Q&A with Joel Tasche, Founder & CEO of CLEANHUB
To round off our Plastic-Free July celebrations we caught up with Joel Tasche, Founder & CEO of CLEANHUB.
We wanted to pick his brains on everything plastic positive, including the most common plastic misconceptions and his tips on reducing waste and raising awareness.
What are the most common misconceptions around plastic / plastic waste?
I think the biggest misconception about plastic is that people think all plastic is the same. That’s not the case. There are literally thousands of different types of plastic. They vary in material properties and when it comes to packaging are always designed to protect the content of the product. The challenge to keep food fresh is entirely different than storing aggressive cleansers. That has a big impact on what can happen to the product next. If you want to recycle plastic to be used in the same application again, you can’t really allow plastic types to mix because the packaging can’t do its job anymore to protect the product if the plastic has not the exact right mix of material properties.
This is also the reason why we see very low recycling rates when it comes to packaging-to-packaging recycling. Most plastic is downcycled, turned into energy via incineration, or (worst case) littered into the environment or landfilled.
What are some of the most shocking facts you’ve discovered about plastic / plastic waste?
Before we founded CLEANHUB, we did a long research trip throughout India and Sri Lanka. I stayed with a family in India and in that house nobody knew what was going to happen to the waste in their bin. We started following their waste bag and quickly ended up at a dumpsite where waste was just put on agricultural land without any protection or treatment.
What shocked me the most was that these landfills were just put on fire to reduce the waste volume. That’s a huge threat to the environment. And that happens on different scales. A lot of people burn their waste in the backyard or at the front door, next to the little shop, or on the curbside. I saw people living and raising families in landfills. There were literally waste villages, wrecked landfills where people would seek through the waste looking for anything that they could sell. So the threat to the environment starts way before plastic enters the oceans.
Do you think the average person truly understands the impact that single-use plastic has on the environment?
No, I don’t. I’m definitely not the smartest person on the planet - if at all average, and it took me almost two years to understand all the complexities. And I’m exposed to the topic every day. The biggest problem is that plastic pollution is an extremely emotional topic. Whenever things become emotional, rationality is lacking.
There are massive lobbies rooting for and against plastic, for and against topics like waste-to-energy, and even for and against setting up proper waste collection systems. And all of them have very valid and loud arguments, but usually stick to the narrative that helps them the most. That confuses consumers. Producing plastic is not sustainable, producing glass or cutting down forests for paper packaging is not sustainable either. I think Yvon Chounaird, founder of Patagonia put it best: ”Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable. Then you can try to achieve a situation where you’re causing the least amount of harm possible.”
What’s the best way to raise awareness about this negative impact?
By taking action. Everyone can do that and everything starts with yourself. Awareness doesn’t necessarily help if it doesn’t yield progress. When you walk down the street, pick up a piece of litter and throw it away. When you’re at the beach, collect plastic. When you’re making your next purchase, decision reward the brands that are honest and active.
The one thing that doesn’t help or is counter-productive in my eyes is blame and finger-pointing. Consumers point at brands, brands point at consumers, governments point on other governments, and so on and so forth. And like with the lobbies all the narratives and arguments contain truth. Brands should reduce plastic, consumers shouldn’t litter, governments should implement waste management systems. But finger-pointing leads to resentment and has never removed a single piece of plastic from the planet. There is no silver bullet against plastic pollution but what definitely helps is start with yourself and your own behaviour.
What is the biggest barrier to cutting down plastic consumption?
Economics. As just mentioned there is no silver bullet. But in my eyes, plastic pollution is an economic problem. Plastic is cheap to produce and expensive to remove. Being cheap leads to the fact that we consume a lot. If your granola bar was 20 cents more expensive maybe you’d buy fewer, or brands would need to come up with other business models. A water bottle in Germany is valued 0.25€ so people return it and it can enter a recycling loop. A candy wrapper has no value to the consumer so we dump it. Mixed with all other plastic it is virtually impossible to sort it out and thus is not turned into something new because the process is too expensive. Brands and consumers should cover the cost of plastic waste management and we’d see change.
What are the three biggest things regular people can do to cut back their plastic usage? E.G If we could change one thing we do/use every day to reduce our plastic footprint, what would it be?
Buy less unnecessary stuff. It is not just the plastic that you see with the final product. I’ll guarantee you that the plastic consumption in the entire value chain of that one product was much higher. Since you asked me for three things:
Ask yourself do I really need this thing?
Ask yourself do I really need this thing?
Ask yourself do I really need this thing?
If after responding three times yes you can be very sure that you need it and then enjoy it.
Other than using CLEANHUB (of course) what can businesses do to offset their plastic footprint?
The most effective way apart from using our technology is to produce as little plastic as possible. So we strongly promote plastic responsibility amongst the brands we work with. The first step in the waste management hierarchy is still reducing waste. Plastic is a great packaging material but it should be used responsibly. We only work with brands that have a waste reduction strategy for their packaging in place, as plastic neutrality may never be the easy way out.
Can you recommend any other great businesses combating plastic pollution in an innovative way?
If you’re reading this and you have waste workers coming to your place on a regular basis - thank them! It is not as sexy on social media as a freshly cleaned beach, but the garbage truck is still the most effective way to keep our planet clean (as long as the following processes are taken care of with integrity). We should all appreciate the people who are cleaning up behind us so much more.
And there are so many amazing organizations out there who are stepping up for our planet. Obviously, we try to partner with all of them (laughs) so the ones I’d like to highlight are all our partners. Green Worms, Tridi Oasis, Plastic Fischer, Durga Plastic. If you want to know more reach out to me - and if you want to challenge your favourite organization ask them: What is your collection focus? If they are not collecting non-recyclable plastic as well you might want to rethink them as your favourite organization.
Green Worms & Durga Plastic
Outside of CLEANHUB, what steps have you taken in your personal life to reduce your use of plastics?
I started asking myself: Do I really need this? Before making a purchasing decision. Answering that question with no as often as possible is in my eyes the best thing to do for our planet. And otherwise I try to buy from brands that support CLEANHUB as much as possible.
CLEANHUB has an ambitious mission to cut ocean-bound plastic in half by 2030, what is essential for this to happen?
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover as much plastic as possible. Brands need to start taking financial responsibility for the plastic waste they produce. Consumers need to stop littering and question their purchasing decisions and look for brands that are taking responsibility. Governments need to invest in waste management infrastructure and NGOs should focus on holding companies responsible for their behaviour.
Learn more about how you can protect our oceans with CLEANHUB in the video below, or on their website.