots and sticks with encouraging.

John: So true. You know, I always want to leave our listeners and viewers with action steps. So, Jennie, if you were to talk about your book here, what do you want our viewers or listeners to be the takeaway? If they buy your book and they read it, what’s the takeaway that you really want them to go with and how do we all live– No one has to live a perfect life, you and I know that, but how do we live a more zero-waste lifestyle in our homes and our offices today?

Jennie: Sure. Yeah. My book doesn’t– We don’t expect you to be perfect for sure, but they have you think a little bit more about different products that you’re using. So one big take-home is reducing the single-use plastic. You could do that by a lot of BYO behaviors or bring your own bag, cup, even utensils, and straws if you think you’re going to be offered plastic somewhere or if you’re getting takeout or delivery. And then be a good recycler and pay attention to what your jurisdiction wants. Only give them that. Make sure it’s clean. And then also, those are the personal steps but also, the policy steps. So also reaching out to your legislator and saying, “Hey, I care about this stuff,” because the legislators care what their constituents think and a lot of the time they’re hearing from lobbyists. So hearing from their constituents is great as well.

John: It’s just so wonderful. Jennie, I just want to say, you’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast. For our listeners or viewers, again, I would buy this book. I’ve read this book. It’s a great book. ‘Can I recycle this? A guide to better recycling’. We can all be better recyclers. We could all be like Jennie and make the world a better place. Jennie Romer, we could find you at jennieromer.com or at surfrider.org.

Thank you for making such a huge impact on this planet and making the world a better place. We thank you for all that you do for all of us on our behalf. Continued success and good luck and sell a lot of these books.

Jennie: I’m trying. Thanks a lot.

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