162: The Future is Worms – Plastic Recycling

Matt and Sean talk about breakthroughs in the breakdown of plastics and what it means for the future.

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “Why This May Be the Future of Plastic Recycling” https://youtu.be/w39WpuaNbRI?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi4dFnLD9622FK77atWtQVv7

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Hey everybody. On today’s episode of Still To Be Determined, we’re gonna be talking about how things we can’t see might save us from things we can’t see. We’re talking about enzymes, microplastics, and our, and the Earth’s health. That’s right everybody. It’s still to be determined as usual. I’m Sean Ferrell.

I’m a writer. I read some sci-fi. I read some stuff for kids and I’m just generally curious about tech and luckily for me, My brother Matt, is that Matt of undecided with Matt Ferrell. How you doing today, Matt? I’m doing pretty well.

Got a little bit of a sunburn, but

I’m good. Spring has sprung for you apparently?

Yes. So you’re out and about, although I have it on good authority. And by authority I mean you that when it comes to. Household chores such as mowing the lawn. Well, somebody has a special device to take care of that. Four of them. Do you wanna talk very briefly about the weird little video you sent me yesterday?

Oh, I just,

I’ve got a little robot lawnmower for my house that I’m trying out. Can’t really talk about the company or the exact product, but it’s interesting having basically a Roomba for the outside, for the lawn, watching it wander around like a drunk man and the lawn. It’s like, oh, thank you little robot.

I’ll never have to mow that lawn again. So thank

you. I shared the video with my brother-in-law who responded. I’m jealous. I want one and I can blame you. So before we get into today’s discussion, which is gonna be about Matt’s most recent episode, I wanna share a quick couple of thoughts on our previous episode.

This is the conversation we had about Voltaic, which is farming mixed with solar power generation. There were comments like this from Gel Baras who. In the Netherlands land is very, very expensive, no matter the use case. Because of that, Dutch agriculture is already one of the most efficient ones in the world.

Anything that can increase the efficiency will very quickly gain a lot of attention, both from the energy industry and from the farmers and one of the world’s leading agricultural research centers, the University of Wagon again. So a little bit of a, of a footnote for our conversation, which we talked about the.

The Netherlands context a bit, and that was based on a viewer comment on Matt’s video, the original source of this entire conversation. Just a nice demonstration that of two things, Matt, your reaches international, so that’s impressive, but two, how much your comments are a part of what we’re doing here.

So thank you, Jill for that comment. It’s very interesting. I’m very, very interested in, in seeing in five years or so, The information that Matt provided about the Agri Voltaic, how that might have been incorporated in some of these places around the world. Yeah. So that’s another footnote for you, Matt, to remember.

Uh, return to these topics after some time has passed. There was also this from Andoria Caldor who wrote, based on my comment about having read a wine bottle that said this was harvested from the most vertical wine distillery site in the world, and that they use helicopters together. The grapes and Andoria noted drone robots and crawling spider bots harvesting grapes made me think of humans being harvested in the matrix.

Also, shout out to the funniest elements from the movie the. Thank you for that comment, Hedrick. Yes. A lot of very weird sci-fi of the conversations here. Yep. It always scratches a weird itch for me where I’m like, I wish I lived in the future. And then that shows up with a video. It’s like, so here’s how we’re living on the future.

It’s here. It’s here whether we want it or not. And onto the most recent video from Matt’s channel, this is from April 4th, 2023, why this may be the future of plastic recycling. And he is talking about everything from insects to microorganisms that mm-hmm. For whatever reason, are able to digest those plastics that we find ourselves now hip deep in.

This is a, as. Points out at the end of the video and it’s some, in some way kind of reassuring. It’s a little bit like if you could have gone back in time to mm-hmm. 19th century London and said to somebody on the street, yeah, this incredibly thick black cloud of coal and smoke that is just constantly hanging over this city.

Yeah, it’s not always gonna be like this. It can change and having somebody on the street say like, you sound insane. It just, it, it didn’t seem likely that you could, could remove something that was so omnipresent. And yet when you take a look at the big picture as far as like coal usage and burnage for the main fuel source in London, or any major city around the globe at that time, the big picture is it.

A smaller blip in the timeline than we actually gave it credit for. Yeah. When you’re living in an era, you are caught through your experience of time to think of that era as omnipresent and everlasting and it Yeah. I was, is not, I always referred to it as,

I always refer to it as status quo thinking.

It’s kind of like the way it is now is the way it has always and ever will be. Yeah. It’s like. Nope. It’s a blip in the timeline.

Yeah, and it, you know, you think about the moment that you’re in and the ease with which you take in the current context. And having a 17 year old son, I experienced this almost on a daily basis at this point, conversations about, well, when I was your age, and thinking about how vastly things have changed, having a conversation with a friend just yesterday.

His son in front of his dad and his uncle said casually to his dad, oh dad, do we have that video game that that Mario game? And his dad’s response, yeah, you can just go download it. And his uncle turned to my friend and said, these kids have no. Of the ease with which they live, where he walks up to you and says, Hey, do we have that video game?

And your response is, yeah, just go download it. When in our day, the dream of that kind of access to the things you wanted was a fantasy. It was just so far in the future. So when you talk about plastic, As being really kind of a blip in the timeline. It is so new and yet it is so everywhere. I remember, and I’m sure you remember this too, Matt, the first bottles, plastic bottles that were introduced as containers for soft drinks.

Yes. And the, I remember that too. Issue around them was the, the industry advertised it as, now you don’t need to worry about shattering your soda. I, yeah. Think about that for a moment. That is ludicrous. That that was the selling feature for something as simple as, yeah, we’re not putting it in glass anymore.

We’re putting it in plastic. It was used as a marketing tool to say, yeah, and I don’t know if anybody else out there let us know in the comments, if you remember the commercials, which didn’t focus on the flavor of the soda, but focused. Bottles of soda accidentally being knocked off of counters and bouncing on the kitchen floor, and everybody just standing around smiling with that.

Oh yeah, things have changed. And now here we go 40 years later and we’re like, oh my God, things have to change. We’re killing ourselves with this plastic and yeah. And in your video you mentioned how they’ve discovered microplastics in humans. Somebody in your comments actually jumped in to say there was a study that wanted to look at how far back microplastics were found in human blood.

Mm-hmm. And the research study that he was quoting, and he could not find the original research. So this may be, this may be apocryphal, but basically you have to go back to pre plastics being used. As food containers in order to find human blood samples that don’t contain microplastics, they immediately started producing microplastics in human consumption.

So here we are now looking at possible ways of removing them, not from our bodies, but from the environment. So I think there’s, it’s a tale of two conversations. One is, it’s wonder. To say we can remove them from the environment, possibly through composting or a technique that would break down the plastics.

But then there is the remaining question. And then this is my first question to you. Does that solve the issue of microplastics being in our bodies? No, as you pointed funny, it’s like this has been still to be determined.

Microplastics have been around as long as we’ve been using plastics, and I, I’m really glad you highlighted the fact that one, it shows how old you and I are, so thank you for that.

Yeah. But the, the idea of when we were kids, that’s when plastics were really starting to become, Popularized and used and advertised. It was a marketing thing where it was like we were starting to see plastics take over from glass bottles for our soda. Yeah. It’s like you and I are, we’re old, but it also shows that within our lifespan is when this has been become a problem.

Yeah. And then when you think about it in that time scale, this is not something we can’t, can’t overcome. So this is something we can fix. Yeah. And it, but the sad part is it’s taken this long just to get to a possible solution. Right. Which is what’s really frustrating because for so long the plastic industry promised us all along, oh, we can recycle these plastics.

And it turned out to be a big why, so we’re not recycling our plastics for the

most part. So this, it’s a real shock for stuff corporations would actually sell, sell a falsehood to the public in order to be able to push their product. I’m, yeah, I can’t even, microplastics, can’t think of another example where that’s


Yeah. Microplastics are not gonna go away because of this solutions that I talked about in the video. Microplastic issues are gonna just be with us as long as we’re using plastics. Yeah, it. That’s an inevitable side effect of it. But if we get to more bioplastics and more plastics that will biodegrade and break down, it becomes less of an issue.

Right. So there, there is a, a

pro there. I wonder about the research that might be going on in the form of the human body’s ability to break down biodegradable plastics.

There is edible plastic, like I did a video on seaweed, right? Seaweed being used to make plastics. And there are plastic films that are being made right now by some different companies that you could, you can actually just eat.

And it’s not gonna cause any harm. Your body will break it down and it’s totally fine. So that kind of stuff does exist. That’s not gonna be a one size fits all solution. Like it’s gonna work for all plastics. Mm-hmm. So there are still gonna be plastics being made that might have microplastic issues, but when it comes to using plastics that are gonna be associated with food storage and things like that, there are, there are pathways towards materials that will reduce the microplastic


And where do you see, we talk all the. And the refrain is always the right tool for the right job. So I’m not asking you to pick a winner as far as what type of, you know, chemical compound breakdown, enzyme breakdown, compostable plastic, edible plastic. I’m not asking you to pick a winner in that regard. I just wonder where do you see.

This hitting for the average, the average family, the average group of consumers, of of products that come in or in some way incorporate plastic in them. Because do you see the easiest path being one where municipalities, cities, Continue to do garbage and recycling collection the way we do, but then the plastics are taken to industrial sites where they’re just broken down into various components.

Or do you see a future where more and more components of plastic are in some way biodegradable so that people are left to be able to compost it? Being in the city the way that I am composting is probably not in my future. That becomes an issue, right? When vast portions of your popul. I’m thinking of major cities like New Delhi, where are a majority of people there actually going to be composting in a way that is actually going to be beneficial for them.

So are we headed toward a composting future or are we headed to a future where I can casually take that soda bottle that I’ve purchased without worry that it will shatter if I drop it off my kitchen counter? I finished my soda and I just chuck it in the garbage because it’ll break down. Like where do you think we’re headed with a lot of this?

I don’t see the garbage being the solution because it, there’s been studies that we came across when we were looking at these different topics that even the biodegradable plastics, if you put it into a garbage heap and it goes into the garbage, Landfill just like everything else, it will take just as long for it to break down as a non biodegradable piece of plastic because just how it’s context with the, it’s just the way it’s right.

It doesn’t have the proper environment things available to break it down. So garbage is not the answer, but what the answer is here. So the reason that we don’t recycle is cuz it’s more expensive to sort the plastics, make sure the plastics are clean. And then to recycle them into usable new products.

That recycling portion of it is the hardest part, right? So imagine it’s all compostable and it doesn’t have to be compostable in the city, in your home, but it’s like you’re still, you’re still sorting the plastics from the garbage, and then it gets to the local re refuse center and right at that refuge center.

They can just chuck it into a gigantic industrial sized compost pile that they’re working on and it breaks down there. Mm-hmm. Like where I live in Massachusetts, there’s the local landfill. You can go down there and you can chuck stuff into a steel pile or paper pile. And they, they have compost that’s free for the community.

You can go down there and you can pick up a whole bunch of compost you can take back to your house and use in your, your gardens. So they’re creating it from leaf refuse and things like that. They’re being dumped. It’s like imagine they’re just doing the same thing, but it just happens to have plastics in it and it happens to have this biodegradable stuff in it.

Mm-hmm. Where it’s not having to be shipped out. All over the world and around the country to figure out how to recycle into something new. It’s like the local communities can just do it at an industrial scale, just locally, so that that is where I think this is gonna head where, right? For us, it’s end users.

It’s not gonna change our user experience that much, but on the back end it’s gonna have a, a radically change how it works

on the back end. And this goes into two things that you’ve talked about in other videos. One, like one thing that occurs to me is, okay, this, this then relies again on a well designed municipality system.

So yeah, there are cities around the world and in this country that are not built in the ways you’ve just described. So there’s an issue around training. There’s an issue around cost. There is an issue around. Those city centers, do they even have effective community health systems built around plumbing and sanitation to begin with, let alone plastic recycling?

So there’s that issue. And the second one is, does this go back, does what I just described, go back to the responsibility of the producer to be involved in the solution. And we talked about this previously in other contexts, but I can’t help but wonder, okay, at what point do the plastic manufacturers be held accountable for the fact that they’re producing these things?

And not only them, but the producers of things like, if I’m making a soda and I’m putting it in plastic, Do I own the responsibility? Yeah. What are your thoughts about those? It’s, we’re,

we’re starting to see that more and more. It’s like in, in the eu they have laws and regulations around some of that, around electronic waste.

That whatever a company’s putting into the world, they have to have something. To be able to take it back out. They’re on the hook for that. Like the solar panel industry, things like that are there’s, there’s more regulations coming in along those lines, not here in the US unfortunately. It has to be something where every country is gonna have to kind of have a unified approach to this.

Yeah. To make sure that com companies are held accountable because it is like Apple making an iPhone. Apple should be responsible for figuring out how to take that iPhone and get it back out of the world when it’s, when it’s time of life is over. They should be responsible for that. That’s ultimately the only thing that’s gonna kind of like nip this in the bud and make it, make it make a good solution.

We can’t just like put it on the consumer. Yeah, because we’re just gonna check in the garbage. Most people just, they won’t care. They’ll just.

I think those are very clear and good points to to end our discussion on. But I did wanna share a few more comments from our viewers. These are from comments in the comments section on YouTube, on Matt’s video.

Please remember that your comments drive the discussions on our videos and the podcast here, it’s still to be determined, and they also play a part in future videos for Matt on his main channel. So I wanted to. Comments like this one from Stuart Pena who writes, I’m currently commercializing a technology out of m I t where we are able to up upcycle any type of p e t and polyester plastic waste to virgin grade quality p e t.

We are able to remove colors and other impurities in the process, and we can do this at an energy intensity of about 80% less compared to traditional means of plastic product. After seeing the last few videos you have made on plastic, I now have a new goal where I hope this venture I’m working on makes it to your videos.

Thanks for all of you have done informing the world on the struggles of plastic recycling. I have to say, Stuart, best of luck and yes, I hope to see a video on Match Channel where we do in fact talk about the technology that you are having a part in developing. There was also this clean river. Who wrote, Matt, I’d love to see you do a segment on p.

A Plastics. Seems like these may have a real chance as they are shelf stable, but degrade in soil or marine environments with ambient bacteria and temperatures sounds almost too good to be true. We’d love to see your thoughtful analysis on this one. Are PHA plastics something that are on your radar and can we expect to see something from them from that avenue on your.

They are now.

After I saw that, I added it to the list of topics to look

into. Terrific. Thank you so much everybody for your comments and for taking your time to listen to our conversation. Don’t forget to leave a comment. As I mentioned before, it really does help drive the content of the show. And if you’d like to support the show, please consider reviewing us on YouTube, apple, Google, Spotify, wherever it was.

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We appreciate the welts, the bruises heal, and the podcast gets made. Thank you so much for taking the time, and as always, we’ll talk to you next time.

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