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EPISODE 012 : 05/27/2021

Dr. Joanne Brasch on the Global Commodity System and Retail Sustainability

Dr. Joanne Brasch’s work for the California Product Stewardship Council covers the gamut from environmentally preferable purchasing to global commodity systems, supply-chain sustainability, and environmental protection. Her work promotes a circular economy that emphasizes product cradle-to-grave stewardship and extended producer and retailer responsibility. Waste360 chose Dr. Brasch as one of the “40 under 40” award recipients in 2021.

Host: Ned Hayes and Karen Jensen
Guest: Dr. Joanne Brasch

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • California law recently changed, forcing industry changes in retail sustainability
  • Product stewardship is an emerging category focusing on the entire product life cycle
  • Extended product responsibility internalizes costs that are currently externalized
  • Textiles are an especially problematic area for retail, with many materials mixed
  • Designed for recyclability is one of the great waves of the future

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:06] Welcome to SparkPlug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe making mobile locations smarter. Well, today on SparkPlug, we are going into the world of textiles, fashion and end of life cycles for products. So I’d like to introduce this episode’s guest, Dr Joanne Brash, special project manager for California Product Stewardship Council. So of course, the first question Dr Brash is what is the California Product Stewardship Council?

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:00:41] Thank you. So we call ourselves CPSC and we’re a 501c nonprofit. We’re based in California, and we have the mission of engaging producers and end of life solutions for hard to manage products. So we’ve actually been around since 2007, and it was a result of California banning products from the landfills or banning mercury thermostats, banning batteries and these types of policies that just ban products don’t provide local government with implementation plans and funding. So we were created as a result of these types of policies to push for. So we advocate and educate for producer responsibility and product stewardship.

Karen Jensen [00:01:30] Real quick before we dove into our first question. Tell us about yourself, Joanne, what’s your story? So I actually come from the world of agriculture,. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:01:39] So I studied international agricultural development at UC Davis, and hemp was my gateway fiber, right? So I was studying a lot of the global productions and global trade. And as we looked into the commercial uses of these textiles, I was doing a lot of research on hostile waste. And so going into grad school, I spent about eight years studying hospital trash, specifically what’s coming out of the surgical units and opportunities to implement new material technologies and new materials in general to improve surgical procedures and performance. And I was bio hazardous before it was cool. 

Ned Hayes [00:02:26] That’s really fascinating, so often in retail and in the world that we work in, in business and retail, we think about how products are created and how products are sold. But we often don’t think about the aftermath. So you’re really focused on kind of the long tail of what happens to your product after it’s sold and maybe after it’s used, then where does it go and how does it impact our world, right? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:02:49] Absolutely. I mean, for the last hundred years, our waste managers have just dealt with whatever materials come their way, whatever is in the bins, whatever you’re throwing away. They dealt with and where we are now is such a complexity of the material type. So our polymers are multi material mixes. The complexity is are so great that our material managers are just at a deadlock. What else can we do because the cost of managing our waste is growing immensely. So that’s something when we talk about improving efficiencies. The stereotypes are true. Business is going to be more efficient, and so ultimately, I mean, the philosophy of what extended producer responsibility is is engaging those producers in the end of life decisions. So as we create sorting systems, as we create recycling systems, having the producers of those products at the table helps us create more longer lasting systems. 

Karen Jensen [00:03:54] You used an interesting term. What is product stewardship? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:03:59] Yeah, so to be a steward of your product is to take responsibility for its entire life cycle, so product stewardship is just a concept of taking responsibility, designing for the end of life and funding that end of life program. But that’s a little different than what extended producer responsibility is, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably. But in our world, they’re pretty distinct. And what extended producer responsibility is different than product stewardship is a very specific policy tool that the funding mechanism is burdened on the industry and less on the local government and. Taxpayers like you and I, we pay our garbage rates, we pay our sewer rates. And one thing that we can expect is as these cleanup and mitigation costs increase, so will our bills. So if we can get the producers to pay into these solutions, they’ve been privatizing the profit for years and socializing the problem. So ultimately, EPR, which is what we call extended producer responsibility, internalizes the costs that are currently externalized. 

Karen Jensen [00:05:18] So I’m really excited to mention the article in Vogue business that you were in, congratulations! 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:05:25] Thank you, thank you. 

Karen Jensen [00:05:28] Would you like to tell our listeners a little bit about that one? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:05:32] Yeah. So Vogue business was doing a series on sustainable fashion, which is a very trendy concept right now. And what does that mean? And so in this particular three part series by the author Rachel Sadowski, she was looking at end of life solutions and this particular. Article, which is, I believe the 2nd of the 3rd or maybe 3rd is specifically on policy, and so under a couple of referrals, we did an interview and EPR not a simple concept to convey. So this poor author was asking for a bite of the apple and I gave her an apple pie to the face. Here’s everything we’ve done. Here’s a history of EPR, and so I was really excited to see what she pulled from our one hour interview because at the end of the day, I think she heard me. And at the end of the day, what we’re asking of producers is to help. But it’s not a very complicated ask. And when you look at where in our communities are these textiles accumulating, it’s at our thrift stores and our thrift stores are not trained waste managers. They don’t have the same tools. They don’t have the same policy supports as our local governments do. And when we started asking thrift stores What kind of textiles are in your waste, what’s your trash bill? That in itself was a scary question to ask. I think NPR did a recent article on Goodwill’s trash bill. So that’s a good one to reference because it is astronomical. And so if we can get a little help and create a system that’s more fair because right now we are currently burdening our textile waste on our charities. 

Ned Hayes [00:07:29] Do you think that some of the responsibility will end up in the hands of retailers or producers, that they will be responsible for the entire kind of cradle to grave process? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:07:41] I think responsibility can look in different ways, so in textiles and clothing, a lot of the manufacturers and retailers are one the same in other industries, it’s not as common. But yeah, I think responsibility is starting to look in a couple of different ways here in California, nationally as well. I know toxics and microfibers. It’s something that must be addressed. And I don’t know if that’s something that the retailers have as much control over. So ultimately, it’s where policy comes in because policy is where you can set these mandates and assist with the market development. In areas where there are market failures and pollution and trash is a market failure. 

Ned Hayes [00:08:29] A market failure, sorry, I just want to stay on that for a second because often we think of market failures as not having the right margin for a product or not being able to to create the demand or lead generation. But what you’re actually saying is that the outflow at the end is a market failure that if it’s not fully using a product, then that product really has failed. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:08:54] Yeah, it instilled in a couple different ways, I mean, it’s failed in our material potential. It’s failed in the extraction of more oil and more fossil fuels, and it fails in the sense that. We’re working on a finite system. And so if we can’t create a circular system where everyone in the system supply chain wins and profits then will incorporate and internalize what is currently externalized. So pollutions considered a market failure, often because no one’s paying for it is literally accumulating as we speak. And there’s no system in place to really fund the cleanup, let alone the prevention. 

Ned Hayes [00:09:43] Right. So there’s a whole dimension to the product lifecycle, which so many people are just ignoring. That’s what you’re saying that this whole half of the product lifecycle is being left to chance or being left in the environment 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:09:56] like you just throw it away. But there is no way. 

Ned Hayes [00:10:00] Right, right. There’s no magic in the sky right now. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:10:04] It’s accumulating at our thrift stores. It’s accumulating and developing countries like the Kitano market and Ghana. It’s accumulating in our oceans and our rivers. There are some studies coming out right now. Microfibers are accumulating in our bodies and in the wildlife and. And when it comes to policies, when you lead with environment, it’s a harder list. But as soon as there’s public health at risk, it’s a really clear ask. And I think we’ve come to that point in our communities where we’re not valuing these materials, we’re throwing them in the landfill. And as soon as they put them in their bin, so the curbside. They’re not realizing what toxic exposures are downstream or the fire risks that have increased because of Lithium-Ion batteries. When we actually have a Google alert for battery fires and it’s a scary thing out there, and I know we’re talking about textiles and clothing before we venture over into batteries and hazardous waste. I mean, textiles and clothing are definitely clogging up our landfill. It’s the fifth most common material and single family households in California. 

Karen Jensen [00:11:23] I’m curious how you see thrift stores, municipalities and possible waste management addressing this issue in their own ways. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:11:33] Yeah. So actually, when we look at the history of extended producer responsibility in California, it was led by the locals. Alameda County passed an EPR bill for medicine, and sharps and it went to the Supreme Court and with the Supreme Court said was local government have the task of protecting their local communities. So as these products become more and more dangerous and posing more expensive problems to our communities, we’re seeing a lot of local governments think creatively. But ultimately, the ones that are most successful are the ones that engage upstream. So we see some landfill bans happening. And what the problem with the landfill ban is, you still have these materials coming out of the households. So unless you have a supplemental plan on where to take your clothes, who’s going to pay for the transportation and sorting, it’s just going to cause more illegal dumping and more expensive management. We’ve seen it already. 

Ned Hayes [00:12:42] Right. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:12:43] So yeah, we see a couple local governments doing sponsored collection through charities. And one of the problems there is, there’s no transparency. Where are these materials going if you collect, you know, are you cherry picking the good ones and then sending landfill the others? We have no transparency on these program. 

Ned Hayes [00:13:07] So one thing that you mentioned there is that the products are still being produced. So I know back a few years, a few decades ago, the fluorocarbons that were causing environmental degradation were actually outlawed. And so those are no longer produced in the US, at least. Is that an option for many of these things or are these so widespread that you can’t kind of outlaw things that can’t be recycled? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:13:32] It goes back to what I was saying about it not having a supplemental plan. So when you ban something like a puraflora or actually the big ones are the puraflora the PIFAs right now. Right now they’re already in our marketplace. They’ve been used on carpets, mattresses, couches, your current, your clothes have puraflora on them and we know their bio accumulative. They don’t break down they’re forever chemicals and a ban is not going to actually prevent the chemicals that are already out there from causing the problem. So that’s why EPR and producer responsibility provides funded solutions. So a ban, you’re still going to have those exposures at the recycling end. So there’s also some scary studies coming out testing the blood toxic levels at recycling plants. What’s in the air, what they’re exposed to and scary enough people are turning up in blood streams of people handling these products. 

Karen Jensen [00:14:34] Now there’s actually three textile policies that have been pitched correct. What’s involved with the new legislation on those? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:14:44] So they’re not actually legislation yet. So there’s a couple different things going on in California. We have our usual legislative session and this session there are a couple of textile bills banning PIFAs and children’s clothes, addressing microfibres, a battery bill we’ll talk about in a little bit. But we made a pitch to the statewide recycling commission, which, you know, recycling such as statewide and global problem, that California appointed our top experts to come up with a list of solutions. And CPSC pitched a couple of textiles, ideas and one of the ones that’s moving forward and will be heard on May 26 by the full commission is an EPR program for hospitality and home linens and home textiles. And the reason we want to really focus a scope on these types of products is because they’re highly recyclable. So your sheets, your towels, your blankets are likely to have less materials mixed in, so they’re more likely to be 100 percent cotton, or maybe a 50 50. But the joke is you’re not really putting a plastic in your carpets or elastic in your curtains, and the elastic is actually one of the big contaminants. So we’ve been pitching the hospitality and home textile recycling as a first step and a low hanging fruit to creating a circular system for textiles and also to provide feedstock for the industry as they start wanting recycled content. The other thing is there’s not enough soda bottles in the world for every fashion industry or every fashion brand to have soda bottles added to their clothes. So why not look for the next type of feedstock carpet readily available in California and three other states with programs on on the list and hospitality and home textiles is another great feedstock for recycling, and a policy tool would actually kind of boost this program, which is not really launching, just needs a little help to launch 

Ned Hayes [00:16:57] To change course slightly in our conversation. I’m curious about manufacturing processes and how that has changed. I think of three things that have changed the face of manufacturing over the last few years. One, of course, is just in time manufacturing, which came out decades ago, but then more recently, the onset of 3-D printing and then biomaterials. So, so so those three changes, I think, could change how much ref use is out there, how much outflow is coming out of the retail base. Any other trends that I’m missing that could influence that? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:17:36] Well, yeah. But I do want to comment. I love your comment on the 3-D printers. I’ve always said that that’s going to be our solution there. That’s what manufacturing back home is going to start looking like. 

Ned Hayes [00:17:47] So as well as 3D printing, what about biomaterials? I know that there have been some experiments recently with kombucha and with other materials that grow substrate that is bio based. It’s much more degradable. Is this a useful field or do you think that that’s way too early to judge? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:18:06] I think the biggest struggle we have as waste managers when we see new materials come out is they don’t have a plan for their end of life. They recently reached out to both fabrics and their recent launch with Adidas that is plastic, mixed with rubber, mixed with some interior fabrics, and it’s going to cost a lot more money to separate those products, collect it, separate it, let alone recycle. So I think there is a large potential for bio plastics and bio fabrics. They’re not really new. But there’s a large opportunity for greenwashing. And as waste managers, we’re we’re kind in the no bullshit phase of our careers. Like if it cannot truly be compostable, you will not be allowed to say compostable in California. And that’s a bill that’s an act of right now. If it is truly natural, you have to prove it. And we have a list of candidate chemicals in California. They cannot be in use on these products, so it comes down to setting stricter policies. And I don’t think it’s there and bioplastics. So we’ve seen a lot of bad products enter our market. I will say one of the biggest things that irks me is is hemp. And I think its potential as a bast fiber, meaning its natural state, it’s super strong. It’s plentiful. It’s kind of a little scratchy. Sometimes it’s not as soft as when you actually turn it into a cellulosic. And so once you turn it into a cellulosic fiber, you’re adding plasticizers, you’re adding additives, then you’re adding, you know, finishing chemicals and it gets so far from that natural state that again, it’s just another type of plastic. 

Ned Hayes [00:20:00] So when manufacturers actually make a product more palatable to the market, they’re actually changing the product in a way that’s actually making it less recyclable. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:20:13] Oftentimes, and we see this in a couple of different products, and especially it’s burdensome when they don’t work with waste managers to make these when they make these changes. So one example would be like mattresses. So this pocket coil where they actually wrap each piece of metal in fabric makes it so it doesn’t squeak as much. It gives it a little other functional aspects. But to recycle them at the end, it just rendered it non-recyclable for a good decade. Any of the individually wrapped springs we’re getting landfilled. When it’s metal, it should be recycled. So it was because of our stewardship program, which that one is not true EPR. It is funded by a consumer fee. And what our stewardship program is able to do when they have the funding and they have producer engagement, was they actually just a few months ago released this machine that they invented to separate out this pocket coils? So we’ve tried for green design, and we’ve tried to tell for years the mattress designers. Please stop doing that. But ultimately, that’s what the market was demanding and what they were doing. So it was through a stewardship program. We were able to find a good solution to that design problem. 

Ned Hayes [00:21:38] Well, Dr Brash, I know that you’re based in California, but you actually teach a class that speaks to politics and economic impacts around the world. So could you tell us a little bit about the politics of recycling and retail outflow? I keep calling it retail outflow. Maybe there’s a better or better word for it. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:22:01] I mean, it’s all trash recycling waste. You know, it’s all the same when we think about it. What we’re trying to do is shift the concept to more of material management because when you call it an outflow or you call it waste, it assumes you know, someone else’s responsibility. But if we’re all just managing materials, we’re all part of the solution. So we’re talking about the politics of passing holistic legislation and the way it is done most successfully is getting everyone at the table and being part of the conversation. And I know you’re based in Oregon, and what’s really interesting is Oregon has a couple bills right now active in legislation, one on mattresses, one on carpet. And what’s interesting to know is people from California’s program are there, you know, working with the authors, working with the advocates because it’s in everyone’s best interest to get more of these programs passed so that we can have more material management holistically. So when we talk about managing our materials, we want to have a more circular approach as opposed to retail outflow or waste generation or any of these concepts that apply linear material flows. If we start talking about material management, it engages everyone along the way. So everyone in the system, including ourselves, are part of this material management. When we buy them, when we use them, when we repair them, we’re managing our own materials. So it’s CPSC and our mission to create more lasting systems. It’s not just giving the materials to the big brand so that they can have take back programs. We’re really looking at building community resilience so that we can manage these materials holistically. This sector is ripe for innovation. We see more air coming out, we see more robotics. And please, we welcome all of you, please. 

Ned Hayes [00:24:10] Well, in the retail space, we see a lot of companies injecting a lot of batteries and a lot of electronics. And so make your store smarter. But cameras everywhere, but with sensors everywhere and SnowShoe, we actually created a product that is a a standalone check-in device that is passive, doesn’t require electronics. Doesn’t require batteries. It is manufactured 3D or injectable plastic. But it’s just an inert piece of plastic. So so it’s one kind of technology that sits there and can be scanned by a phone. So I’m curious compared to something with an iPad and with plug ins and batteries. How does this compare in terms of the the level of environmental impact? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:24:55] So what’s in what’s on the internal 

Ned Hayes [00:24:58] SnowShoe component is actually a special pattern that’s printed in capacitive plastic that can be scanned by a phone. But it’s just, as I said, an inert piece of plastic. It’s not. It doesn’t have batteries or electronics embedded within it. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:25:13] Oh, wow, that’s cool. 

Ned Hayes [00:25:15] Right, right. Compare it to something that has embedded electronics that actually has..

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:25:19]  Once you start mixing the different components in once you start putting metal with the plastic and polypropylene, with the PET mixed with a little nylon on the side. That’s when things start getting non-recyclable. But as a singular monomer device, if we can call it a device at that point in theory is recyclable, so it has significantly less impact. And if you start putting recycled minimum recycled content in your plastic, you could just lead the way for all the other electronics. 

Ned Hayes [00:25:56] Well, that’s great to hear. Well, we’ll check with our engineering department to see what they can do. Yeah. 

Karen Jensen [00:26:02] Hey, what recommendations do you have for retailers and producers? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:26:14] Yeah, I mean, designed for recyclability is a big theme right now, so making sure you can take things apart and separate things, which you don’t want to risk your durability. So if you want to make things more durable, you have to fund and have a system in place to actually separate them. Another recommendation that we have are to think about repairability, that’s another big theme right now. Right to repair. That’s at the national federal level as well as state level. 

Ned Hayes [00:26:50] Just just a thought there. I know that some companies like John Deere have really fought against that because they they want to control access to their IP. Do you have any comments on the right to repair movement and and companies like John Deere? 

Karen Jensen [00:27:05] I think the right to repair movement is much needed at the end of the day when we think about how our communities are going to succeed and be resilient. We need to manage our materials and have our own ownership over the materials within our community. I know here in California our right to repair some of the act of legislation is a little more focus on the same medical devices because we have seen short supplies due to, you know, inability to repair them and access to those shortages. But when you start looking at some of the more complicated materials and products, repairability might need to have producer engagement. So I’m not opposed to a right to repair system that still puts the producers in the driver’s seat. I just know that I do opposed to extracting more fossil fuels, and I do opposed to creating global systems that continue to extract, and I think there’s a little bit of room for innovation. 

Ned Hayes [00:28:12] Well, speaking of innovation, can you speak to one or two brands or companies that you feel are headed in the right direction? 

Karen Jensen [00:28:20] We have given a couple of war awards to some companies, so I could definitely shout out them and their hard work Outerknown. This is Kelly Slater’s clothing company, but I love the most about them. Not only do they have green design at the forefront, they’re really willing to invest in innovative products and supply system. So they launched one of their new collections of 100 percent recycled product materials. Outerknowns another really good one. I know that we have our aero awards are open right now, so if there’s other companies that want to apply, it’s going to be our 13th year this year giving out the awards. So Outerknown was already.. 

Ned Hayes [00:29:04] What’s the closing date for applications for the Doctor Brush? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:29:07] July 1st. And you can access it on our website. Tell PSC dot org. And last year’s winner was actually Karen will love this. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, who knew a brewing company with lead in hazardous waste reduction. And that’s what happens when they care. 

Karen Jensen [00:29:27] Yeah, they are big on that, for sure. Hey, I’m curious what’s next on the horizon for you at the CPSC? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:29:36] Yes, so we just launched what we are calling the statewide Textile Recovery Advisory Committee. We are opening it to the public. And what we’re going to do is write a report on textile specific legislation that we recommend. 

Karen Jensen [00:29:50] So I have one last question that I’d love to ask. And what is your mission and what would you want to be remembered for? 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:29:58] My mission is to let the innovators innovate, to let the leaders lead. And so as we create these new programs and we do these new pilot projects, the end of the day, we want to find who the leaders are and how can we be the best champion as we set policies, we’re really looking to looping the laggards. So my personal mission is to drive a circular economy and to drive circular systems for not only textiles and batteries, but for all the materials in our lives. And we can’t do it alone. So CPSC, whose mission is to engage producers and Dr. Bradshaw’s mission is just to lift up the people who are trying their hardest. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:45] Fantastic. Well, thank you for your time today, Dr Brash and good luck at the CPSC. 

Dr. Joanne Brash [00:30:52] Thank you so much for having me. 

Karen Jensen [00:30:53] Fantastic. 

Ned Hayes [00:31:03] Thanks for listening today to the SparkPlug podcast hosted by me, Ned Hayes, and brought to you by SnowShoe For smarter mobile location, SparkPlug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content. Copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.