#172 Matt Prindiville, CEO & Chief Solutioneer for Upstream®

Matt Prindiville is the CEO and Chief Solutioneer for Upstream®, a norms-disrupting non-profit sparking innovative solutions to plastic pollution and today’s one-way “throw-away” society. In this role, Prindiville works with entrepreneurs, policymakers and culture hackers to ideate and accelerate the transition from single-use to reuse. His responsibilities include content creator, spokesperson, brand strategist, executive leader, fundraiser, and relationship cultivator.

Prindiville is a recognized thought leader within the plastic pollution community and helped found the global Break Free from Plastic Movement, the Cradle2 Coalition and the Make It Take It Campaign; and spearheaded the establishment of the Electronics Takeback Coalition, the Multi-State Mercury Campaign, and Safer Chemicals and Healthy Families Coalition, where he worked on dozens of successful legislative policy campaigns. Most recently, he has advised the United Nations Environment Program on their plastic pollution strategies and written for The Guardian, GreenBiz, and Sustainable Brands among other publications. Prindiville’s work has been featured in The Economist, The New York Times, Fast Company, on NPR’s 1A, Jack Johnson’s Smog of the Sea film, and 60 Minutes, among others. For more information visit UpstreamSolutions.org and www.mattprindiville.com. Follow Upstream on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. For a podcast on the story of Upstream listen here

Bigger Than Us #172

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:46

Matt, how are you doing today?

Matt Prindiville 01:23

I’m doing great, Raj. It’s wonderful to be with you.

Host Raj Daniels 01:25

Matt, I appreciate you joining Matt. Before we dig into upstream, I’d like to ask you to share an anecdote that you gave during a TEDx talk regarding building ashtrays and making ashtrays.

Matt Prindiville 01:41

You did your research, Raj. Yeah, that’s great. The anecdote that I like to give is that, when when I was a kid, I can remember that you used to go on an airplane, and people would be smoking, right on the airplane. And this was also the time that if you went into a restaurant, they’d ask you if you wanted to sit in the smoking or the non-smoking section. And in my elementary school art class — I’m in my mid-40s. And in my elementary school art class, we made ashtrays for relatives and unsuspecting neighbors. 

This was just what we did for fun in the 80s. This was the normal back then. But it’s decidedly not normal for my kids. And I meet kids today that don’t even know what an ashtray is, because the norms around smoking have changed so much. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from almost half the population smoking to less than — I think we’re down to about 10%. 

Now, I like to use that analogy because I think that a lot of the time when people think about the way the world is, especially in regard to things like plastics, or waste, or the way that we consume, it’s hard for people to envision what the world would be like without doing things the way that we’re currently doing them. And what we try to say is, “Look, things change all the time.” And one of the biggest drivers of that is really around these conversations that we have around what’s acceptable and what’s not. These are the things that really help to govern the norms of society. And those norms help to drive change almost more quickly than anything else.

Host Raj Daniels 03:23

So when I heard you tell that story — I grew up in London, and funnily enough, I also made ashtrays in pottery class as part of a global curriculum.

Matt Prindiville 03:33

That’s right. That’s right. Brought to you by Philip Morris. Right.

Host Raj Daniels 03:37

Exactly. And my dad has that ashtray somewhere tucked away. It’s one of those things that go into keepsake forever, right? I mentioned the restaurants. And we used to do quite a bit of international travel as kids. And I remember getting on these Pan Am flights, and there would be a smoking section and a non-smoking section one seat apart.

Matt Prindiville 03:55

Right, right.

Host Raj Daniels 03:58

I look back to it and I think to myself, what were they thinking? But to your point about how things change. And we’ll get upstream here in a moment. But let’s take smoking, for example. It took lawsuits, and it took health issues like cancer. There’s almost like a tangible something that people could put their finger on; a victim, if you will.

Matt Prindiville 04:18

That’s right.

Host Raj Daniels 04:18

Saying, “Hey, look, smoking is directly causing this. We found the link. Scientists have found the link.” For climate change and pollution, it’s very difficult. Although there are obviously strong correlations, it’s very hard to convince people to put their finger on that direct link. How do you think we can perhaps go about making that change to what you see as a better future?

Matt Prindiville 04:42

Yeah, great question. One of the interesting things on the topic that we really specialize in is really about how do we address plastic pollution in the environment, and how do we dress not just plastic pollution, but also all of the unnecessary extraction of natural resources from the planet to serve this rampant overconsumption lifestyle that we’ve become accustomed to here in the United States, and that we’ve helped to export all over the world? 

And what’s interesting with plastic pollution is that a lot of what we see in the environment are branded products. So when you look at what shows up on the rivers and beaches, not just here in the United States, but around the world, it is some of the biggest transnational consumer packaged goods companies in the world. It’s companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, PepsiCo. In some cases, we’ve been able to help show, through doing activities with our partners around the world, like beach cleanups, we’re able to actually show the brands that are winding up in the environment. And that has helped to put a lot of pressure on these brands to consider doing things differently. And so that’s actually been a helpful driver for change, showing that it doesn’t matter where you look in the world, the same global brands are the ones whose products are winding up in the environment. 

When we look at that lens of, “So how does this relate to climate change,” well, increasingly, a lot of the fossil fuel companies are recognizing that the world is moving towards a future where we’re using a lot less fossil fuels for fuel, for powering our cars and heating our homes and office buildings, but that they can keep that infrastructure alive, that drilling and pipeline infrastructure and manufacturing infrastructure, if they can start diverting more of those fossil fuels towards the making of plastics. 

And of course, the the sink for where to put those plastics is in disposable products. That is where you’re able to get as much throughput as possible of these plastic materials. Food packaging, especially, to-go food, beverage packaging, and consumer packaged goods. And so we do have a direct nexus around what is winding up in the environment. And also we have — we’re not making up the idea that the petrochemical industry has been very clear in all of their reports to investors that the future for them is not in fuel, it’s in plastics. 

And so for us, when we look at these trends, we say, well, it’s great that we’re not using as much fossil fuels for fuel, and that we’re heading towards — in a lot of ways, we are going to be making significant progress toward this net zero future. But if the counter to that is we’re just putting all of these fossil fuels into plastics that are polluting the planet and also polluting our own health, that’s not really going to be a win. And so for us, we’re focused on the kinds of solutions that are actually going to transform these consumption systems.

Host Raj Daniels 07:59

And when you say us, I danced around a little bit, but can you give the audience an overview of Upstream and your mission?

Matt Prindiville 08:06

Yeah, happy to. Yeah. So Upstream, we’re a nonprofit organization based here in the United States. Our focus is on sparking innovative solutions to plastic pollution by helping people and businesses and communities shift out of single-use to reuse. 

There are some big reasons why we put the highlight on single-use and reuse being the solution. With all the attention paid to single-use plastic, you have a lot of companies that are saying, “Hey, don’t use single-use plastic, use my single-use product, it’s made out of paper, or it’s made out of aluminum, or it’s made out of mushrooms.” But when you look at the science behind the analyses of the environmental impacts of just shifting from one single-use product to another, you’re basically just trading one set of environmental issues for others. 

So you might not have more plastic in the ocean. But if you’re using single-use paper, you’re going to have greater climate pollution. You’re going to be cutting down more trees, you’re going to be potentially using more toxic chemicals. And so what we found is that you’re just out of the frying pan into the fire when we’re just talking about this kind of one-way, throwaway, linear single-use mindset. 

But the good news is that reuse always wins for the environment. We always hit this breakeven point, whether it’s a couple of uses for a stainless steel fork over a disposable one, or 14 uses for a reusable to-go container over a disposable one, where we hit that breakeven point and each additional use starts to accrue environmental benefits. And when you think about that, a lot of reusable products are designed to be in packaging. It’s designed to last for hundreds if not 1000s of uses. You can see how we just start to accrue those environmental benefits. 

And then the other good news is that we found that by shifting from single-use to reuse, it can also save businesses significant amounts of money through not having to procure the disposables from reduced solid waste management costs. And it can also save government money, from not having to continually clean up all the litter that’s out there, as well as pay for all the solid waste management and recycling costs. 

And then lastly, it creates opportunities. This new reuse economy creates lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors to ideate and create new packaging systems that look at packaging, not as a product, but as a service. So let me give you an example. You know, we kind of forget the fact that up until the mid 20th century, virtually all of the beer and all of the soda sold in the United States was in refillable glass bottles. And even though we dismantled that infrastructure here in the United States, around the world, everywhere you look, a lot of that refillable infrastructure not only exists, but it’s also being expanded. 

So for example, if you’re in Germany, about 80 to 90% of the beer sold in Germany is in refillable glass bottles. If you go down to Brazil, Coca-Cola sells roughly 40% of their products in refillable bottles, and they’re expanding that. And so one of the things that we’re really excited about with reuse and refill is when you think about the supply chains that it takes to create a package. Let’s just use plastics, for example, in the United States. You might be fracking for natural gas, you’re then either piping or shipping that down to the Gulf South where it gets turned into plastic pellets, those plastic pellets have to be made into a package somewhere, that package has to get to a manufacturer to fill that with soda or with food, or whatever else. And then if it gets into a recycling supply chain, oftentimes we are trucking the same materials, the same packages, across the world to poor countries, where they’re often “recycled,” in quotes here, air quotes, in really appalling conditions. And oftentimes, those products aren’t actually recycled, they’re downcycled into something. 

So you might take a plastic bottle and turn it into a park bench, which has one additional use before it goes to the landfill. And so the point I’m trying to make there is not that we don’t want to recycle. Recycling is important. It’s much better to use recycled materials than then virgin materials from the planet. But these are still massive global supply chains with environmental impacts along the way. 

Now, what’s exciting about reuse is that we take that same journey. Let’s use the Coca-Cola in Brazil example. You make the bottle once, and then you set up these regional washing and refilling hubs in and outside the cities of San Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and other cities. And now you have these closed-loop, regional systems where the bottles are sold, we use them, we put them in the in the reuse bin, they’re picked up by Coke, they’re sent to a washing facility literally miles down the road, washed, refilled and then put right back into that community. All of this happening within you know, dozens of miles. The consumption and production is all happening locally. 

And also, by the way, those jobs are also being kept there locally. Now I use the the Coca-Cola example because this is one that’s been around for a long time. But what we’re now seeing in cities around the world is that there are new systems that are emerging for to-go coffee cups, for reusable to-go containers for your takeout meals or the meals that are delivered to your home, for consumer packaged goods products, things like shampoo and laundry detergent and dish soap. Entrepreneurs are coming in, they’re setting up these regional facilities, and they’re being able to serve, helping to get people what they want and need without generating any waste. 

And so when you think about what is needed to do that at scale, what we’re talking about is infrastructure and investment. And really getting from small companies to transnational corporations invested in this idea of these more localized, more regional closed-loop reuse supply chains.

Host Raj Daniels 14:04

You mentioned infrastructure and investment. I think there’s a third leg of the stool and it’s mindset. You mentioned growing up in the 80s. I grew up in the same timeframe, but I grew up in London. I clearly remember we would take our own grocery bags to the store. We weren’t very plastic-heavy. In fact, I remember when — so in London, it’s called a carrier bag — if you wanted an additional carrier bag, it cost you five pence, ten pence at the time, whatever it was. And so we were very careful as to whether or not we decide to buy a bag or not, and when I came to America, things were very different here. When did this shift happen? Take America back 100 years, there wasn’t always this idea about just using things one time. It was a shift in mindset, and like you said, things take time. Do you know when that happened?

Matt Prindiville 14:54

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, it really goes back to the post-World War II economy. So up until that point, the defining value, not just in America, but really everywhere around the world, the defining value for commerce was thrift. It was like, make do with what you have, use it up, make it last. All of the mindset of the postwar economies around the world, and still in many places, is based around thrift. 

And so what happened during World War II is you had all of these industries that had to ramp up production for the war effort. And these are big industries: mining, manufacturing. And so the war started to come to a close, and these same industries were like, “Okay, what are we going to do now that the war is over?” And this idea was born that we have to keep churning the same amount of materials through the economy in peacetime as well as in wartime. And the central idea for a lot of these companies was to sell those materials, you know, aluminum, paper, plastics, which would come later in the form of disposable products to the American people. 

We were the experiment. And when you look at at this economy, this post-World-War-II economy that has become the economy of today, this is really an economy that’s set up to reward extraction companies on the front end — the petrochemical companies, the timber companies, the mining companies on the front end — and on the back end, to reward the waste management companies. 

As for the consumer packaged goods companies and the beverage companies, those types of companies are in the middle, and what they care about is selling products to people. And so if we can actually find ways to create a more circular economy, where we’re cutting off the extraction end of that side of the economy and cutting off the waste management side of the economy, through selling more and more products in these reuse services — this is what we call it’s looking at package as a certain packaging as a service, not as a product — then we’ll be able to start dramatically reducing the amount of natural resources that we take from the planet. And also the amount of pollution and waste to manage on the back end. And this is really significant. When you look at the percentage of plastics, what they go to, 40% of plastic production goes to make packaging. 

Depending upon the statistics you look at, somewhere around 25 to 30% is used to make single-use packaging. And so if we can start to tackle that, through reimagining the way that we get the products that we want and need, that’s going to have a huge impact on these big systems.

Host Raj Daniels 17:42

Now, you mentioned extraction on one end of the spectrum, waste management on the other end, and right in the middle sits us the consumer.

Matt Prindiville 17:50

That’s right.

Host Raj Daniels 17:50

And you know, as we move into the holiday season, you also talked about overconsumption. We are a huge contributor. The people that are extracting wanna sell their products, and waste management makes their revenue once the products are used. But we’re a huge part of this equation. How do you suggest or perhaps recommend that consumers start asking different questions to change their mindset regarding these single-use plastics?

Matt Prindiville 18:15

A lot of what we’re talking about is consumable products. If you look at what’s actually in the environment, just over two-thirds of the plastic products we find in the environment are to-go food and beverage packaging. It’s things like plastic bottles, it’s chip bags, it’s to-go containers, it’s to-go cups. And so that stuff is really ripe for disruption. 

What I tell people is that we want people to be able to have a meal on the go, and we want folks to be able to drink the drinks that they want to drink. But we can do that in ways that don’t generate all this unnecessary extraction on the front end and all this waste and pollution on the back end. And it’s really about shifting the mindset around reuse. I think when a lot of us hear the word reuse, we think, “Okay, I got to bring my own water bottle, or my coffee cup, now I’m bringing my to-go cutlery everywhere.” But that’s putting the burden squarely on the consumer, as opposed to putting the burden on business, to get us the things that we want and need without generating waste. 

And it’s also, as we’ve come to find out during the pandemic, we are relying on these massive global supply chains, many of which have gotten a lot more expensive in the last five to ten years, especially around the pandemic. There are supply chain disruptions that can cause major issues as far as getting the things that you want and the producers having access to the materials that they want. 

And so, if we’re able to start building more reuse and refill systems for getting the consumable goods that we want and need, this is again about shrinking those big supply chains down to more regional supply chains that are much more resilient. 

They also keep the jobs and they keep the people employed in the region, as opposed to outsourcing those jobs elsewhere. An example that I like to give a lot is that a lot of folks in our plastics movement — we call it the Break Free From Plastic movement, where there are 2000 organizations now that are collaborating around the world to solve plastic pollution. And policy is a big driver for a lot of groups. 

We work a lot on policy as to a lot of the groups we work with. And some of those policies are about banning single-use products. And so one of the ones that’s been quite easy for us to ban has been styrofoam containers, styrofoam packaging. This stuff has been kind of maligned since the 1970s. And we’re seeing efforts all around the world to ban styrofoam for lots of good reasons. But what happens in City Hall, when a community decides to ban styrofoam, is that the styrofoam industry comes in and says, “Hey, no, you can’t do this, you’re gonna cost jobs.” Well, that is an industry that is completely vertically integrated. They’ve squeezed virtually every human being out of that supply chain as possible. There’s one company that owns 80% of the market share in the United States. And those jobs aren’t in your community. They really are elsewhere to the extent that they exist. 

Whereas what replaces that styrofoam container could be a reusable to-go service. And those types of services are set up so that you’re creating these regional dishwashing or container washing warehouses that serve the whole community. They go and deliver the clean containers to the restaurants, they pick them up from customers, and from various locations, they wash them, sanitize them, they put them right back into service the next day. And all of that is done within, you know, a dozen, 15, 20 miles of the surrounding metro area of the city. And it supports jobs in that community. And it’s helping to not only address plastic pollution, but it’s also helping to create a more sustainable regional economy that’s not going to be disrupted by global supply chain failures. 

There are lots of examples like this, we’re rethinking how we get the consumable things that we want and need can really change and shift things.

Host Raj Daniels 22:17

I know, this might be a controversial statement, or maybe even utopic, but maybe we should cut back on meals to go also.

Matt Prindiville 22:25

Yeah. I think that what the pandemic has made us realize is just how much single-use products are in our lives: instead of going out to eat, we’re ordering all these meals delivered to our house. Instead of buying stuff at the grocery store or the drugstore, we’re having it delivered to our homes from Amazon. 

And I think even well-intentioned families like ours — dad is a zero-waste leader and active in this work — we still have a spot in the hall closet where the Amazon boxes are filling up because we’ve gotten used to consuming this way. And I think, again, shifting that onus and burden from being on the consumer to really going upstream to the producers, to the businesses that want to sell us these products, that’s really what we need to be focused on. 

And again, I think there are places where we can certainly cut back on unnecessary consumption. Fast fashion is a big one. Buying products to last, instead of just buying the latest trend, all of that stuff is really important. It’s going to help reduce the consumption impacts and climate impacts and environmental impacts of consumption. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s just consumable products. We need to eat food. We want to drink drinks. All of us don’t want to just drink water all the time. We have needs for cleaning our house with consumable products, we have needs for washing our bodies with consumable products. 

So there are lots of different ways to rethink how we deliver those types of products that I think can help us get the things that we want to need without generating all the waste.

Host Raj Daniels 24:01

So back to Upstream, what exactly does Upstream do?

Matt Prindiville 24:06

We have three core projects that we’re focused on. We have a business innovation project that’s really focused on working on scalable pilot projects within industry sectors. So we’re working within the foodservice sector, we’re working within the beverage sector and the consumer packaged goods sector on pilot reuse projects, that when they have success, we can show the sector that this is a new way to do something and a way to move forward that is not only going to benefit the environment, but it’s also going to benefit the bottom line. We know that from a cost standpoint, the only way for this stuff to scale is for it to become cost-comparative with, or even less than, the single-use options. So that’s the business innovation project. 

We have a policy project which is really focused on creating the enabling conditions at the city, state, and federal level for this new reuse economy to thrive and emerge. And then we have a social impact project, which is really about helping to put the vision out there, helping to show that this new reuse economy isn’t a pipe dream, but it’s actually happening now. 

We have a podcast called The Indisposable Podcast — I encourage you guys to go check it out — where we’re featuring the entrepreneurs and the activists and policymakers that are helping to create this change in the world. We do live streams every other month where we’re featuring different topics and working on hacking the challenges that are inherent in developing this new reuse economy. 

And then we also launch campaigns that are poking fun at single-use products and helping to show that real and reusable is the future. And so a lot of what we’re trying to do is create more of an awareness and more of a platform for all of the leaders that are helping to ideate, create, and accelerate this new reuse economy.

Host Raj Daniels 25:49

Now, you mentioned a new way to do something as one of the pillars under the business. Can you give an example from a recent I guess, experiment or project?

Matt Prindiville 25:58

Yeah, I’d love to. One of the big challenges in fast-casual food service is that there is a perception that it is cheaper to go with disposables. Cheaper, easier. We’re gonna go with disposables. And that is a misconception that we’ve been able to prove is actually wrong. 

My colleagues at Upstream, Miriam Gordon and Samantha Sommer, they founded a project called Rethink Disposable in the San Francisco Bay area that’s worked with hundreds of different food service operations, everything from mom-and-pop restaurant chains to corporate campuses to college campuses. They’ve shown that in every single instance, in transitioning from single-use to reuse for onsite dining, not 90%, not 95%, but 100% of the time, those businesses have saved money. 

One of the other barriers that we heard, especially from some of the bigger companies, so the large-scale food management companies that we call concessionaires, or enterprise food service — companies like Sodexo or Aramark, or Bon Appetit Management Company, Delaware North — is that if they’re going to make the shift from single-use to reuse, they want to actually be able to have standardized metrics around the environmental benefits of doing that so that they can mark it out to their clients, they can market it out to upper-level management. And they can make the case that this is not only a great thing to do for the bottom line but a great thing to do for the environment. And also to be able to manage projects. I think that’s been one of the things: manage projects in a standardized way. 

So if I’m the regional accounts manager for Sodexo, for example, and I’ve got a school district, I’ve got a college campus, I got a corporate campus, I might have a stadium, how can I manage the transition from single-use to reuse across all of these different operations, and calculate all those benefits together so that I’ve got a narrative and a story to tell? So we went at this, we said, this needs a piece of software. And we’ve been working with some of these big companies on designing this piece of software, we call it Chartreuse. We are soft-launching it next month. And what Chartreuse enables a foodservice company to do is to plug in their existing procurement data on single-use products. They then get to select from a menu of all different types of reusable products. And then that software crunches the numbers on the return on investments and the payback period. 

So let’s say you had to maybe invest in new reusables for the cafeteria, and you had to invest in upping your dishwashing capacity. All of that goes into the software, it crunches all the numbers tells you the exact payback, the exact ROI. And then it crunches all the environmental metrics as well, and it can project them into the future. So you can look, you know, 3, 4, 5, 10 years from now and see like what the benefit is from making those decisions. It also enables you to manage those projects and aggregate the data across a variety of accounts. So if you’re Sodexo, so you have a Sodexo master account as the regional sustainability officer, you can now manage all the accounts in the state of Maine or the state of California. And you can aggregate all that data together. And now you’ve got a really powerful and compelling story to tell. 

So this is part of the way that we work with industry is to like really get in and understand what are the challenges to making some of these transitions, what are the perceptions that actually need to be shifted? And then how do we hack those challenges in partnership with these companies?

Host Raj Daniels 29:26

How does the vendor qualify to be on the platform?

Matt Prindiville 29:29

So we’re soft launching it right now with the companies that have helped to design it. And so once we kind of work out the kinks with companies at a smaller scale, we’re planning to hard launch it to the world next year. And our hope is is that we would have — part of what we do on the on the organizing and policy side is we work with NGOs that are on the ground in cities across the United States to help set up what we call reuse coalitions. These are networks of organizations that have maybe worked to pass a plastic bag ban in the city, or they’ve worked to create the recycling policy or a zero waste plan for the city. 

And what we do is we say, “Hey, you guys have just helped to get a past plastic bag ban through. Well, the next big thing is reuse policy and in helping to build this new reuse infrastructure for takeout and delivery, we want to partner with you. We want to create the resources that you need to have the community support around doing this.” 

And so we’ve helped to seed a number of reuse coalitions in big cities around the country. So San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, Seattle. And what’s really exciting about this is that not only are the activists on the ground working to pass policy — we have a disposable-free dining policy that makes onsite dining disposable-free, even for McDonald’s. But it also creates a place for some of these activists to work with the local restaurant community to be able to take a tool like Chartreuse, which I mentioned, and literally go door to door and say, “Hey, we want to help you shift from single-use to reuse. And we want to help walk you through and help provide the metrics for why this is a great thing to do.” 

And so not only are we working with sectors, as I mentioned, with business sectors, we’re also working at the city level because our theories of change are really tied into cities, just like cities are going to be the vanguard for climate action in the United States and around the world. They’re also the vanguard for building out this new reuse economy. So in addition to the business sector-based theory of change, we also have the city-based theory of change. And that’s another part of the way that we operate.

Host Raj Daniels 31:48

Why did you name the platform Chartreuse?

Matt Prindiville 31:51

Well, if you look between the lines of Chartreuse, you can see that it spells chart reuse. And, you know, we had an amazing company that we worked with on on the branding for it. That was the one that really rose to the top for everybody.

Host Raj Daniels 32:08

I like that. Let’s switch gears here. You’ve been with Upstream for about 10 years now. What’s your why? What drives you? What made you decide to join? And what keeps you going?

Matt Prindiville 32:19

Great question. I was really inspired by the circular economy idea back in college. I had grown up in a fishing community in northeastern Massachusetts, a town called Gloucester, Massachusetts. For folks that know The Perfect Storm, that’s where that book takes place, or the movie takes place. I’d seen firsthand what happens when we do not steward the natural resources that we take from the planet. 

So when I was a kid, a lot of my buddies’ dads were fishermen. And I can remember when the cod fishery collapsed, and it wasn’t just a disaster for the ecosystem, it was a disaster for my community. You had people losing their homes left and right, fishermen losing their boats and businesses. And it was really a cautionary tale. And I remember taking that with me up through high school and into college. And I started reading about this concept of a circular economy where we are, you know, we are stewarding the resources that we take from the planet in these closed loops to make them last as long as possible. And that we’re powering that economy with renewable energy. 

We’re really figuring out how to create a decent standard of living for all the people on this planet in ways that are that work with the natural rhythms and ecosystems and all the services that nature provides to us. And I was completely, totally inspired by that. And I remember my first day on my first job in the space 20 years ago, I was working with a state-based environmental watchdog group up here in my home state of Maine, to pass the first extended producer responsibility law for electronic waste in the United States. And what EPR means is basically that if you make something, you need to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of that product. 

And typically what it’s meant for a computer company, for example, is that they have to pay for the collection and recycling of that product. Or they have to pay for setting up a new system to reuse the materials or create a reuse service around their product or their package. And so this was amazing for me after having studied this in college to literally my first day on my first job in the field, to be able to start working on this. And back then — this was 20 years ago — there were very few experts in the field of the circular economy here in the United States. And one of them was Upstream, this organization that had been founded to really bring this concept from Europe, where it was really starting to thrive, to the United States. And so I started working with the founders for 10 years before I joined the organization on it on lots of different policies that had to do with getting big companies to take responsibility for the collection and recycling of cell phones, of television sets, of mercury-containing products of carpet and paint. 

And I just got really excited about this idea of policy working as a platform to help industry build more circular systems around the provision of goods and services. And so that inspired me 20 years ago, and I joined Upstream 10 years ago. The founder retired five years ago; I’ve been running it for five years. And that idea is really what gets me excited to get up in the morning. And for me, it’s not just a nice thing to do. I actually believe that it’s imperative for humanity. We have seven and a half billion people on this planet. 

I was at a TED conference recently, where an architect talked about how by the year 2100, we’re likely to have 11 billion people on this planet. And to punctuate that he said, that’s like building a city the size of New York City, every single month, for the next 40 years. And of course, his talk was all about how we can house all these people if we do it right, with row houses and multifamily houses and solar panels, light rail, etc. But my thought was, how in the world are we gonna be able to feed, clothe, and provide a decent standard of living for 11 billion people based on this linear, one-way, throwaway economy model? And the answer, of course, is that we can’t. And I think that the sooner we wake up to that, especially big companies, the sooner we wake up to that, the more interest in activity and investment we’re going to have in driving the circular economy. And I’ve got one more quick story about that as well. 

So I was at this TED conference. I had dinner with a with a reuse entrepreneur named Elizabeth Soubelet, who lives in France, and she runs a company, Squiz, that makes reusable pouches for food and for beverages. And she said, “I like to think about the circular economy as a dartboard,” and I thought a dartboard? Okay, this is interesting. Go on. And she said, “On the outer ring of that dartboard, those are the recycling supply chains. The ones where they’re taking all these materials, they’re crisscrossing the planet, they have a lot of environmental impacts associated with them. But in the center of that dartboard is the bullseye. 

Those are the reuse systems and services, these local and regional services that exist for getting people what they want and need without waste. And she said, what we have to do is start to drive more and more economic activity away from the outer rings of the dartboard and straight towards the bullseye. And that’s where the heartbeat of the circular economy lies. And I was just completely struck by that example. This isn’t just nice to have, it’s not a place where we hope some investment goes. This is really imperative for humanity. And it’s not just about developed, global North nations leading the way. We actually have a lot to learn from the global South, where a lot of these reuse refill systems still exist, and they’ve existed for long periods of time. And they’re done in ways where they’d have far less financial resources than the countries in the global North. 

And so I think there’s also this equity issue that’s a piece here as well. If we’re going to provide a decent standard of living, we really have to rethink how we provide goods and products and food to the seven and a half billion people and growing on this planet.

Host Raj Daniels 38:41

You know, you mentioned the target that the lady identified to you. And it’s a really strong visual. You also mentioned the EPR, and didn’t Maine actually pass the EPR earlier this year?

Matt Prindiville 38:55

Yeah, that’s 20 years of my work right there. In a heartbeat. I’ve been working on this idea for 20 years of getting big companies to pay for the collection and recycling and reuse of their packaging. This is an idea that has basically taken over the world. Europe led the way in the 1990s, virtually all of Europe has had these EPR systems where the companies are the ones that are financially responsible for the recycling and reuse, and waste management systems. And it’s taken forever to get traction here in the United States because I think a lot of the company said, “Well until we’re forced to do it, it makes more financial sense for us to just fight it tooth and nail.” 

Now, that’s all shifted in the last two to three years. It’s also shifted for the big beverage companies around container deposits, which is another form of EPR that we talked about. It’s the nickel deposit or dime deposit on a bottle that helps to make sure that all this stuff gets collected and recycled. And so the beverage companies have also shifted their tune on not just EPR but on deposits, and we’re also seeing a lot of these big companies excited and interested in reuse and refill. I think they’re more nervous about like the policy implications of reuse and refill if we put kind of mandatory targets on them. 

But there’s a lot of interest in piloting it. I think they recognize that recycling is not enough to get where they need to go. But yeah, after 20 years, we finally have extended producer responsibility for packaging in the United States. It didn’t just pass in Maine. Maine went first, so Maine got all the fanfare, but it also passed across the country in Oregon. And by the way, those were also the two first states that you know, 45 years ago, were the ones that passed the first bottle bills, the first container deposit laws for beverage containers in the United States, as well. It was Oregon and then Maine. So really interesting history here. And it’s nice to see all this work is starting to really bear fruit.

Host Raj Daniels 40:52

It was interesting because when it did pass this summer, I was speaking with my wife and I said, “I think this is the first step.” if you will, “in addressing the issue of externalities.”

Matt Prindiville 41:04

Absolutely. At the end of the day, that’s what all these circular economy policies and ideas are about. It’s about addressing the externalities of our current linear production and consumption model that just doesn’t work for the planet. And it really doesn’t work for a majority of the world’s people. What I always say is that what we’re talking about is not about undoing capitalism and markets. 

What we’re talking about doing is creating an economy that isn’t set up to reward the extractors of natural resources from the planet, and the polluters, the waste management companies, and the companies that clean up after the pollution on the back end. We need markets, we need capitalism to you know, innovate and create the kinds of things that we need to help tackle climate change and provide a decent standard of living to people around the world. And to kind of enable human creativity to flourish. 

I fully believe in that, but we can’t do it based on the 20th century and 19th-century models for how we create and provide goods. Just like we’re rethinking how we power the global economy and power local and regional economies, we also have to think about how we supply the materials for the goods and the things that we want and need. And really rethinking, where are the ways that we can avoid single-use in favor of reuse? And how can the businesses work with the government and work with NGOs to help build out that infrastructure? One of the analogies I also like to give is that when you and I were kids, there was one bin. It was the trash bin. There was no recycling bin. 

And then the recycling bin came, and now we’ve got the compost bin. In the future, we’re also going to have reuse bins, and part of reuse, it could also go through the recycling supply chains as well. So there are innovators that are literally working to have reusable containers, go into your recycling bin, and then get sorted off the line at the recycling facility to be shipped locally for washing and refilling. That is definitely going to be a part of it. And we need to partner with the waste management industry on how to retool for reuse, is what we call it. But there’s also going to be new reuse infrastructure that’s set up. 

What I mean by that is, just like we used to have the milkman model for getting milk to and from our homes and our apartments, we’re going to see that coming back. We’re going to start seeing bins on people’s front porches where they can put the reusable containers. You’re gonna start seeing kiosks in parks and on city streets, where if you were using a reusable cup service from a coffee shop, you’re gonna be able to walk down the street, finish your cup of coffee, find that kiosk right there, put the coffee cup in there, and on it goes to get washed, sanitized, and have somebody else drinking out of it the next day. 

This infrastructure is something that needs investment, it needs ideation, it needs engineers, and I think for your audience, really getting people to check out this new reuse economy. You can learn more about it at upstreamsolutions.org. But we’ve got lots of resources there. And there are all kinds of entrepreneurs that are working in this space. And some of them are working with very big companies to pilot and start to scale some of these models.

Host Raj Daniels 44:25

You know, it’s funny, you mentioned milk while you were speaking. I was having a nostalgic moment because back in London when we were kids, we did get milk in small milk bottles, which we drank and you know, we put back in the crate at the end of every day.

Matt Prindiville 44:38

That’s right. That’s right. It’s the same idea. Same idea. And I think that you know what, what’s going to enable reuse to scale is going to be some combination of utilizing the existing recycling infrastructure that’s there, and then also creating this new reuse infrastructure and keeping it simple for the consumer. One of the things that some of the groups and businesses that we’re partnering with are working on is, how do we standardize the containers that are being used? 

So that you can have, for example, five or six different reuse coffee cup companies that are serving New York City or Boston or Seattle, but they’re all using the same infrastructure. And you can use a kiosk that can have all of these different cups that are from different companies, but they’re all standardized, stack into each other when they get put into the kiosk. With stackability engineering, there are all kinds of innovation that’s happening around it. There’s a company that has developed a mobile dishwashing facility that can fit in one tractor-trailer and basically be carted around to events and carted around to stadiums. And this mobile dishwashing system can wash 100,000 reusable cups in a day. 

When you think about some of the innovations that are going to be needed, some of the companies that are doing the reusable to-go container services are also using robotics technology. So they’re getting efficiencies in that chain so that they’re able to come at a comparable price point to the disposables. And as soon as a company can come to a restaurant and say, “Hey, you’re spending 35 cents for that compostable paper box. You can do my reuse service for 34 cents.” 

We know that that’s what’s going to change the game. And a lot of that is really about scale. Can we justify the investment in robotic technology and the dishwashing hubs and the logistics companies? Because these aren’t tech companies. This isn’t like you create an app, and you can all of a sudden just make money from it. This is the shipment and movement of goods. It’s brick and mortar, there are facilities, there’s infrastructure, there’s a lot that goes into this. But if we have the right kinds of people joining the team, we know that that’s what’s going to enable it to all take off.

Host Raj Daniels 47:08

And the plants you talked about would remind me of the current bottling or packaging plants that you have, it would seem like just be reverse logistics back to the plants.

Matt Prindiville 47:16

You got it, you got it reverse logistics and retooling. What’s exciting about it as well, as I mentioned, is that it’s not just about the benefits to the environment, which are in spades, but it is about the benefits to the local and regional economies through keeping these materials in circulation locally, keeping the logistics happening locally, avoiding the need to be shipping these materials all over the world. 

There will be losers in this new reuse economy. And from our perspective, that’s going to be the extraction companies, the petrochemical companies on the front end that look at single-use plastics, especially in single-use packaging, as their way to keep producing as much as possible and justify more investments in that infrastructure. Those companies are going to lose. 

The waste management companies could win if they figure out how to retool as reuse service companies. And I think that is also something that we’re really excited about. And the CPGs are going to win. The consumer packaged goods companies or beverage companies, consumer products, companies, they’re going to win because we fundamentally believe, and I think the pilots have shown this, that these systems can get supply chain efficiencies such that at scale, the prices can be less than going the single-use disposable route. And so that for us is the prize. And we need a lot more experimenting and ideation and execution around these different ideas so that we can prove that to more and more sectors.

Host Raj Daniels 48:59

I agree. So you’ve been on this journey for about 20 years, a valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself and your journey?

Matt Prindiville 49:07

Wow, what a great question. You know, I think perseverance is a big one, I’m sure. I’m sure probably lots of people say this. But, you know, just to give you an example — we talked about extended producer responsibility legislation finally passing in Maine and Oregon this last year. Well, I was intimately involved in the last two efforts to try to make that happen, 5, 6, 7 years ago, and then almost 10 years before that. 

What I learned was — I never gave up on the concept. I never stopped believing that this was what we needed to do. And this was possible, even when we had some significant setbacks. You would even call them failures. When we had some support from a couple of brands that basically tried to move the policy idea forward, we couldn’t get support from anybody else. And then they just kind of walked away. That was a failure moment. But I never stopped believing in the fact that we needed it. And I just went back to the drawing board and said, “Well, what are we missing?” 

One of the things that we were missing was a poster child, a why. Why we needed corporate accountability for packaging waste. And to me, that poster child was plastic pollution. And so we went all-in on plastics. We’ve helped to support the growth of this incredible global plastics movement that’s taking root here in the United States and around the world. And that is what has provided the space. And it’s provided the pressure on companies to come to the table and eventually now support EPR for packaging. Most of the big brands are changing their positions and working to support EPR for packaging laws that work for them. And I think it’s the same thing that’s happened around the beverage companies and container deposits. 

I think these companies have gotten tired of seeing themselves labeled as the biggest plastic polluters in the world. They just want to sell products. They don’t want to be plastic polluters. So again, that perseverance piece, and when something doesn’t work out, if you believe in the idea, look for a different avenue to getting it done.

Host Raj Daniels 51:24

So speaking of believing in an idea, let’s fast forward to 2030. Magic wand, where would you like to see the reuse movement?

Matt Prindiville 51:33

Yeah, I love this because we’re literally right in the middle of strategic planning for Upstream. Right now we’re doing our next three-year strategic plan. And one of the concepts that I’ve put out to the staff and the board is this 30 by 30 idea. What if we could get 30% of all goods sold in the United States, from beverages to shampoo to take out meals, in reuse, refill packaging by 2030? Like, that’s a big bold goal. 30 by 30. For us, like each sector, has its own opportunities and its own challenges. 

And so I might have mentioned this earlier, but we’re looking at the foodservice sector, the beverage sector, consumer packaged goods sector, e-commerce and online retail, waste management. Those and recycling. Those are the sectors. And some of them are more ripethan others. Within food service, we could see a lot of this stuff really building out just like how 10 or 15 years ago, there weren’t any bike-sharing businesses in cities. And now in every single major city, you go to a city and there’s a bike-sharing service, which I love, by the way, because that’s my favorite way to get around cities, on a bike. And they’re everywhere now. And so I think that within 10 years, you’re going to see that same kind of infrastructure around reuse for takeout cups, takeout containers, etc. 

My hope is that not only will we have that for food service, but that beverage will be able to do that in consumer packaging, we’ll see increasing parts of the grocery store devoted to getting products to people and reusable and refillable packaging formats. And I also think that, looking at the waste management sector, really seeing that sector start to embrace the opportunities in becoming a reuse service provider. And so that sector really starts to shift as well. 30 by 30, is a big, bold, audacious goal. 

But I do believe it’s one that in this fast changing world that will be possible if we get this sufficient interest from investors, like the folks listening to this podcast, as well as governments, as well as the activists on the ground working to create the conditions to make it happen.

Host Raj Daniels 53:46

Well, audacious goals are the ones that get people out of bed.

Matt Prindiville 53:50

Absolutely, absolutely.

Host Raj Daniels 53:52

So last question. And you mentioned perseverance earlier. But if you could share some advice, words of wisdom or recommendations with the audience, besides reusing and refilling, what would it be?

Matt Prindiville 54:02

Well, you know, on this issue itself, I think avoiding single-use plastic as much as possible. These individual actions such as bringing your reusable water bottle, your coffee cup, those things do matter. And it also signals to people in your community, as well as to the companies that you support and buy from, that things are shifting. As more and more consumers get engaged around shifting from single-use to reuse. That is is hugely important. 

I’d also say if you’re listening to this podcast and it resonated with you, to just start having conversations. It does start like with dinner table conversations, it starts with conversations with the businesses you frequent, the politicians you vote for, around the need to address not just single-use plastic but single-use waste in general. Get involved in you know, working on some of these new reuse ideas, whether that’s as an investor and going out and finding some companies to invest in, or as a community, a person getting involved in your community about helping to bring some of these changes to your community. 

We see it all the time, that kids are the ones that are literally transforming the cafeteria at school, and then they think bigger, and they’re like, “Oh, we’ve got to do the school district. And now we’ve got to do the town.” A lot of it starts with these small community-level conversations. And that is really what helps to signal that norms are shifting in society. The big companies, they’re always paying attention to consumer preferences and what is changing in society so that they can stay relevant. 

And so I just would say, “Avoid single use plastic,” but more importantly, get involved in having the kinds of conversations around the dinner table, in your community, with the businesses you frequent, the politicians you vote for, about how to address plastic pollution and elevate and accelerate this new reuse economy.

Host Raj Daniels 56:03

Well, Matt, I enjoyed the conversations and this conversation with you. And I look forward to the success of Upstream and catching up with you again soon,

Matt Prindiville 56:11

Raj, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks so much for your time today.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi

If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on iTunes. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media where you can find us at our Nexus PMG handle.

If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. While you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech green tech sectors

Raj Daniels

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