This week I bring you an interview with Peter Wang Hjemdahl of RePurpose Global. “Together, rePurpose Global’s coalition is recovering 14,228,074 pounds of plastic each year - will you join us?”
Next week, next year, the first episode of the year is an interview with Steve Long, Director of the RIPE project at the University of Illinois, Professor at the University of Lancaster and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He explains his work on the development of food plants to be resilient in the face of climate change. After that we have Paul Hughes working on batteries for industrial and marine applications, Hank Dearden with a new angle on planting trees and Leonardo Zangrando who is planning to sail round the world to encourage people to protect the oceans. That brings us to 1st February, when Clarke Murphy explains the need for sustainable leadership, and after that I have to own up to how well I’ve managed my carbon footprint in the previous three months.
But first to this week’s guest.
While it’s essential to solve the climate crisis, at the same time’s essential that we preserve a clean and habitable environment. No small task, but RePurpose Global is another organisation showing the way.
Sustainable Futures Report // rePurpose Global
Anthony Day x Peter Wang Hjemdahl podcast interview transcript
Anthony Day: [00:00:00] Plastic is a wonder product, but at the same time, plastic is a curse. It's one of the principal pollutants across all parts of the globe. Today I'm talking to Peter Wang Hjemdahl, co-founder of rePurpose Global. Peter, welcome.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Thank you, Anthony. Appreciate this time, and look forward to our discussion.
Anthony Day: Okay, Peter, in a couple of sentences, what is your organisation's mission?
World's Leading ActionPlatform
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Certainly. You already introduced me, but I’ll just introduce myself again. I’m one of the co-founders and Chief Advocacy Officer at rePurpose Global, and today we are the world's leading plastic action platform dedicated to making positive environmental impacts accessible for companies across the world. We realised that plastic as a problem has risen up to the top, one of the most widespread environmental crises of [00:01:00] our time. Behind the plastic pollution problem is the CPG industry or consumer packaged goods. An industry that is worth 5 trillion, is now almost single-handedly responsible for one of the worst environmental crises that we're facing today as it sends over 120 billion plastic items into our nature every year.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: There's a real demand for companies to take that action and reduce their environmental footprint, and that's where rePurpose comes in. We have developed a holistic and comprehensive plastic action ecosystem that enables organisations to measure, reduce, balance, and communicate their plastic impact. We do so in different ways. First by helping organisations measure their plastic footprint and analyse it, because you can't begin to act on what you can’t measure. Then, we help organisations [00:02:00] activate their supply chains and re-gear them towards reducing virgin plastic by enabling the incorporation of recycled plastic from the environment into the supply chain in the first place.
Plastic Credits Market
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: And third through plastic credits (inspired by carbon and the carbon volunteer carbon markets). We created the plastic credit markets, an instrument that enables organisations to support the verified recovery of plastic from the environment. Finally through certifications - a credible trusted certification that rePurpose offers, that enables companies that do measure, reduce and balance their plastic use to communicate that credibility and that consciousness to their stakeholders. So, holistically speaking rePurpose Global is an ecosystem of solutions and ecosystem of innovations. We bridge the gap between ambition and action, for [00:03:00] companies while at the same time empowering, financing and scaling up the efforts of innovators and waste workers who are dealing with the consequences of our consumption on a daily basis across the world. That's a little bit about rePurpose. Happy of course, to dive deeper.
Anthony Day: Well, it seems to me there are three points at which you can address the amount of plastic getting into the environment. First of all, if you design a product to minimise the use of plastic. Secondly, if you have a collection within the production facility of any scrap plastic. Thirdly, there is post-consumer plastic, which is just thrown away. So do you operate at all those three points?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: That's why our thesis here is to create this ecosystem that enables companies to take action on [00:04:00] every single part of the life cycle of where plastic impacts the environment. Helping organisations make better design choices, as well as incorporating materials to reduce virgin plastic, in addition to enabling companies to clean up plastic, particularly in the global South, where they lack the complete waste management infrastructure required to handle the quantum of waste production and waste importing and exporting that happens so regularly in our global economy today. We operate at all these levels because we think that there's no single silver bullet solution to tackling the plastic waste crisis that we have in our hands today. So the only way forward is by creating a way for organisations and those that are responsible for the problem, to holistically take action. [00:05:00]
Anthony Day: Looking at it from a practical point of view, you have a number of projects in developing countries where people are actually recovering, sorting and repurposing post-consumer waste. Can you tell us a bit about one or more of those projects?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Definitely. Looking at sort of the philosophy behind it as well, when we first started rePurpose, it was less so about the marine impacts or the conservation impacts of plastic. How my co-founders Svanika, Aditya and I initially got engaged in the work, actually as a starting point as students at the University of Pennsylvania, was thinking about how to double the income of millions of people living in extreme poverty, in urban slums across the world. We realised our answer was waste workers and waste pickers. This was back in 2016, when this global [00:06:00] consciousness that we have around plastic today, was just a couple of years earlier in that sense. We understood and found out that there are millions of people who engage with informal recycling and waste working all across the global South.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: They're really the ones at the frontline solving the plastic problem day in and day out, but aren't getting support and the appreciation, the finance, the assistance to be able to formalise those efforts and create broader and deeper impact. So, that was our entry point: how can we catalyse capital towards projects that are happening in local communities across the global South, and what does that look like? That was the original motivation behind the invention of plastic credits. Where one plastic credit equals one [00:07:00] kilogram of plastic waste that companies and organisations can finance rePurpose to remove from the environment, and we then take that capital from companies and put them into projects on the grounds.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: We've got 11 projects running across six different countries. India, Indonesia, Kenya, Columbia, Ghana, and recently the Dominican Republic. There are a few ways that we really create and sustain impact on the ground. The main vehicle is project finances. So funding infrastructure pieces, blocks of infrastructure, and first mile logistics are required for the effective handling of all kinds of waste materials, including plastic. And now I think this is a good moment to understand the crucial differences between the global North and global South when it comes to waste management.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Looking at a country like the United Kingdom versus a country like India. [00:08:00] In the UK you've got the curbside collection, virtually every household, and every commercial establishment has appropriate access to waste management services. Even though there is a lot of landfilling, and a lot of incineration, the waste is at least collected in the first place. Now, switch around. If you look at the global South, a country like India or a state like Goa, for example, which is a bit of a tourist destination similar to Bali, Indonesia, which has a pristine, naturalist, natural environment, they have no organised collection efforts.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: This is because of a lack of finance from the government, and a lack of initial capital to scale up. So waste today, in the status quo in many places like Goa in India, is being dumped openly into nature, into unmanaged landfills and being burned openly as well to save space. So what we are doing here, at [00:09:00] rePurpose in a place like Goa, Kerala in India as well as the rest of the world, is to find, fund the real estate, the trucks, the daily machines, the equipment, the salaries, the wages, the technical assistance, the training, and all of the CapEx (the capital expenditures), and the operational expenditures of what it means to run an effective and efficient waste management collection and processing system.
Mitigation and Collection
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: With that in mind, if you look at what's happening in the world, the reason why we can't solve the plastic problem is not that we don't have enough recycling infrastructure. It's because we don't have enough mitigation and collection infrastructure to direct the plastic waste or the waste overall that is generated into the right streams. Once we have that, it actually empowers a circular economy and creates recycles, and gives the [00:10:00] materials required to create a global circular economy. So that's a little bit of how we work generally, and happy to go into more details as well.
Anthony Day: So you are putting together a complete waste recovery system from the consumer’s door, if you like, right through to a processing facility. And you are doing this as a nonprofit organisation?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: So, at rePurpose, we have two different entities. We’ve got a for-profit, a public benefit corporation, and we've got a nonprofit organisation as well because we believe that both vehicles have their own pros and cons or pragmatic usage to attract private capital, as well as to work with organisations in a different capacity. The way we do that, to use an analogy that maybe folks can resonate with, is a bit more of an [00:11:00] impact investor, if that makes sense. We take capital from companies and brands who are measuring, reducing, who are going plastic neutral, who are going plastic negative, for example, and we're taking that capital and deploying it into our impact partners across the world. We work with local entrepreneurs, and innovators because we don't believe in a parachuting in, parachuting out approach. We believe in partnerships to make sure that even if rePurpose is not there, because our end goal is for rePurpose to finally go out of business, to have actually solved the problem so there's no plastic waste in the environment.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: We take a long term approach to this conversation and partner with organisations that have the fundamentals, the right teams, the right mentality, the right ambition, and the vision. We then [00:12:00] come in with the finance, with technical assistance to work together on joint projects; whether or not it is new infrastructure, whether or not it's new recovery systems, whether or not it's engaging within informal economies, in informal waste worker communities in these locations. So that these joint projects create a quantifiable, tangible, additional impact on the environment.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: That's really the crucial piece here: that principle of additionality. Every piece of plastic that rePurpose finances and enables the removal from the environment, is a piece of plastic that would've otherwise stayed in the environment. That's very important because we know how limited philanthropic capital and limited sustainability capital are. Even today with this global momentum towards it, it's still very limited in terms of the actual dollars that go toward environmental causes. Our mission here, back to our early days of where [00:13:00] we started, is to make sure that every dollar that we deploy on the ground is creating the maximum amount of impact in the world. That's really the philosophy from which we operate, Anthony.
Anthony Day: So you are taking plastic out of the environment and then what can you do with it? Can you convert all of it into a form where it can actually be reused, and recycled into new products? Surely some plastics are not possible - not able to be recycled.
Importance of Redesign
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Yeah, definitely, and this highlights the importance of redesign we were discussing a few minutes ago. We recognise the importance of eliminating unnecessary plastic items. Lots of polymer types, like polystyrenes, like PVC, like certain elements like MLP - multi-layered packaging, your chips wrappers, your chocolate wrappers, your candy stuff, your Deliveroo, and DoorDash delivery [00:14:00] packaging, all of those are technically recyclable but are not practically recyclable at all. The real focus on those pieces of plastic is it's really an all-hands-on-deck situation. We have to reduce those unnecessary plastic waste streams, and at the same time also recognise the fact that it will take decades to unwind supply chains. Just in the next five minutes, 6 million pounds of plastic will be generated, and over 90% of that is going to be wasted, most of which headed to the environment.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: The clock is ticking, and we know that we've got to handle it from both the upstream perspective as well as the downstream perspective. To answer your question on what we actually do with the plastic collected. Whatever plastic that is recyclable, we send to recycling end [00:15:00] destinations and we've got complete traceability to make sure that happens through third-party verification, internal technology enabled verifications and tracking. Making sure that the plastic that is recyclable is recycled, and can be turned into pellets that can be used for new materials in the circular economy.
No Landfill, No Incineration
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: For other materials that are not as recyclable, we have multiple end destinations, but regardless of what end destinations we end up sending the materials to, we have a no landfill, no incineration policy at rePurpose because we don't believe in those destinations. Those are very low in the waste management hierarchy. Yet, at the same time, you can’t recycle it. So what do you do? In a couple of our projects, for example here in Bogota, Columbia, we engage [00:16:00] with an organisation called ARB - Association of Recyclers Bogota, the oldest Union of Waste Pickers in Latin America with thousands of waste pickers associated with them. We work with them to collect and incentivise the collection and processing of low-value materials, like candy wrappers and chocolate wrappers, and these sort of really “bad” plastic, and we convert them into eco-bricks. Replacing the need for bricks and construction materials using those eco-bricks, plastic eco-bricks for public utilities, like park benches, bus stops, and parks, but also affordable housing for waste workers and other members of the community. So that's one example of how we use low-value plastic. In some other projects, we use it for road construction. [00:17:00] Of course there are always downsides such as microplastic and other issues. No solution is perfect, because we know that non-recyclable plastic is not perfect. Hence, varied end destinations, to make sure that the plastic is recovered if not recycled, because they're not recyclable.
Anthony Day: So these non-recyclable plastics are used as a filler, in building blocks, and things like that. Is that, is that the way you deal with it?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Building blocks, road construction, but also as an energy source as well. We work with cement and cement production. The cement industry is actually one of the world's hidden polluters and accounts for over eight to nine percent of CO2 emissions. Yet nobody knows about it, even though it's almost as much as aviation.
Anthony Day: Yeah, I know. I know.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: So, coal production, or rather, the [00:18:00] usage of coal, is really the primary driver of that carbon emissions. Here we replace coal with low value plastic in an energy recovery process that is different than waste energy, different than incineration. It's done at a much higher temperature in a clinker, in a paralysis process that basically eliminates all the harmful gasses that get produced in a traditional waste energy process. The benefit here is that the low-value plastic that shouldn't have been produced in the first place, first of all, does not end up with the environment, and second of all, replaced a dirty source of energy like coal, with something that avoids the burning of black coal. That's another way in which we handle it. Technically it's called co-processing. It’s definitely not as good as recycling, but it's definitely better than waste to energy and landfilling for sure.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: With that said, our focus is not just on low value plastic, it's [00:19:00] really about the creation of infrastructure. When we create waste management: waste collection, facilities, systems on the ground, door-to-door collections, going from the consumer's door all the way to the processing facility and further, what we're doing here is creating the necessary building blocks for the circular economy. We get compensated for the plastic credits that organisations compensate us to deploy on the grounds, but that plastic credit is having impacts on paper recycling, e-waste recycling, and composting because we're not just cherry-picking when we go to the consumer's doorstep.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: With our projects, we're now serving millions of households across the world that previously lacked access to basic waste management services. When we provide them with that access, it's not just, “hey, give us the plastic”. It's “give us all of your waste materials, dry waste and wet waste, and let us handle it from there” and we will get [00:20:00] compensated. The reason why we're able to do that is because of the plastic credits. So what's interesting here is that it's really beyond the particular credit, it’s really about the ripple ecosystem effects that a (plastic) credit can have on the local economy because what we're doing here is not just removing low-value (plastic), it's recycling, it’s empowering waste workers with ethical wages and jobs and providing services, basic services to citizens, that previously lacked access to it.
Plastic in the Oceans
Anthony Day: That's very interesting. One of the major destinations of plastic pollution is sadly the oceans. Are you addressing that problem at all?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Yeah. It's definitely quite interesting and I've reflected on it quite a bit internally. If you look at the rise of this ocean angle of plastic pollution and how it really got started we have [00:21:00] Sir David Attenborough to thank for that. We have the viral images of plastic straws stuck in turtles' noses to thank for the global momentum that plastic has received, and the global attention that plastic pollution has gotten. That symbolic effect is very real and you can look at that in similar ways to Greta Thunberg and others. That symbolism is important, but I think it's important to move past the symbolism as well, because I think what ends up happening is that folks end up associating one very specific part of this very big and complicated issue of plastic waste and waste overall and pollution at large, with the oceans. It ends up providing and creating an undue bias on the very, very end of the downstream of the waste management [00:22:00] supply chain.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: To illustrate the importance of having a scientific focus on solving the plastic problem in a longitudinal capacity: just take the cost, the average cost of recovering one ton of plastic from the environment. To recover one ton of plastic that is bound for the oceans, which is working mostly in coastal, vulnerable coastal regions wherever we operate. So for example, in Ghana- it's Accra, in Kenya - it’s Mombasa, and in India - it's Goa, and Kerala in the coastal regions and cities. We are creating infrastructure to capture the plastic before it ends up in the environment in the ocean. It costs about $500 per ton of plastic to do that. Now, to remove the same plastic from the ocean, just two, three kilometers offshore, of the locations that we operate [00:23:00] in, it will cost more than $50,000 per ton of plastic. So it's a hundred times the difference between the cost to recover plastic bound for the oceans versus recovering plastic that is already in the oceans. So I think it's important because it puts into perspective that when there are limited resources and capital available for solving these very dire crises that we have in our hands today, it’s best to put our attention into the right places in upstream (waste management), in redesign, in reduction, but also in recovering plastic bound for the oceans. To answer your question, I think we have a very clear impact on the oceans, but we don't directly fish plastic away from the ocean or in the ocean. It's much more about prevention and creating ocean plastic prevention infrastructure as opposed to the ocean plastic fishing infrastructure.
Anthony Day: Right, now you're a relatively new organisation [00:24:00] and relatively small in the face of an enormous problem. How do you see your organisation growing over the next few years, and how far do you think you're going to be able to make a significant difference in this problem?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Yeah, and again another very difficult question. In the face of a lot of overall negatives, all this doom, and gloom, that there are so many problems everywhere, it is kind of hard to find the optimism to keep going, to keep growing the cause, definitely. We find solace in the speed at which we've grown so far. We’ve launched essentially less than three years ago, a little bit less than three years ago. We were founded in 2016, but really started operations in early 2020. Just in the past less than two and a half years, we've [00:25:00] engaged close to 300 global brands and companies as a part of our coalition to solve this problem, and we're removing about 6,000 tons of plastic from the environment every single year at this point in time.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: rePurpose, the organisation has also grown quite a bit, with about 60 people full-time. The momentum is there, the tension is there and the motivation is there. Companies want to solve this problem. Companies want to remove the legacy ways that we've already created in the environment. For us to really change the paradigm because we will keep growing in this capacity doubling, tripling even year and year but plastic production is also set to triple in the next two decades. So, we are fighting an uphill battle here. We need a [00:26:00] real mentality change to be honest away from piecemeal solutions and piecemeal narratives into systematic solutions and systematic narratives.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: I'm comforted by some of the recent developments, for example, the United Nations, and we are engaging closely with the UN and other organisations associated with them as well. Maybe you've heard already about this - over 190 countries earlier this year adopted a resolution or rather have unanimously agreed to establish a legally binding treaty, a legally binding instrument to tackle plastic pollution. Now the first intergovernmental negotiating committee meeting, which is associated with a series of COP meetings called INC, this “Paris agreement for plastic” is the hope of this next iteration of our [00:27:00] global fight against plastic pollution. The first meeting is actually happening, we're taping this I believe in early November, so it's happening in three weeks in Uruguay and governments are coming together to solve this problem. I'll be there as well alongside many other civil society organisations that are tackling this problem. I think there's a lot of optimism for that process, not just that particular process, but the symbolism of that process being integrated with policy.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: A lot of private sectors and philanthropic and social entrepreneurial players like rePurpose have proven the case. We're able to create an impact on the ground. We have created a track record for the amount of impact that we can create. Now is the time to really integrate the institutions that can really bring these concepts into much more mainstream adoption. So if you look at how the volunteer carbon credit [00:28:00] market started and the push that it got from the Paris Accords and net zero commitments, I think that's really where the next challenge lies, Anthony, to be honest. How can we take our existing capabilities and learnings and help global business executives, and global policymakers, internationally and nationally, to integrate these solutions into their roadmaps?
Anthony Day: Peter, you've got a long way to go, but you've come a tremendous way in only three years. Before we close, I just want to ask you whether you've measured your carbon footprint, because you said to start with, from a plastic point of view, you've got to measure your plastic footprint before you can decide where you need to go. At the same time, of course, every organisation, even an organisation like yours, has a carbon footprint. Hopefully, yours is a beneficial carbon footprint, but are you monitoring that at the same time?
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Yeah, [00:29:00] it is challenging for sure because there's a lot of different ways of looking at rePurpose’s own carbon footprint. Of course, we've got staff, and we've got travel, and we do that because we need to grow the cause, and that's important. Recycling if done wrong, can be net carbon positive. We take a lot of care to make sure that the recycling that we are doing is not adding to the problem. Recycling is an industrially intensive process so there’s definitely a certain amount of carbon footprint associated with that as well.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: To be honest Anthony, I think we really have been very focused so far on growing the cause, and we haven't tracked as much of our own carbon footprint yet. Is this the right time to [00:30:00] do so? Now we've internally started the effort of actually understanding that. What we do know, and this is the thing that we take care of in our protocols and standards; we’ve got a Plastic Credit Protocol, and we've got an Impact Code of Conduct that governs every aspect of our operations on the ground. Our actual recovery and recycling efforts in that regard are definitely net carbon negative. We are not polluting more carbon from the environment than we are actually taking out, because there is a much higher carbon footprint when plastic is mismanaged as opposed to managed properly.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Where we want to do better, and admittedly we haven't done as much, is in tracking our internal operations, like our teams, our offices and our travel. I think that is a pretty important piece as well. It's a piece that is growing and it's challenging when we've been very kind of results oriented [00:31:00] in growing the organisation. It's clear to us now that as the company, both the business and the nonprofit fronts of rePurpose are growing pretty quickly, that we have stakeholders of our own now, it's not just us helping others address their own stakeholders and work with their stakeholders, we’ve got a clear interest in our own operations, which is a good thing. I think overall it's a good challenge, a good problem to have, but we want to do better.
Anthony Day: Well, Peter, thank you for all that. There's a lot more about your operation on the website repurpose.global but for now, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and ideas with the Sustainable Futures Report.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl: Thank you, Anthony. It was a great conversation and I'm looking forward to chatting more.
Bringing 2022 to a Close
And so I bring 2022 to an end for the Sustainable Futures Report.
It's been quite a long journey, as you have gathered from last weeks review of the year. Thank you for listening and thank you all for staying loyal for so long to the Sustainable Futures Report. Particular thanks, of course, to my patrons who pay a small amount each month towards the costs of running this podcast and so help me to keep it independent and add free.
Given that the season for your New Year's resolutions is coming up what about becoming a patron of the SFR for 2023 if you're not already? Just a thought.
You may have noticed that the SFR has changed recently in so far as every episode has been an interview. I'll let you into a secret. I am actually taking some time off over Christmas and the New Year and therefore have recorded some of these episodes in advance. I hope you'll forgive me and that you'll enjoy what I've prepared. You'll hear much more of me and my thoughts and opinions from the 8th of February onwards. In the meantime I will be monitoring emails, and although you may not get a prompt response please be sure that I always welcome your thoughts, questions and ideas and I will do my best to answer them. Yes, Ian Jarvis, Jane White and Carol Dance, I haven’t forgotten!
It only remains for me to wish you a very Happy New Year when it comes and I look forward to your company in 2023.
I’m Anthony Day
That was episode number 442, the final episode of the SFR for 2023.