‘The real question for humanity is, can we rise above our basic animalistic desires to consume?’

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The right side of this image is a black-and-white headshot photo of Tom Szaky; the left side reads "PAWCAST: TerraCycle's Tom Szaky ’05 on Outsmarting Waste."
Photo by Molly Gallagher/TerraCycle

Tom Szaky ’05 brings an unusual perspective to the recycling industry: He was born behind the Iron Curtain and has seen the stark contrast between the goods bought and garbage produced by people in communist Budapest and the West. The company he started as a Princeton undergrad, TerraCycle, has many initiatives for recycling and reusing waste, but he says the world’s overwhelming garbage problem can’t be solved without addressing the elephant in the room: runaway consumption. 



Liz Daugherty: Tom Szaky ’05 says everything we own eventually comes to the end of its lifespan, whether it’s a shirt you’ve worn for years or the cup from a coffee you bought this morning. Where does it all go? How much actually gets recycled? And with evidence mounting that all this waste is damaging our world, how can we throw on the brakes? Over the 20 years since he was a Princeton undergrad, Szaky has become an entrepreneur in the recycling world with his Trenton-based company TerraCycle [5], and a vocal advocate urging us to do better. He’s written multiple books, including Outsmart Waste [6]The Future of Packaging [7], and Make Garbage Great [8], and on the PAWcast he talked about whether we can get a grip on our out-of-control consumption before the waste we produce consumes us.

[6]LD: I’d like to start with a little bit about you. I’ve been reading your book Outsmart Waste and I noticed you were born in communist Budapest. Would you mind telling me about how you came to the United States?

Tom Szaky: Yeah, absolutely. So I was born in the early ’80s, in ’82 in Budapest and yeah, at the time, it was still under the Iron Curtain, so it’s communist. In ’86, Chernobyl happens, so I was 4 at the time and that was quite nearby and the borders, sort of, destabilized for a few days. So my parents, as effectively political refugees, left with me in tow. And as you know, we then hopped around Germany, Belgium, Holland, effectively trying to gain status somewhere or seek asylum, then finally landed in Canada when I was 7. And so, Canada was wonderful, brought us in. I grew up there and then came to college down to New Jersey and that’s how I ended up in the United States and actually have since —lived there ever since. So the U.S. is now where I’ve lived the longest in my life. 

LD: Nice, and I noticed in your bio, it talks about the difference that you found between the Communist culture over here, and United States capitalism in terms of waste, which I thought was really interesting. I think a lot of people in our audience have probably never lived in a lot of these places, haven’t experienced what you’ve seen. Can you talk a little about that contrast?

TS: Yeah, it was so fascinating. I mean, there’s the obvious contrast, right? Just between the socialism or communism and capitalism. By the way, I fell in love with entrepreneurship and everything to do with the American dream. I think it’s incredible, the idea that with merit and work, you can really make anything of yourself you wish. 

But from a waste point of view, when you live in poverty, you really treasure things. And so, for example, at the end of — my grandma was cooking or something, all the oil and everything from the pan would go into a little yogurt pot, into the fridge, and that became sort of the butter for the next day. Or, I didn’t even get a television set. You have to apply for one in Hungary and it was a whole process on even if you would get a TV and if you got one, it would be two channels in black and white if you were lucky. I remember actually the first TV that I ever owned was one that we found in the dumpster in Toronto. Because people would throw them out when they get new ones, and we plugged it in and it was color and worked and it was — these things, sort of blew my mind and it really highlights that having so much garbage is, in a way, a luxury. Because it’s a representation of how much we buy and how we can have disposable things. 

LD: It seems like that was a part of your thinking as you started developing TerraCycle. Just — I’m looking at your background, people who are listening to this aren’t going to see it, but I can tell you that the walls around Tom’s office are made out of plastic soda bottles. So I get — we get this idea that it’s not just trash, that this is something valuable that you can actually do something with it. 

TS: Well, this has been my fascination with the entire waste industry because waste is a massive idea. I mean, everything we possess — and we live in a materialistic world where we in no small part measure our status in society with how much stuff we have. But isn’t it wild that everything we possess will one day be legal property of a garbage company? And truly, with, no exception. Everything, I mean, absolutely everything. Ninety-nine percent of what we buy will be property of a garbage company within the year of purchase. And 1 percent will move to sometime after that. 

And for how big of a concept that is, it’s also wild that waste is the least innovative industry per dollar of revenue. It’s not taught in university. I don’t think Princeton has a class on garbage, but it has classes on esoteric everything, but not garbage. Yet that is this huge immense thing. And I think it’s because we are repulsed by the topic, right? If you think about our personal waste, like what we put in a toilet, the toilet’s function is to get that away from us as fast as humanly possible. I mean, we are repulsed with everything to do with the waste. And as such, it’s the immense thing, that everyone’s turned their back on.

And from an entrepreneurship-innovation point of view, that’s really exciting because there’s so many unique anomalies and so many ways to elevate and eliminate waste. And that’s been what we’ve now dedicated 20 years to and will likely dedicate the rest of my life to is thinking through these questions and using the tool of entrepreneurship to bring some level of solution.

LD: So you started the TerraCycle while you were at Princeton. You were a freshman — most freshmen don’t begin companies. Where did you get the idea from and how has the company evolved over, what are we looking at, 20 years?

TS: That’s right, yeah. Well, to be honest, this was mind you 20 years ago, so pot wasn’t as friendly, let’s say, from a legal point of view. And I came from Canada and my friends and I had started trying to grow some plants in our basement in senior year of high school. And instead, of course, I had no desire to bring them down to New Jersey, especially not even being American, so my friends took them over to Montreal. 

And I remember this fall break, freshman year, they call me and say the plants we were struggling to grow are doing really well. So I got in the car, drove up with a couple of my roommates, and they were doing very well. And I asked them, what did they finally do? They were taking organic waste, just kitchen scraps, feeding it to worms, taking the worm poop and feeding it to the plants. If you’re a gardener, I’ve not told you anything surprising here, but to freshmen and college [students] who were struggling gardening, it was a big breakthrough. 

But to me, the exciting part wasn’t just that the plants were growing well and happy, it was this — it opened up this concept of waste. And I remember I was taking intro to economics that particular semester and we were drawing supply and demand curves all day. And I was thinking, where would you draw the supply and demand of garbage? Because all supply and demand curves intersect in the positive quadrant. There’s a price, right? And it fluctuates depending on supply and demand effects. But garbage, you can’t draw on that quadrant because it has huge supply, but in fact, negative demand, right? People are willing to pay to get rid of it. And that’s what had lit the light bulb to say, wow, there’s this really interesting economic anomaly, where you can get paid for your inputs and get paid for your output. 

So, I came back to college, started sort of doing a lot of desk research and turned out no one had created a worm poop enterprise at any scale. Got some worms and we were taking the dining hall scraps and vermicomposting them in our dorm room, which one of my roommates really did not enjoy. (laughs) And that’s how it all began and it’s just started getting more and more weight on it, more and more time. And that summer, the University was kind enough to give us, out of one of the cafeterias, all of the scraps that were coming. So that was the summer, shoveling this sort of rotting food waste out of one of the dining halls. And we got a — sort of, a plot of land that the University gave us near the, I think it was sort of, near Route 1, if you will, where we built a big worm poop system and proved out that we could take organic waste and start feeding it to worms. And actually, that was TerraCycle’s incredibly humble beginnings.

LD: And you guys have grown into doing a lot of different things now. You want to tell us a little about what you guys do at the moment?

TS: Yeah, absolutely. So now 20 years later, we operate nationally in 20 countries as a mission-driven for-profit and then one country, Thailand, is a non-profit organization, a U.S. public charity. And we don’t do the worm poop anymore. That was really the beginning part of our business. But today, we have a number of divisions, all focused around how do we eliminate and elevate the idea of waste. 

And so, the first division, which TerraCycle is most known for, asked the question, “Is that object, which could be a package, or a product, is it recyclable?” And by the way, what makes something recyclable is not what folks normally think. It’s entirely about: Can a garbage company make money? Because garbage companies are not legally obliged to recycle anything that’s in the recycling bin. So they’re just going to choose to recycle what is profitable for them to do so, like an aluminum can. And everything else is not recycled, not because it can’t be, but simply because it costs more to collect and process than the results are worth, so no one bothers, like a toothbrush or a diaper and cigarette butt. 

So we set up national programs to — funded by brands, retailers, and other stakeholders to be able to collect and recycle these very-difficult-to-recycle waste streams. We also have a division focused on helping companies make their products from waste, integrating recycled content into their manufacturing processes, from Unilever, Procter & Gamble products — made from unique waste streams that we collect. 

A few years ago, we launched our third division called Loop, which is a global platform for reuse where consumer product companies can enter, and 200 already have, where they develop reusable versions of their products from Tide laundry detergent to Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and so on. And then retailers, like here in the U.S., Kroger, Walmart and others, put them in their stores where you can then buy them, pay a little deposit on the package and instead of disposing it at the end, you just return it, get your money back, and we clean it, and it gets refilled, and off it goes to the next consumer. 

And we even do a lot of innovation around waste. To give you an example of how far innovation goes, out of our incubator we’re launching later this year, our diagnostic division, which has the thesis that certain waste streams carry pure diagnosable samples. For example, our air-conditioned filters filter out the crud in our air. Wouldn’t it be interesting to send that in after you replaced it with a new filter and find out what type of mold and mildew you have floating around in your air? Or, your child’s diaper carries a fecal sample. Well, there’s a lot of really good information in that and in fact, later this year, we’re launching a service with a big diaper brand where you’ll be able to buy little box, put one soiled diaper from your child into it and we analyze the microbiome in the fecal sample. And you get back a whole wellness report about your child’s health, and diet and all this stuff that’s ascertained from the microbiome that’s in the poop.

LD: You guys are coming up with a lot of really interesting solutions. I think the problem of waste and garbage feels huge when you think about the plastic in the ocean the size of Texas, and just the sheer volume out there. How do we find solutions on that scale? What’s the answer? What do you think?

TS: Yeah, gosh. It’s — you’re absolutely right. It is a ginormous and growing problem. It’s not even trending in the right direction. We are consuming more and more. More and more folks are entering the middle classes all over the world and consuming fierce quantities. And the garbage crisis is only growing, and recycling is stagnating. Primarily traditional recycling, because it only recycles what it can make money at, stagnates due to the macroeconomic climate that’s out there, whether it’s oil prices — [which] have been historically low, right now it’s turbulent, but historically they’ve been generally quite low — or the ability to move waste around with China banning the importation of waste and so on and so forth. So, certainly we need to think about innovating and coming up with new business models and ways to address this, which is TerraCycle’s entire domain. 

But I want to address the white elephant in the room, which is, I don’t think that we can solve the waste crisis unilaterally by having business be more better, more circular, more reusable, whatever it may be. I think those are important to make it slightly better, but the white elephant in the room is, we as individuals, really need to have a meditation on reducing our consumption. We buy way too much stuff. And I think this is actually the center point of the entire environmental issue we live in. I mean, we’re talking waste today. But if you think about the environmental trauma we’re living through, whether you care about global warming or air quality, water quality, waste, species diversity, you name it. All these really, really important issues that are trending very poorly, very quickly. First, they’re incredibly complicated. They’re incredibly large and it feels like it’s very difficult to even bring some level of solution to one, let alone all these different vectors. But there is one center point that ties it all together where we are consistently voting for all this to occur, and that’s with the act of buying. 

And today, a human being, an average human being, buys 10 times more stuff than our grandparents did. Just imagine if we walked into our grandparents when they were young folks, how many socks did they have in their drawers? How big were their homes? And any vector you look at, how big was it in — it’s today, almost an order of magnitude bigger. And I don’t think — doesn’t matter how organic, vegan, recyclable, reusable the object becomes, the volume is too high and that really is the — something that we have to address. And it’s very difficult because in the context of business, no one likes to talk about volume down because that’s almost like degrowth. But that is really, really important to give that topic some oxygen and to think about.

LD: It’s hard to picture Americans actively trying to lead a more minimalist lifestyle, when for so long we’ve been going in the opposite direction. We’re told, buy to help the economy, buy to help your country. It’s very counterintuitive to what we’re used to.

TS: It is and I think — look, we’re going to have to — there’s no choice. We are today, consuming more than the Earth can replenish. That actually started in the early ’70s. We went into debt on what the Earth can replenish. And we’re going to have to address this, either by choice or by force. If we do it by choice, maybe the destruction that we are creating can be lessened and we can get there through choosing to. But if we don’t, it’ll be forced upon us through environmental disasters and so on that will move prices upward and things will just get significantly more expensive, and that will create the same outcome. But that is going to be a painful version. Painful for us, but especially painful for all of our other compatriots on this planet, the plants and animals that don’t really have a choice in our decisions.

LD: You mentioned China’s decision to stop taking our recycling, which seems to me to be a real game changer. I’m not sure how much was actually being recycled over there anyway. But I always wonder, I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there about regular recycling. I was taught when I was a kid in school, and I think that they’re actually still doing this where they say, take this bottle and put it in recycling and it will become a new bottle. And it’s just not that simple. The vast majority of it is being thrown away. Can you tell me a little bit about what is actually happening with our recycling? And what can individuals do? I think reducing our consumption is obviously the biggest thing, but when we have to throw something away, how can we make it not end up just in a landfill?

TS: Absolutely. So, first, let’s look at how does the recycling industry work, right? And the biggest challenge is the way the system is set, in the sense that if you’re a manufacturer, you can produce any product or package you want, and you never have to ask at all, of the managers who will deal with that when it’s at its end of its life, the garbage companies, whether that should exist or not. And that may seem like an odd statement, but if you produce a pharmaceutical, you have to get permission from the FDA on whether it should exist or not, all right? But there is no need to ever check. So all these new innovations get produced all the time. 

On the other side, the garbage companies are not legally responsible to recycle anything, right? So if you put something in your blue bin, the company that picks that up has no legal responsibility to recycle anything in there. And that creates an open system, where then the only motivating factor is going to be profitability. So companies, when they produce to increase profitability, what is the biggest mega trend in package design? It’s lightweighting. It is cheapening. It is reducing cost. Now you could argue that is also in many cases, less material use, and that’s a virtue certainly. And lower cost is a virtue to democratized products. 

But if you look at say, a beverage, like you mentioned a soda bottle, beverages in the U.S. used to be refillable glass. We filled at over 90 percent, you know, back in our grandparents’ days. Then they went to aluminum cans which are recycled at a healthy percentage because they’re very profitable to recycle. Then PET bottles, that plastic bottle, that’s recycled at about 25 percent because it’s less profitable to recycle; then cartons, which are recycled at 10 percent. And everything is trending almost to a flexible pouch, which is recycled at zero percent. Other than specialty services like TerraCycle, but in municipal systems at zero percent, because it costs more to collect and process than the results are worth. And this is the big thing to realize: I think consumers generally, and we see these in studies, believe what we put in our recycling bin is what can be recycled. Industry will go a step further and say what makes something recyclable is the technical ability to recycle it, like is there a scientific solution or process? And is there available infrastructure? But the reality is that those both miss the mark. 

What makes something recyclable is one thing only: Can that garbage company make money? It would be similar to, if like you and I were walking on the street and we noticed someone left the pile of gold on the sidewalk, we would bother bending over, collecting it, and finding a market for it, selling it at a pawn shop. But if we were walking on the sidewalk and saw a pile of poop on the sidewalk, we would at best pay someone to get rid of it. But we would definitely not want to pick it up and deal with it. And this is the big challenge overall. 

Now, as we think about what are the macro factors that make a waste stream profitable for a garbage company to recycle, the obvious is the value of the material. And that’s influenced by macroeconomic forces, which is why, for example, high oil prices make more things recyclable because most things are made from plastic, which is oil. But there’s also end markets, and this is where China comes in. China, before they banned importation, used to take about 40 percent of the plastic from the United States. Basically everything except number one plastic, PET, which makes the soda bottle, or number two plastic, HDPE, which makes a milk jug. Everything else was exported to China. Now, Chinese companies were buying this material and paying for it to be shipped. So, it wasn’t like people were just dumping, you had to pay a lot of money to get it there and people were purchasing. 

And what would happen, though, is a Chinese manufacturer would maybe buy a container of this waste, pay for it to move, so that was a — they were purchasing it but then they would look at it and maybe only use 70 percent of it, the stuff they liked. And 30 percent, they would illegally dump and pollute China and that is the entire reason that the importation ban was put into place. And that’s a good thing. It certainly is. But if you’re a recycler in Pittsburgh, you lost 40 percent of your end markets overnight. And many went bankrupt as a result because recycling is a very sensitive business from a profitability point of view. It’s not that profitable and so these things really create meaningful effect. 

So you asked, “What can we do?” Certainly, we have to reduce consumption as we already said. Then we should think about buying products. Remember, we vote for the future we want, constantly with what we buy and also, what we don’t buy. I would argue the act of commerce is a more fiercely democratic institution than the political version of democracy, right? I mean, look, in politics as an American, we get to vote on A or B, right? You know, once every four years and folks like myself who are not a citizen, I don’t even get the opportunity to vote, or if I was incarcerated, I wouldn’t have the chance to vote. There’s many — if I’m not of a certain age, I don’t have the chance to vote. There’s many things preventing me for even taking part in that opportunity that happens once every four years. 

But we vote for the future we want with what we buy daily. And you can be five years old. You could be visiting the country. You get to vote. And in the end, what you buy, more will appear tomorrow and what you don’t buy, less will appear. So we have to take that vote very seriously because I think we’re doing it mostly blindly. And that would be like voting in the political election blindly. That would be frowned upon. And so we have to vote for things ideally that have no package, right? When we go to a supermarket, buy fresh fruits and vegetables and don’t even put them in those plastic bags, right? Try to avoid packaged foods and packaged beverages and all these things. Then if we are going to buy packaged goods, then let’s look at things that are reusable. And if then, let’s look at things that are recyclable, municipally recyclable. And then look at things that are maybe recyclable through specialty systems, like what we do, and try to avoid things that don’t fall into any of those categories, so that you vote them out of existence with the act of not buying them.

LD: Can you give me a couple of — I would love a couple of very tangible “buy this, don’t buy this,” just for those of us who would love to be able to start making a difference immediately. Do we want to do more cans? Less plastic?

TS: Yes, absolutely. So, first and foremost, buy things without packaging. That fresh potato, apple, banana, and I think you’ll probably also have a very healthy experience enjoying those fruits and vegetables. Then in the world of packaged goods, which gets a little bit more challenging: What do recyclers want is what is very profitable to them. So cans, aluminum cans, cat food tins. Those are things recyclers really like seeing. So feed the waste stream what is profitable for recyclers. That’s a really good thing. 

If you are looking at plastics, recyclers only want — this is municipal recyclers — plastics that are over a certain size. So it has to be about three-by-three inches cubed or higher, or bigger. Anything smaller will not be sorted no matter what it’s made from. So you want to — the object size is very important. And typically clear PET, which is the beverage container. The moment there’s pigment in it, like green, you know, some beverages have a green pigment, that, many times, is not sorted and recycled. So clear PET or light-colored, ideally white HDPE, like a milk jug. And again, when you add color, it’s a contaminant to profitability, right? It’s like mixing paint, right? When you have a kid and you give him all the nice paints, it all turns into brown one day but no one wants the brown, right? And you can’t decolor that. You can’t take it apart again and make it into all these bright colors. 

In the world of papers, fibers, uncoated papers are what recyclers want. Newspaper and so on. They don’t want coated paper like a coffee cup or a frozen food package. Cartons are just at the edge. Again, only about 60 percent of Americans have access to carton recycling and only 10 percent of cartons are recycled. In glass, glass feels very recyclable, but the economics are very poor on it because it’s heavy and difficult to find end markets for. But there are clear glass, significantly better than brown or green. 

And I’d say in general, those are the material types if you want to be voting for local recyclability, but check with your local recycler because every county is different. Unfortunately, every zip code may have different garbage companies running these recycling systems and they may have different things that they’re focused on and different economics. Then, if those don’t exist, some companies do do their own recycling programs. This is what TerraCycle does a lot of and runs a lot of, so you can look for those as well. 

And then try to avoid other things. And I’ll give you a good example of one of this because — take compostable packaging, right? Compostable packaging, consumers rate really well, they love it. They’re always applauding when a brand does a compostable package. But, and this is an important but, and by the way, no one’s lying, right? A compostable package, typically will do exactly what it says. It’ll compost in an industrial compost pile and so on and so forth. And this is — so, the key difference between can something happen and will something happen, the — when you ask composters, do they want the compostable packaging, they almost unanimously say absolutely not. And this is why, for example, Tesco, the leading retailer in the UK, banned compostable packaging from its shelves a few years ago. They’re no longer willing to sell it because — this is the key thing we have to ask in what happens to a product. It’s not what could happen, but what will happen. And what will happen is entirely decided by the composter or the recycler. Now just think about how many “could you” questions could I ask you right now that you would say yes to and how many of those, if they were quite provocative, would you say yes to.

LD: I think that those compostable plastics need to be put into some kind of a high-heat situation. You can’t just take that fork and throw it in with your banana peels, am I right?

TS: There’s many forms of compostable polymers out there. There’s a huge science and exciting innovation within it. There is home compostable, where you should be able to put it into your home compost bin. Now, that should still be an active compost bin, which means heat and you’ve taken care of it. There’s industrially compostable where over 90 days, it’ll compost in a professional composting environment. So there’s different versions of compostable packaging, but the key is, why do composters not want it, right? Only a small percent of Americans compost at home. And typically, when you survey those composters who compost at home, they don’t want to put in their compost pile a lot of compostable packaging. They want to put the banana peels, the coffee grounds and so on. That’s typically what home composters say. 

So then you’re left with the industrial composters. First thing to note, only 4 percent of Americans have access to curbside industrial composting. Like in San Francisco, people do. But in most cities, they do not. Only 4 percent access. And why do composters not like compostable packaging is — imagine if you’re a composter from their point of view and you’re a for-profit enterprise, and you’re getting all this sloppy, wet, food waste and yard trimmings. It’s a pretty — it’s not a dry, easy-to-separate input. It’s rotting food waste basically and such. And consumers today are putting plastics into them. Now, it’s very difficult as a composter for you to tell if that fork is a petrochemical fork, or a industrially compostable fork, or a home compostable fork. And people leave this contaminant in there and so they sort it all out and destroy it. If they — because they can’t tell the difference, and it would be a very expensive process for them to take all this plastic and figure out which one is compostable and which one isn’t. And even if they were to invest that tremendous amount of money to do so, the compostable packaging produces no extra value in their output. It doesn’t — it just becomes benign organic material. So it doesn’t allow them to make any more money. It’s not like they would be separating out gold or aluminum or something of value. And this is the key thing that really underlines what can happen, theoretically, versus what will happen practically.

LD: Is there anything else that you wanted to add or anything else that you’d like to talk about? Anything we haven’t covered that you think people should know?

TS: I think you asked earlier about what should we think about. And of course, the major, major thing we need to really think about and meditate on: I think it’s going to be a cultural shift. Not when driven by business, but driven culturally by us as individuals. And then a cultural movement is this idea of a reflection on buying so much stuff. Do we really get happiness from buying so much? Could we get that happiness from doing other interactions that mind you, still fuel the economy, like going to enjoy events and our friends and so on versus just getting happiness through accumulation of things. 

But within that, and we can’t buy zero, what should we think about first? And we talked about things, like what makes things locally recyclable and so on, but the first thing to really think about is — and the most important for the environment — is thinking about what can happen to that object at the end of its life. Everything hits an end-of-life one day. And the vast majority of what we buy hits an end-of-life incredibly quickly. If we go to get a coffee at a coffee shop, that coffee cup will hit an end-of-life within 30 minutes of us buying it, right? And so the first thing we should always think about is: Is there a good end-of-life solution on whatever we’re buying? And buy the things that have a good end-of-life solution and don’t buy the things that don’t. That’s by far the most important. 

A big second to that is, what is it made from? Now I want to highlight what it’s made from is not as important as what happens at its end-of-life because it’s in a second position. So if that object is made from recycled material or biomaterials or whatever it would be, that’s really important, but second to what is the end-of-life of that product. And I know in many times, folks may not know which one to put as more important. Is the object recyclable? Or reusable? Or is it made from recycled content and reused content? And I think, here, it’s just very clear that one is more important than the other as we think about our shopping habits.

LD: That’s really interesting. This is really giving me a little bit of hope, I think, that maybe we can all start making some better decisions. Do you feel hopeful about all this? Do you feel like we’re coming up with solutions? Like you said, the problem’s growing. Maybe the innovation is as well?

TS: Yeah. Yes and no. I am hopeful because more and more people are waking up, and it was really measurable starting in late 2017, early 2018, the world woke up to this issue in a very big way. It’s when Greta came onto the scene. It’s when Blue Planet 2 on the BBC came. It’s when the turtle with a straw up its nose was trending on social media, I mean, all these inputs and the world really woke up. And where that has led is more consumer demand for these sort of ideas. More legislation in that in that approach, like the United States has now finally passed extended product responsibility legislation in certain states, which is, taxes companies for producing packaging that can then fund recycling. We’re seeing bans, whether it’s the plastic bag or straw in different states and cities. 

So, there’s movement in in the right direction, but we’re also fueling the problem more every day. The problem is getting bigger. We are consuming more. There’s more people and more waste. Now, in the end though, I am sure it will be solved because we can’t live in a finite system and live out of balance too long. The question is, will it be solved painfully or not? And the painful solution is the trend we’re going to now but it will solve, which is more environmental issues, California burning, places getting a more floods and all this, all these other environmental inputs. And what’s that going to create? Higher prices, which will mean less consumption. 

We’re going to get there one way or the other. And I think the real question to humanity, and I know we put ourselves on a pedestal typically above all other animals and plants and so on. And I don’t — like we always say the pedestal is linked to consciousness. My personal philosophy, I think probably everything is conscious, it’s just we don’t empathize with the consciousness of other things well. I think the real question for humanity is, can we rise above our basic animalistic desires to consume? That, I think, will be the test of humanity. If we can, we will achieve balance more peacefully. If we can’t, balance will be achieved, but significantly more painfully.

LD: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, for coming on the podcast.

TS: Entirely my pleasure.

PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.