Narrator: This is one of a series of interviews on health and environmental topics between Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, and influential thinkers and decision makers. The following conversation, which took place in October 2011, is with Adam Lowry, a co-founder of Method Home.
Blumenfeld: This is Jared Blumenfeld, Regional Administrator for EPA, Region 9 and I’m lucky enough to be talking today with Adam Lowry, one of the co-founders of Method Home. Welcome, Adam!
Lowry: Thanks for having me, Jared.
Blumenfeld: Absolutely. So today we’re going to talk a little bit about what makes Method tick and a little bit also specifically about marine debris. Maybe tell me, Adam, when you decided to create what is now this amazing organization, did you have environmental goals in mind? Or were they really goals of just trying to make a better product?
Lowry: Very much both: trying to make a better product and the environmental goals. I’m a former climate scientist, and so I’m very passionate about environmental issues. But one of the reasons I left the field of climate science is I wanted to find a different way to create positive social and environmental change. I thought that business would be a great way to do it, and I thought what better place to do it in business than with items that everyone has to buy and has to use, and trying to make those better products.
Blumenfeld: So your packaging is very distinctive. You can see it on the shelf, and that’s one of the distinguishing aspects of your brand. Tell us a little bit about what goes into making a sustainable container, or sustainable packaging for your products.
Lowry: Well, sustainability is very broad and very complex, obviously. You have to look at it very comprehensively. It’s not just about the carbon footprint; it’s not just about the waste footprint. It’s about all of those different factors, and so you have to try to optimize across all of those variables simultaneously. We add the incremental step of, we also need our products to be beautiful and they need to represent themselves really well on shelves. As that relates to designing them more sustainably, where we’ve really gone over time is in a couple directions. The first is drastically reducing the amount of plastic that’s needed to package the product in the first place. In some cases, that’s simply reducing packaging, and in other places, it’s totally redesigning the product itself, so you can miniaturize it and not need as much plastic in the first place. And then a real huge area of focus for us has been on using the plastic that’s already on the planet. If you run the numbers on the waste, water, and energy and carbon that goes into manufacturing plastic, you’ll learn that using post-consumer plastic is by far and away the best way to go in terms of creating environmental responsibility in plastic packaging, so that’s a big area for us, as well.
Blumenfeld: So, we were lucky enough to be with Administrator Lisa Jackson about a month ago in San Francisco, in your office on Commercial Street, where you launched the world’s first container made out of marine-debris plastic. Tell us a little bit about what motivated you to go into that direction.
Lowry: Well Method’s been a real leader in post-consumer plastic for a while. We make tens of millions of bottles a year, almost every single one of which is completely free of virgin plastic altogether. Having achieved 100% post-consumer content in our packaging, we started asking ourselves, well, what’s the next step? What is the ultimate post-consumer material, if you will? That’s when our attention really went to ocean plastic, which is a problem that not just I, but a lot of other people at Method and outside of Method have been concerned about for a really long time. This is a problem that most people, when you learn about it, you’re overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem and the seeming hopelessness of solving it. We thought, why don’t we just try to see if we can do something interesting with this. The idea was born to try to collect some of this plastic and mix it in with the PCR that we’re already using to make what we’re now calling Ocean PCR..
Lowry: The strategy we’re using has two parts to it. The first is a shorter-term strategy where we just need to gather enough material to get the initial product line to market, and we’re really doing that ourselves. We are working with a number of beach clean-up organizations, but essentially what we’re doing is, we’re going out to land masses that are either in the gyre or close to the gyre, Hawaii is a good example, and a lot of the gyre plastic washes up on the beaches of these places. We’re just going to go, we’ve already been doing and will be doing in the next couple of months, a couple more clean-ups, where we just go pick up what we need for our initial quantities, above-and-beyond what we already have. We’re then also in the process of setting up an incentive where we can use the broad network of clean-up organizations, both that are based around beaches, as well as those organizations going out into the middle of the gyre collecting plastic, and our plan is to create an incentive where we actually pay people for this plastic that we can use, so that people who are going out to the gyre, or just getting gyre plastic off the beaches of Hawaii or elsewhere, can get a little bit of monetary value for the work they’re already doing. Essentially it’s like crowd-sourcing ocean plastic over the long-term. Short-term: we’ll do it ourselves. Long-term: we crowd-source it.
Blumenfeld: As you go around the world – I know you were recently in Iceland and we saw you in Hawaii – are there any particular countries that you see that have gotten good packaging ordinances at the local level or laws at the national level that have prompted kind of a design revolution, that you wish we could bring to the states?
Lowry: For the most part, there’s just a patchwork of regulations that doesn’t seem to be terribly well-coordinated globally. There are a couple of examples that are interesting. Certainly, in Germany, there’s been a lot of work done on Extended Producer Responsibility. I think that’s interesting. One of the most interesting things that I see happening is actually right here where we are in San Francisco in the collection and recycling of material. This is something I think is absolutely critical to creating the type of consumer revolution we need. When you look at the science and you look at the various technologies out there in the plastics world, what you quickly realize is recapturing and reusing the plastic that’s already on the planet is critically important. While take-back programs and Extended Producer Responsibility are interesting, and those are things we should also be looking at, at the end of the day, for really low-value items, large-scale municipal recycling is an absolute requirement to get to the closed materials loops that we need. I look at an example like San Francisco, where two-thirds of all municipal waste is recaptured for recycling, for example. That’s the type of infrastructure that we need, not just in San Francisco, but everywhere in America, and elsewhere, to be able to start closing these material loops, which will only enable more companies to make products out of the plastic that’s already here.
Blumenfeld: So Adam, last question is about green chemistry. Lisa Jackson and the EPA have gone on the record to work out how we can reform the laws governing toxic chemicals and materials that are used in production. How has Method gone about reducing, and in most cases, eliminating toxic chemicals from your production?
Lowry: Well the first way is just simply by screening out chemicals that don’t meet a certain minimum bar of low hazard. Our business is based around the precautionary principle, which means we’re a lot more focused on hazard than we are on risk. In other words, rather than saying let’s use a hazardous material at a low-level and it’s safe, we’re saying, let’s just avoid the more hazardous materials. So that’s the first way that we just create a screen below which we won’t go that ensures our products will be safer. But that’s really not enough. You have to go beyond that to actually create and engineer better chemistries to begin with. That’s something that we’re doing through a couple of different avenues. We’re doing that by, one way for example, by getting traditional chemistries from better sources. So, getting a natural source for a safe chemistry that’s been around for a while. That improves its profile. That’s a little bit interesting, but more interesting than that is actually creating whole new molecules from new, renewable feedstocks that create new functionality in products. This is one of the things that I think has been a real secret of Method’s success, because we’re able to bring technology into the product that other green product manufactures don’t have. The third thing that we’re doing right now on the technology side that’s really interesting is we’re starting to using entirely new processes, like bio-synthesis, that allow us to move completely away from the land-use impacts of either extractive industries like the petroleum ones, or even agricultural industries where feed stocks need to be grown in order to turn into natural materials.
Blumenfeld: Thank you so much, Adam, for joining us today. We’ve been talking to Adam Lowry, the co-founder of Method, and also environmentalist. Thank you so much, Adam, we look forward to seeing what you’ll be doing in the future.
Lowry: Thank you very much, Jared. I appreciate you having me today..
Narrator: This has been a conversation between Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, and Adam Lowry, a co-founder of Method Home. Please note that the opinions and statements presented by the guest speakers do not represent EPA policy or constitute endorsement by EPA.