Importance of Natural Resources

An Environmental Historian’s Requiem for Recycling | Bart Elmore | TEDxOhioStateUniversity

Translator: Amanda Zhu
Reviewer: Helen Chang If you used a plastic bottle
in the last week, and you didn’t recycle it, there’s a good chance
that 450 years from now that plastic bottle might
still be here on this planet. And that’s because NOAA researchers
have recently discovered that it takes about 450 freaking years for a PET, polyethylene
terephthalate bottle, PET bottle, to fully decompose. So I can imagine the scene
450 years from now when some poor soul
picks up your bottle from the ground and turns to his friend
for a conversation. It might go something like this: “Hey bro,” – they’ll still be saying bro,
by the way, in 450 – “Can you believe this?!
I mean, wait a minute, they took a finite natural resource, fossil fuels, and tell me this –
they turned it into a container that they used one time? And then, after they were
done with that container, they threw it away?! I mean, that’s crazy! What sort of advanced
civilization does that?” I think they’re going
to be looking for an explanation. And if I was going to try
and offer an explanation to them today, I would turn to this logo. A logo that we’ve been surrounded by
since we were in elementary school, something we see every day. It’s the recycling logo, of course,
and it was created in 1970 by a graduate student named Gary Anderson, who was at the University
of Southern California. Recycling was just
coming online at the time, and he wanted to figure out a way
to describe this system that would be this kind of closed loop. You know, a system
in which everything within it would be used over and over again. We would just have
this world without waste. It looks great, and it makes us
feel pretty darn good, I think, when we go to the recycling bin
and we put our stuff in that bin. But the problem with this image,
is that it’s a lie. Because today, only about 30%, 30% of PET plastic bottles
used in this country are recycled. That means that 70%, 70% of these bottles end up in landfills, in our rivers,
and ultimately in our oceans. And this of course is contributing
to a problem of epic proportions. Scientists have recently said
and predicted that by the year 2050, there might be more plastic
in our oceans than fish by volume, which is absolutely crazy. And if we think about
all that plastic churning around, one of the issues is that particles
are ending up in our water supply. Microplastics. A study that was recently conducted showed that 94% of tap water
tested in this country had microplastics within it. You’re drinking it. This is not something, in other words,
that’s just out there in our oceans. This is something
that’s right here inside of us. And it’s something
that we have to figure out. How do we end this plastic pollution
plague that we’re confronting? Well, to answer that, I want to suggest
that we don’t some new technology or even a new gadget
to solve this problem. What we need is a better
understanding of our past, a better understanding of history. And I can think of,
when I think of plastic containers, no better history to turn to
than the history of this company: The Coca-Cola Company. A company I spent 10 years or so
traveling around the world, to Peru, India, and beyond, to understand the ecological footprint
of this firm that started in my hometown. And I get it. This is an unusual place to start when thinking about a solution
to the plastic problem. Because I think when we think about Coke,
we think of the corporate villain. This plastic, these bottles
that they’re putting out. Greenpeace, for example, said that Coca-Cola put out about
100 billion plastic bottles in a year. That’s about 1/5 of all the plastic
bottles that are produced on the planet! So they’re part of the problem. But if we turn to their past, if we turn to Coke’s history,
buried in the archives, I think there are solutions
for the future. So, let’s go back to the past, and let’s visit with this guy,
John Pemberton, who was the creator
of the Coca-Cola formula. John Pemberton was a pharmacist. He came to Atlanta in the 1870s trying to strike it rich
in this patent medicine market. But unfortunately, his business
burned down not once, but twice! And he went bankrupt
by the end of the 1870s. It doesn’t sound like the guy who’s going to be the best-selling brand
in the world, right? It sounds like somebody
who’s never going to make it. So what do you do when you’re out of luck
and you want to make a buck? Well, you look at the world, and you say, okay, what’s a drink
that’s really doing awesome right now, and I’ll try and imitate it. And that’s exactly
what John Pemberton did. He saw this drink, Vin Mariani,
coming out of France. It was named after a guy
named Angelo Mariani. And it was selling like wildfire. Here’s why, it was
a Bordeaux wine, a red wine, mixed with the coca leaf
from South America that would’ve infused it
with small tinctures of cocaine. So we’re talking about, folks,
cocaine-infused wine. (Laughter) It was stimulating, (Laughter) and quite exhilarating. Our president Ulysses S. Grant
drank this stuff. “Mmm, makes me feel good.” Of course it does, Ulysses S. Grant,
it’s got cocaine in it. (Laughter) And the other thing is, he’s sitting there saying
this is good stuff. It was like the Four Loko, really,
of the 19th century if you think about it. Even the Pope drank this stuff, okay? So if you’re not Catholic
out there, imagine this. If communion had Vin Mariani, I think we’d all be signing up
to be Catholic today. So John Pemberton’s out of luck trying to figure out
how to make some money, sees this and says,
alright, let’s go do this. And folks, this is the precursor
to what becomes Coca-Cola. This is the first advertisement
for it in the 1880s. It was called
Pemberton’s Wine of Coca. Not very original, completely
copying that drink, Vin Mariani. And it was a red wine
mixed with the coca leaf. Yes, it would have had wine in it. And it would have had
small quantities of cocaine. He made it! Yes, this great drink is selling!
But, there was a problem. And the problem was not the cocaine. The problem was the alcohol because the city of Atlanta moved
to ban the sale of alcohol in 1885. Oh my gosh, he’s got this great drink,
now he’s got to give it up! What’s he going do? You know what he’s going to do –
he creates Coca-Cola. It is a non-alcoholic version, a temperance version
of that earlier wine-based drink. And it became this great thing years later. Now, Pemberton did not put it in bottles. It was sold just at soda fountains in little cups like
the cute cup you see here. And he would never actually see
this drink become bottled or go global because he dies. It’s a sad story. He finally makes it, and he dies. And so the person that follows after him
is Asa Candler, his successor. And that’s the real success of Coke. Asa Candler’s a pharmacist
who incorporates Coca-Cola in 1892. And he’s going to create this great brand. Asa Candler, by the way, was a kind of workaholic, puritanical
Sunday-school-teacher kind of guy. I scoured the archives for the happiest picture
I could find of Asa Candler. This is Asa Candler on a good day. This is Asa Candler smiling. And the important point here is that like Pemberton, these guys
were in the Reconstruction South. They did not have a lot of money. They didn’t have a lot of money, so they knew the only way
they could spread this drink far and wide is if they partnered with people. And Asa Candler’s brilliant idea
was to bottle Coke. In 1899, he makes the decision
to bottle Coca-Cola. And that would change not only Coca-Cola,
it would change the world, creating one of the biggest
distribution networks the world has ever seen, stretching from Alabama
all the way to Zimbabwe. It was an incredible system. But the only way that it worked was if small businessmen
in little towns across the country and then ultimately the globe
put forward a little bit of money to build these bottling plants
in basements, in little small buildings
across the country. And these were folks, again,
with not a lot of money. They cared about everything, all the costs, the bottles,
the laborers, the trucks. They had to think about all that. When it came to packaging, they couldn’t afford to waste
their packaging. They had to reuse it
over and over again to save on cost. So they used returnable glass bottles, returnable glass bottles
in the early 20th century so that they would save on cost. But here’s the key.
How did that returnable system work? Well, they put a deposit
on those containers. A deposit of one to two cents. And if you, as a consumer, brought your bottle
back to your distributor, you got one to two cents back. You got paid! And it was an incredible system! It worked! I went through the archives
to look at this system. We’re talking about
80% of Coca-Cola bottlers were using a deposit system in 1929. The trade journals of the time said
the only sane and logical, literally “sane and logical” thing to do
is to put a price on packaging if you want it to be returned. Right? And you’ve got to understand this is at a time when
the drink’s selling for five cents. So you’re talking about a two-cent deposit
on a five-cent drink. Heck yeah, I’m bringing that thing back!
I want my two cents back! Forty percent markup. Incredible. I have evidence in 1960s
that shows bottles doing 40, 50 trips back and forth between their bottler
and their consumer. Folks, it worked.
It worked really, really well. So what happened? Well, in the 1960s and 1970s, Coca-Colas began switching
to throw-away single-use containers that we see today. First steel cans, then aluminum cans, and then finally
plastic bottles by the 1970s. And when they switched to that system, they said, look,
this is a new automobile age. People are on the move.
People want convenience. They want to be able to put the packaging
wherever they want. Right? We don’t need a deposit system
or a returnable system. We got rid of those deposits. And as you might predict,
trash started piling up everywhere, national parks, rivers, oceans. And people said this is a problem. But Coke, one of the biggest movers
and shakers in the beverage industry, said, don’t worry, because there’s this new thing
called recycling, that was just emerging in the 1970s. And this is what’s going
to reclaim all this waste. We don’t need a deposit system. That recycling technology
can reclaim it all. It was a huge bet. It was a big gamble. And they thought it would pay off. But the thing is we now as historians
can look back at over four decades of data to see whether that gamble paid off. And looking at the late 1990s when curbside recycling
was really in full steam here in the United States,
coming up to today, this is the reality of what happened. Not only did recycling rates not skyrocket when we started really imposing
these curbside recycling systems, for many years it declined. And in recent years
we’re seeing this kind of stagnation with this rate around 30%. This is a system in absolute crisis. You see that circle? It’s not a circle. So how do we fix it? Well, we know the answers, right? We know from history
that when you put a price on packaging, when you value that packaging,
it will be reclaimed. And we don’t have to guess
whether that system will work today. We can see it in action. I’m mentioning Michigan
at Ohio State thing, I know. But this is Michigan
doing a great thing here, okay? They have got a system
that has deposits in place. The citizens of that state and in Maine have enforced their own deposits via law to say that you have to
put a price on a container. In those states if you go
and deliver those containers, you get some money back. And I just wanted to show you,
the rates are through the roof – 80, 90% recycling rates. And if we go to Denmark or Germany – I could list a lot of different countries, whose nations have taken it
upon themselves to do this system – we see the recycling rates
through the roof. It works. And we can make it work here
across this nation. So Coca-Cola said that by the year 2030, they’re going to reclaim and recycle
every single container that they put out into the environment. This is the pledge
they have recently made. They’re going to reclaim
every single container. There will be a world
without waste, they say. And I applaud them for this. There’s a lot of well-meaning
people in the companies thinking about these big strategies. But the problem is, in 2016,
as recently as 2016, in a leaked corporate document, Coca-Cola said that it was going to, “fight back against deposit systems
in the European Union.” Folks, we don’t have to wait
for Coke to get woke. (Laughter) We, the citizens of this country,
can make the conscious choice to end the unconscionable practice
of not putting a price on packaging, especially finite resources like plastics. If we do that,
if we learn from our history, then I think we’ll make history. And it will be a history
that our descendants can be proud of 450 years from now. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)

Reader Comments

  1. I like this channel but now a days they are not uploding nice videos.If you also think this thengive a like.

  2. Most plastic in the US ends up in landfills. If the goal is to save the Oceans then you have to look at the 2 biggest contributors to the littering problem: China and India.

  3. Wow. What a discovery he made there. Meanwhile in Germany we've had this system for longer than I am alive

    Physicology behind recycling:
    Recycling is a behavior,” Brian Iacoviello, an assistant psychiatry professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City told The Huffington Post. “Much like exercising or eating healthily, people often engage in this behavior less than they ‘should.’”

  5. I think portable recycling machines like a vending machine would work. Place bottle into machine, weighs the material then gives you the money. A truck driver (like a vending machine truck) drives up and picks up the bottles. You don't need curbside all the time. So a new available way should be invented.

  6. Informasi yang sangat bagus dan menambah wawasan kita, terutama tentang persaingan bisnis produk botol plastik dan impactnya untuk lingkungan. Thanks Sir Bart Elmore. ???

  7. There is nothing unusual about starting with the cause of a problem to find a solution. These massive corporations are the real source of ALL climate and environmental harm. We used to have a very solid system of reusable glass containers that cost slightly more than plastic production, but resulted in 5000% less waste. Companies like Coke undermined that system and dissolved it for profit. They aren't just part of the problem, THEY ARE THE PROBLEM. And always have been.

    Even if every consumer on the planet diligently recycled and sorted all their waste, it would still have nearly zero impact because companies like Coke will continue to produce more because it costs less to make a new plastic bottle than it does to recycle an old one. And Coke ALWAYS knew this. They intentionally sabotaged the system and created this waste production industry. Because it was profitable to do so. They knew they could charge twice as much for the same product and lower their internal cost simultaneously.

    So let's stop pretending the consumer "wanted convenience". The consumer played no part in the equation. They were told what to buy, how to buy it, and why they should like it. By Coke. Engineered Demand, and the pursuit of profit at all costs created this plastic coated nightmare. Not consumers. And consumers are powerless to reverse the process.

  8. 450 years….not exactly that much time in the grand scheme of things. If you think we'll still have oil by then you're insane, these bottles won't be "laying around" because they would be too valuable….

  9. Great speech ?❤️Everything we do to the Earth ? the environment returns back to us. Please,Take care of a beautiful earth.

  10. The re use model is much better but that is more suited to using a quality glass bottle that is built to be rewashed and reused ( with a refund $ to incentivize return ) and that i think would be best the
    system from history it is the system we had for milk bottles in 1989 in NZ

  11. I've been thinking the same way out here, in my country there was "teh botol sosro" who had the same returnable system in the past. Hope this ideas can spread!

  12. I live in Oregon, where the first bottle bill was enacted. Now we pay 10 cents deposit on all soda, juice, beer and water bottles and cans. I hope they add wine to that list soon, there are a lot of wine drinkers here 🙂 I don't know the return rate but it is probably close to the 90% stats he showed. I think it's the way to go, that and stop using plastics/petroleum products entirely. We need to shift to clean energy too.

  13. In our country- Vietnam, we don't have much solutions enough for plastics. People usually throw them into street, ocean, so on. I dont know how long will we can do like all you've said, sir

  14. Thank you Bart Elmore! I really enjoy your personality and I agree with your idea for reimbursement being effective. I hope we all can move towards a respected and thriving planet instead of a wall-e situation.

  15. I'm a decent human, I believe that recycling helps, but I know I'm not the only one, that has to work in order to recycle. I live in an apartment complex that does not recycle, you throw everything in the same dumpster, that gets taken to the landfill and it all goes to waste. If I want to recycle, I have to go down to the local hardware store and throw my recycling in their bins outback. If we want a healthy future world to live in, it starts at making recycling accessible to everyone, or your idea of returning the packaging. I know I'm one of the few that lives in that situation, and actually does anything about it though.

  16. I just posted an interview with him (Bartow Elmore), where I asked him 20 most googled questions about history and his job!

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