Episode length: 14:49 | September 4, 2019
The World to Come - Episode 1: The Power to Reimagine Plastic
BARRY SHORE: So the sound that you're hearing is once the chip’s been chopped up, we’re actually washing and cooling that chip before it goes to the next process.
TESS VIGELAND: What’s happening on this factory floor is a giant goal in progress: A company called Unifi is hoping to recycle tens of billions of plastic bottles in the next few years.
BARRY SHORE: If you look at the number of bottles - which to me is hard to believe - we’ve recycled 14 billion bottles. It's hard to believe that we've kept that many bottles out of the landfill.
TESS VIGELAND: Coming up -- we’ll go inside Unifi -- to hear how they’re leading an effort to change our relationship with plastic. We'll also hear about current global challenges as scientists estimate that the world produces 400 million tons of plastic a year. With that number growing, we need new approaches to curb consumption, and more effectively reuse plastic.
TESS VIGELAND: This is The World To Come, a podcast brought to you by Bank of America -- exploring life in the future, starting with the visionaries of today. Featuring clients and partners affiliated with Bank of America.
I’m Tess Vigeland.
TESS VIGELAND: In this first episode, the power to reimagine plastic.
SAMEER CHOPRA: I think we need to reimagine and come up with new products where plastic can be consumed and often used as a substitute can we use recycled plastic as a substitute. Can we make a large consumer products houses that use recycled plastic. To try and ensure that we don't need to sort of dispose of plastic in landfills or end up incinerating it.
TESS VIGELAND: Bank of America’s Global Research Analyst Sameer Chopra studies some of the world’s biggest challenges and talks to leaders working on cutting edge solutions.
SAMEER CHOPRA: I'm based in Sydney, Australia and I'm head of research. I also head up our ESG research in Asia Pac and ESG stands for environmental social and corporate governance.
TESS VIGELAND: OK, so how did we get to this point where it’s become critical to think of the future of plastics?
SAMEER CHOPRA: 95 percent of plastic is single use, so you use it once and then you throw it away. And so you know as time goes on there is more and more of this plastic waste or rubbish being created. And the issue with plastic is it doesn't decompose as easily.
TESS VIGELAND: So, we already have over eight billion tons of plastic in the world and more and more of it is polluting our waterways, or ending up in landfills. Not even 10-percent of the plastic in the world has been recycled.
Why is there more urgency around this now?
SAMEER CHOPRA: You know, if you look at this over the last five, ten years it was an unseen problem, in other words, people didn’t see it, because a lot of the plastic waste from the United States was sent to China to try and recycle it or to sort of destroy it, incinerate it.
TESS VIGELAND: So for all of us, it was out of sight out of mind.
SAMEER CHOPRA: That's right. It was out of sight out of mind. You didn't see it. It ended up on a ship and it would be sent to China. And in January 2018 the Chinese government started to ban plastic waste import as a whole. And so now suddenly you know our countries have had to figure out what are we going to do with this plastic?
TESS VIGELAND: To see where we need to go with plastic, let’s take a quick look at how we got here.
One of the first popular plastics was nylon -- which revolutionized women’s stockings in the late 1930s, and then was used to make everything from parachutes to ropes during World War II.
Large-scale production of other plastics started to really ramp up in the 1950s.
It was an exciting new way to preserve food. It was being molded into furniture and holiday decorations.
It was soon making cars and airplanes lighter.
And today, all sorts of modern conveniences are keeping demand strong.
SAMEER CHOPRA: People are doing new things. You know e-commerce and buying products online is relatively new, food delivery is relatively new. Six percent of all the oil production in the world right now goes into making plastics. The way demand is growing we think 20 percent of all oil in the world will be used for plastic packaging by 2050.
TESS VIGELAND: That’s staggering...Yet Sameer says what he’s seeing and hearing in his work, gives him hope. One example he points to is a recent shift in the beverage industry.
SAMEER CHOPRA: Five years ago if you if you bought a bottle it was hard to crush it but today if you buy a bottle of water or a soft drink it's very easy to crush. It's because what the companies have done is to cut back on plastic. They have light weighted the bottles. Five years ago the amount of plastic in a typical bottle would have been about 70 grams. And today the amount of plastic sitting in these bottles is about 30 grams.
TESS VIGELAND: He says the ultimate goal is to build a sustainable future on a circular economy -- giving us the power to limit waste and reuse materials on a different scale.
SAMEER CHOPRA: I'd say you know using recycled plastic and creating a whole industry around that would be an awesome outcome.
TESS VIGELAND: That idea is at the heart of what Unifi is doing.
BARRY SHORE: You can drink a bottle today, in a couple weeks you can wear it.
TESS VIGELAND: Remember that sound we heard at the very beginning?
[AMBI EXTRUSION MACHINE]
TESS VIGELAND: Unifi makes synthetic fiber out of plastic bottles. You can find this fiber in everything from furniture, to car interiors, shoes, and clothing. Operations Manager Barry Shore showed us around the company’s recycling facility in Yadkinville, North Carolina.
BARRY SHORE: We have big silos that we house the flake in, so we’ll convey the flake…..
TESS VIGELAND: Barry’s been with Unifi for more than 40 years. Back when he started, polyester was the epitome of fabric-chic.
Yes, the old, heavy, stain-prone polyester of the 1970s. Today, the company is among those leading the way with its sustainable fiber.
BARRY SHORE: I look at where we’re at today, and say, I can’t believe we made it this far. Because I don’t believe you could have convinced that we could have done that. I mean, it’s not what we would’ve expected.
TESS VIGELAND: Unifi calls its recycled fiber “Repreve.” Richard Gerstein is the company’s Global Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer. He says it came out of the company taking a hard look at its own production process.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: Repreve started about 12 years ago and it started with our own internal Unifi sustainability goals.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: We have these big manufacturing lines and when we start them up, we get them going and you have scrapped that comes out before good polyester gets going-- that was going into landfills.
TESS VIGELAND: Unifi saw an opportunity here… not only to reduce waste, but to capitalize on it.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: And our team here challenged why are we going to landfill and can we reuse that polyester and bring it back. And they were able to do that. Once they did that they said ‘hmm what else could I put in my system that’d be recyclable?’ And that's where the idea came up for using plastic water bottles the same way.
TESS VIGELAND: The next step was to figure out how to turn the bottles into fiber. How did they do it?
RICHARD GERSTEIN: So we're literally just taking the same ingredient that goes into new polyester fiber that also goes into bottles and rather in those bottles go into landfills or go into oceans we take those bottles and we have a huge automated process that rips off all the labels takes off all the caps takes those bottles and chops them up into little pieces, cleans them and then melts them down into little we called chip which then gets input it into the extrusion machine that makes the yarn. So really if I came out and showed you two pieces of yarn at the end you shouldn't see any different. There's no physical different properties there's no visual different properties. That's the whole idea of Repreve it's like you're starting anew again.
TESS VIGELAND: Unifi also had to show its customers that this wasn’t just a sustainable product, it was a good one.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: When we talk to people one of the first questions is oh it's made from plastic bottles. How does it feel so good? I thought it would feel different. I thought I would feel plasticky.
TESS VIGELAND: And Richard says now that Unifi’s Repreve fiber has proven itself…they’re influencing major clothing companies that are now adding it to their own sustainability goals.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: You'll hear brands making large declarations that by 2022 or 2024 or 2026 that they're going to convert, convert over to 100 percent recycled polyester. That's going to be transformative in the market and really make a huge difference.
TESS VIGELAND: I was surprised to hear about one challenge that Unifi is grappling with as a result of this success…
RICHARD GERSTEIN: There's starting to be actually more demand than there is supply because we're not recycling at the rates we need to.
TESS VIGELAND: He says having better recycling systems is only the beginning -- this extends beyond tossing a plastic container in the right bin.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: If you take a plastic bottle that was created to hold a drink and you recycle that and turn that into a piece of apparel you've closed a loop. But then even better would be then to take that piece of apparel at the end of its life, and recycle it and turn it into maybe another piece of apparel or a park bench or whatever it might be, or something that goes into automotive. So now brands are really moving from end of life to end of use.
And so they're taking back apparel at their stores and they're asking how do I go recycle these garments and turn them back into new fibers or other things.
TESS VIGELAND: To Richard -- THIS is how we can reimagine our use of plastic.
And you can really start to understand how our relationship with things like clothes, and shoes -- might change.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: I think that things that we wear will not go in the garbage. There will be a secondary use for them that will be much more an existing process that people go through. And I think everything in our lives we will look at it from the standpoint of is there a second life a third life a fourth life for it. But I think ultimately what people wear is going to be driven by the brand and performance and design. And I think sustainability just becomes that fundamental differentiation and core element that sort of it needs to be there like comfort.
TESS VIGELAND: This is the shift from a linear economy to a circular economy that Bank of America analyst Sameer Chopra was talking about.
SAMEER CHOPRA: Can we make large consumer products, houses that use recycled plastic. There is a trend in the world toward building roads that use a lot of recycled plastic in it. I think you know if you think 30, 50 years out we will still have plastic, plastic will still be used in packaging but old plastic packaging will be recycled. So, society will be working off a circular economy. So you use it, you’ll dispose of it in a in a recycling bin that’s marked plastic. And that same plastic then re-finds its way back into new products. That's where I see the world sort of, you know, not even 50, I’d say 30 years out from now. I don't think we have that long to wait for the world needs to sort of adopt and change.
RICHARD GERSTEIN: When you talk about looking back I think this whole recyclability sustainability 40 years from now will be the same way that I had a discussion with my son this morning. He's 15 years old and we were talking about whether I had a color TV or I had a cell phone. Right? And how could you world be like, how did you get around?
And I said to him, I said we looked up things in the encyclopedia and what really changed things was the Internet. And my son looked at me and goes What do you mean what changed things was the internet. I said well the Internet was invented. You know like in the 90s. And he goes I'm sorry what are you talking about? But for him the internet was like air and water. It was like a basic element of society. And I think we'll look back at sustainability the same way and say it's just so fundamental to us having a world and a planet that is healthy and alive, that it will just be what we do every day and can't imagine a world where people threw things in the landfills or threw garbage on the streets or let it go into our precious oceans.
TESS VIGELAND: For Richard and Sameer, the power to reimagine plastic begins with extending its use and giving it a new life – not once or twice, but several times over. They say it’s an exciting opportunity that is essential for our future.
When YOU think about the future, what would you like the power to do?
TEASER MUSIC IN
On the next episode of The World to Come…
TESS VIGELAND: Which would you rather eat... an egg made from mung beans?
LAUREN SILVERMAN: Hmm… It’s good, It’s strangely similar to the flavor of eggs.
TESS VIGELAND: Or chicken nuggets grown in a laboratory?
LAUREN SILVERMAN: I’m gonna give it a try. [Bites] it’s very good, it’s very good… it tastes like chicken [laughs]
TESS VIGELAND: What our future might taste like -- that’s next time. This has been The World to Come. I’m Tess Vigeland.
TESS VIGELAND: B-of-A Merrill Lynch Global Research is research produced by B-of-A Securities, Inc. (“B-of-A-S”) and/or one or more of its non-U.S. affiliates. B-of-A-S is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation.
Any opinions or other information correspond to the date of this recording and are subject to change. This information discusses general market activity, industry or sector trends, or other broad-based economic, market or political conditions and should not be construed as research or investment advice.Hide Transcript
In this episode, we go inside a company based in North Carolina that’s making a sustainable polyester fiber out of water bottles to cut down on plastic pollution.
Imagine a world where most plastic gets recycled and then it’s used—and reused—in multiple ways. In this episode, we go inside a company based in North Carolina called Unifi that’s making a sustainable polyester fiber out of water bottles to cut down on plastic pollution. We’ll also hear from a BofA Global Research Analyst, Sameer Chopra, on what he thinks is crucial for plastic innovation as we prepare for the future. “I think we need to reimagine and come up with new products where plastic can be consumed and often used as a substitute. Can we make large consumer products or houses that use recycled plastic?” You’ll hear his question and more as our featured guests share what they’re dreaming for a future based on a circular economy.
A well-known voice for millions of American radio listeners, Tess spent 11 years as an anchor for public radio’s Marketplace. Over her career, she has received numerous national awards, including most recently a 2019 Gracie Award as Best Host/Anchor, and a 2019 National Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage.
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