In a conversation meant to spark debate, entrepreneur Andrew Forrest and head of TED Chris Anderson discuss an ambitious plan to get the world’s biggest companies to fund an environmental revolution — and transition industry towards getting all of its plastic from recycled materials, not from fossil fuels.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So, you’ve been obsessed with this problem for the last few years. What is the problem, in your own words?
ANDREW FORREST: Plastic. Simple as that. Our inability to use it for the tremendous energetic commodity that it is, and just throw it away.
CHRIS ANDERSON: And so we see waste everywhere. At its extreme, it looks a bit like this. I mean, where was this picture taken?
ANDREW FORREST: That’s in the Philippines, and you know, there’s a lot of rivers, ladies and gentlemen, which look exactly like that. And that’s the Philippines. So it’s all over Southeast Asia.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So plastic is thrown into the rivers, and from there, of course, it ends up in the ocean. I mean, we obviously see it on the beaches, but that’s not even your main concern. It’s what’s actually happening to it in the oceans. Talk about that.
ANDREW FORREST: OK, so look. Thank you, Chris. About four years ago, I thought I’d do something really barking crazy, and I committed to do a PhD in marine ecology. And the scary part about that was, sure, I learned a lot about marine life, but it taught me more about marine death and the extreme mass ecological fatality of fish, of marine life, marine mammals, very close biology to us, which are dying in the millions if not trillions that we can’t count at the hands of plastic.
CHRIS ANDERSON: But people think of plastic as ugly but stable. Right? You throw something in the ocean, “Hey, it’ll just sit there forever. Can’t do any damage, right?”
ANDREW FORREST: See, Chris, it’s an incredible substance designed for the economy. It is the worst substance possible for the environment. The worst thing about plastics, as soon as it hits the environment, is that it fragments. It never stops being plastic. It breaks down smaller and smaller and smaller.
And the breaking science on this, Chris, which we’ve known in marine ecology for a few years now, but it’s going to hit humans. We are aware now that nanoplastic, the very, very small particles of plastic, carrying their negative charge, can go straight through the pores of your skin. That’s not the bad news.
The bad news is that it goes straight through the blood-brain barrier, that protective coating which is there to protect your brain. Your brain’s a little amorphous, wet mass full of little electrical charges. You put a negative particle into that, particularly a negative particle which can carry pathogens — so you have a negative charge, it attracts positive-charge elements, like pathogens, toxins, mercury, lead.
That’s the breaking science we’re going to see in the next 12 months.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So already I think you told me that there’s like 600 plastic bags or so for every fish that size in the ocean, something like that. And they’re breaking down, and there’s going to be ever more of them. And we haven’t even seen the start of the consequences of that.
ANDREW FORREST: No, we really haven’t. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, they’re a bunch of good scientists, we’ve been working with them for a while. I’ve completely verified their work. They say there will be one ton of plastic, Chris, for every three tons of fish by, not 2050 — and I really get impatient with people who talk about 2050 — by 2025. That’s around the corner. That’s just the here and now.
You don’t need one ton of plastic to completely wipe out marine life. Less than that is going to do a fine job at it. So we have to end it straightaway. We’ve got no time.
CHRIS ANDERSON: OK, so you have an idea for ending it, and you’re coming at this not as a typical environmental campaigner, I would say, but as a businessman, as an entrepreneur, who has lived — you’ve spent your whole life thinking about global economic systems and how they work.
And if I understand it right, your idea depends on heroes who look something like this. What’s her profession?
ANDREW FORREST: She, Chris, is a ragpicker, and there were 15-20 million ragpickers like her, until China stopped taking everyone’s waste. And the price of plastic, minuscule that it was, collapsed. That led to people like her, which, now — she is a child who is a schoolchild. She should be at school. That’s probably very akin to slavery. My daughter Grace and I have met hundreds of people like her.
CHRIS ANDERSON: And there are many adults as well, literally millions around the world, and in some industries, they actually account for the fact that, for example, we don’t see a lot of metal waste in the world.
ANDREW FORREST: That’s exactly right. That little girl is, in fact, the hero of the environment. She’s in competition with a great big petrochemical plant which is just down the road, the $3.5 billion petrochemical plant. That’s the problem.
We’ve got more oil and gas in plastic and landfill than we have in the entire oil and gas resources of the United States. So she is the hero. And that’s what that landfill looks like, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s solid oil and gas.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So there’s huge value potentially locked up in there that the world’s ragpickers would, if they could, make a living from. But why can’t they?
ANDREW FORREST: Because we have ingrained in us a price of plastic from fossil fuels, which sits just under what it takes to economically and profitably recycle plastic from plastic.
See, all plastic is, is building blocks from oil and gas. Plastic’s 100% polymer, which is 100% oil and gas. And you know we’ve got enough plastic in the world for all our needs.
And when we recycle plastic, if we can’t recycle it cheaper than fossil fuel plastic, then, of course, the world just sticks to fossil fuel plastic.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So that’s the fundamental problem, the price of recycled plastic is usually more than the price of just buying it made fresh from more oil. That’s the fundamental problem.
ANDREW FORREST: A slight tweak of the rules here, Chris. I’m a commodity person. I understand that we used to have scrap metal and rubbish iron and bits of copper lying all round the villages, particularly in the developing world. And people worked out it’s got a value. It’s actually an article of value, not of waste.
Now the villages and the cities and the streets are clean, you don’t trip over scrap copper or scrap iron now, because it’s an article of value, it gets recycled.
CHRIS ANDERSON: So what’s your idea, then, to try to change that in plastics?
ANDREW FORREST: OK, so Chris, for most part of that PhD, I’ve been doing research. And the good thing about being a businessperson who’s done OK at it is that people want to see you. Other businesspeople, even if you’re kind of a bit of a zoo animal species they’d like to check out, they’ll say, yeah, OK, we’ll all meet Twiggy Forrest.
And so once you’re in there, you can interrogate them. And I’ve been to most of the oil and gas and fast-moving consumer good companies in the world, and there is a real will to change. I mean, there’s a couple of dinosaurs who are going to hope for the best and do nothing, but there’s a real will to change.