31. Balance IT. on plastic footprint compensation with circulate.global CEO Christian Rühlmann

"This is one of those episodes that give me goosebumps till this day, even though we recorded it with Christian about a month ago. But it's not only shocking, but also super informative and actually gives me so much hope! Thanks to people like Christian, who have a great grip on both the technlogy, infrastructure and political aspects of the global plastic system an improvement of our current tragic situation regarding plastic waste leakage into nature is possible. Circulate.global are here to make a change. Can't wait for you to hear this episode!" Agata, Host.

Topics discussed:

How did you become a founder and CEO of circulate.global?

What is the main idea behind circulate.global?

Can you explain to our listeners what is our “plastic footprint”?

I read on your website that “for every kilogram plastic consumed, we ensure fair recovery and recycling of a kilogram of plastic waste.” Can you tell us exactly how you guys achieve that?

You talk a lot about the Global Global South and the Global North. How is this division into the northern and southern hemisphere relevant in terms of our plastic consumption and management?

Why support recycling in the Global South? Why not start in our own front yard and support local efforts?

I know from our short conversations before this one that you guys are using technology to help coordinate and manage these processes which are happening globally, as you mentioned earlier. Can you tell us a bit more about this digital platform that you mentioned?

Whose responsibility is all the plastic that we are using and throwing out on a daily basis? Shouldn’t the large companies that produce plastic packaging be responsible for finding an alternative material or better ways of managing plastic waste?

Do you believe that a plastic-free world is actually possible?

What can I do as an individual/company to join the cause?


Transcript:

Agata Solecka: [00:00:49] Hi, Christian. Welcome to the CTO to CTO podcast, to the Balance IT. series. Thanks for accepting my invitation. Thanks for having me. Today we are going to talk about your recent project company startup called circulate global. I know, according to your LinkedIn page it hasn't even been a year that you've been running this company, so it's quite a fresh thing.

[00:01:11]But before we get into circulate.global. And the whole plastic issue globally, that we're going to discuss a bit more heavily. Let's talk a little bit about you and your journey that led you up to this point. 

[00:01:27] Christian Rühlmann: [00:01:27] That's a long answer to that and I'll try to make it short. So I started out my professional career as a boat builder, so I learned how to build boats and coming from there, I added another education as an industrial designer and started an industrial design practice in parallel to my studies already.

[00:01:49] And Yeah, that went well for a couple of years. And then I started another business with one of my mates from uni and at some point, I went sailing across the Atlantic and saw the plastic problem in the Caribbean first hand basically. And went to Haiti and saw how those features are totally flooded with plastic and so on and so forth.

[00:02:17] And I came back about 3/4 of a year later. And was requested by a client to design Tupperware, and I still had those images from Haiti in the back of my mind. And then started to understand, okay, what, what am I actually doing in my profession? And what's, what's the impact of my work.

[00:02:38] And I think that was pretty much the starting point. Often my kind of more detailed process regarding the plastic problem, because I really wanted to research everything and understand how it worked and so on and so forth. And yeah, I think that's, that was the starting point. And then it slowly evolved from there.

[00:02:58] We did more classic awareness kind of projects in my design studio. And at some point I realized, okay, there's actually huge potential. We have a gigantic problem and we need to, I want to do something about it and I want to do more than just making pretty things. Sorry to my designer friends.

[00:03:21] And yeah, so I started circulate.global as a reaction to that process. And it's now a full-time thing tackling the plastic crisis on our planet. 

[00:03:32] Agata Solecka: [00:03:32] You know, I'm sure all of us have the same story in mind of going on a vacation to a beautiful remotely located place and simply just swimming somewhere and bumping into loads of trash, super unpleasant. And definitely not something you want to experience when you're on vacation. But none of us go back home and decide to do something about it. So that's why you're here today. And I'm so happy to be talking to you. So how long, because you said you, you obviously had some research to do and you did some campaigns. So between that point that you saw the problem in Haiti, came back home and actually started building circulate.global. What was that timeframe like? And what did you do in that process? 

[00:04:22] Christian Rühlmann: [00:04:22] So I think there was a good two years in between the first moment of realization that, wow, this is actually a problem and starting circulate.global. And in that time, Well, the first, the first step was really immersing myself in research. And then I stumbled across a very cool project called Precious Plastic and they've developed low tech recycling machines. And I said to my business partner back then, well, we should build a couple of those. And so we built a small shredder. We build a small injection machine and an extruder. So all machines to recycle plastic. And then we started. Recycling ourselves. And we produce some phone cases and some other objects out of recycled trash that we either collected ourselves or that we had collected in kind of community events. And we made it into a couple of events, actually hosted workshops about DIY recycling. Hey, this is a hands-on approach to recycling. And I mean, yeah, we're Germans and we like engineering. And so in the beginning I had a very machine-based approach and I was like, okay, so these machines, they are cheap. They can recycle, what can we do with them? And I thought, okay, with machines and technology, we can save the problem. Right. And of course, Sometime later in the whole process, I discovered that there is a whole lot of recycling technology available in the market and it doesn't reach the places that you've just mentioned. So it doesn't reach the Caribbean. It doesn't reach Thailand for example. And what's the problem there? Why does the technology and the processes that we have, why don't they go to the places where we see all the trash and so that really startled me and I looked at the whole system more on a meta perspective, more, more globally, and found out it's a very profound finding actually.

In the global plastic system money does not go where the trash goes. And what that means is that the global North exports a whole lot of plastic waste that it doesn't want to deal with in itself. Right. And the global South, where all the exports go, they don't get any support in creating infrastructure that is suitable, or even just process setting up processes, simple processes. And then we go on holidays in, in those beautiful places. Right. And then we go back and say, Oh, they don't have it. They don't have a grip on the plastic problem there when it's actually our plastic that has been exported to those countries. Right. And so there's this huge injustice in the plastic system. And that is probably the point where circulate.global, the idea of circulate.global actually came into play because we asked ourselves the question, how can we bring money? Where do all the plastic waste exports go to? How can we make sure of that. This machinery that is available to us, all the technology that we have actually gets there where we need it.

[00:07:28] Agata Solecka: [00:07:28] Okay. Smooth transition into the question. So what is the main idea in a few sentences behind circulate global in that case? Because I'm assuming that's where you had your epiphany and you said, okay. So my company is going to actually be all about. Yeah. 

[00:07:46] Christian Rühlmann: [00:07:46] Yeah. So circulate global is a platform for plastic compensation. So very similar to carbon compensation, which we're all familiar with. We offer plus the compensation. And that means that for every kilogram that gets consumed in countries of the global North, we ensure fair, ethical, safe, recycling in the global South. And that means for every emission that is cost. We counter-balance that emission essentially, and make sure that the global amount of trash at least doesn't grow anymore, which is the first step, right. It's a voluntary system. So very similar to when you book a flight and just say, okay, I want to offset my carbon emissions off that flight. We offer.

[00:08:35] The offset of plastic emissions. So there's an average annual plastic footprint of German citizen, for example, a 65 kilograms of plastic waste per year. And. We say, hey, if you give us a bit of money voluntarily, we ensure that those 65 kilograms get collected and recycled.

[00:08:55] Agata Solecka: [00:08:55] Before we dive into any further questions, let's also explain to our listeners what is our plastic footprint?

[00:09:03] Christian Rühlmann: [00:09:03] So the plastic footprint is a metric that is used to measure all the plastic emissions we caused by the lifestyle that we live in. And of course we have the usual suspects in there, like plastic packaging, bottles, clothing, and so on and so forth. But there's also a kind of invisible part of our plastic footprint, which is in.

[00:09:28]For example, industrial production processes or in the process of building houses, housing or even when you go out and eat in a restaurant, you don't see the plastic that was necessary to, for your food to be on the table, but still there is plastic involved. And so there's a big kind of invisible fraction of your plastic footprint.

[00:09:53] And we kind of add up all those emissions and there's research and studies on, especially on the invisible part. Of course, the visible part is very easy. You can measure it. But those kind of indirect plastic emissions are a bit harder to measure and. But essentially the individual plastic footprint is made up of both things, right. The visible visual part and the invisible part. Yep. 

[00:10:22] Agata Solecka: [00:10:22] Okay. So you're just making sure that the people who care and the companies who care with of course your help as the middleman can ensure that the portion of plastic that they're using directly or indirectly is being accounted for. Right.

[00:10:40] Christian Rühlmann: [00:10:40] So you mentioned an important thing here, actually that we both talk to businesses and to individual customers. Right? And so we joined two major stakeholders off the plastic problem. The companies that produce plastics, the ones that sell plastics and the consumers that actually buy the stuff. Because we're convinced that it's a global problem and it's a multi-stakeholder problem. And we can't solve it by just saying, Hey, the companies have to be responsible or, Hey, the consumers are responsible because they buy the stuff. So we say, okay, let's join forces. Let's find a way to connect consumers and companies. In purposeful action. And that's what our platform is all about. 

[00:11:24] Agata Solecka: [00:11:24] And how much does it cost for an individual or a company to participate and to join circulate.global? Do you pay a subscription or is it like an individual basis? How do you assess that? 

[00:11:37] Christian Rühlmann: [00:11:37] Okay, so we have a strict B2B offer, which is we'd go in and calculate, assess the footprint of that company. Then we say, okay, we can recover the equivalent amount. For you and make you a plastic neutral brand. And that's the, that's the first step for businesses alone. We have the same for individuals and saying, and that's more the subscription that you just mentioned that we offer individuals to calculate their annual plastic footprint and compensate with us. And then we have a kind of combined offer, which is a plugin. So to say for a sales process for, for a checkout, if you want. And their companies can directly interact with their consumers and offer them to make the baskets that they're just checking out to make that basket plastic neutral. And if a company wants, they can say, hey, we share this compensation or we take the compensation on your behalf, or we double the compensation so that we don't only erase the negative consequences of our consumption habits, but that we actually have a positive impact together with the customer. 

[00:12:57] Agata Solecka: [00:12:57] And just to add on that from what I read neutralizing that basket, as you just mentioned, it is actually simply adding a plugin, right? To your checkout to your checkout basket, where customers can simply voluntarily tick the box and add that additional amount to their cart. Right? 

[00:13:18] Christian Rühlmann: [00:13:18] Yeah, that, yeah, that pretty much hits the nail on the head. So our plugins sits in the checkout process of an online store and whenever someone wants to check out a cart they have the possibility to tick our box and make sure that an additional involuntary amount goes towards fair. 

[00:13:43] Agata Solecka: [00:13:43] Okay. So that's actually very convenient for both sides. Not only the consumer, who's only a click away from adding a small percentage, right. To their total checkout amount, but it's also super convenient for the store. As an online, you know fashion retailer, I don't want to be diving, maybe head on into the plastic issue, but I want to have a sustainable business and to minimize my negative impact. 

[00:14:10] Christian Rühlmann: [00:14:10] Right. You're right. It's a very convenient first step. I mean, we also encourage as a second step to look at your own processes in your business. Right. And say, okay, where can we maybe substitute packaging material? So how can we look at our product range and say, maybe we don't buy the a hundred percent polyester shirt anymore. We don't sell it anymore in our shop, but maybe we sell a hundred percent whatever we'll for our cotton or alternative. Right. So those are the steps that we would take with companies to look at their processes, to look at their product portfolio and see how we can reduce the plastic that gets into circulation because of them. And how can they interact with their customers on behalf of the plastic that they can't avoid. 

[00:15:04] Agata Solecka: [00:15:04] Oh, okay. So you also do the consulting part as well. You would be like a partner in reducing the overall company plastic usage and to make those long-term changes for the company. 

[00:15:18] Christian Rühlmann: [00:15:18] Yeah. If a company wants to do that, we're more than happy to kind of join them on that journey and advice. To our best knowledge what, how, which measures they can take. Yeah. 

[00:15:31] Agata Solecka: [00:15:31] That's a really genius concept now that I'm thinking about it. But let me, let me try and play the devil's advocate here. Just a little bit for the sake of our discussion. Why should I care about the global aspect of this? Isn't it enough just to recycle my own trash at home and make sure that my own neighborhood is clean?

[00:15:56] Christian Rühlmann: [00:15:56] The answer is yes. So we need to do all of the above and say, okay, we make sure we separate our trash diligently, support and encourage local communities to set up proper systems, which we, most of the time have.

[00:16:13] In European countries. And then there's this whole aspect of plastic is a global issue. And so let's look at it from a global perspective and we have a historic responsibility because we in the European countries, for example, have been exporting waste for decades into places that have no way of dealing with them. And so. We say, okay, it's not enough to look at our own front door. Right. And to see, okay, what's going on here, go out on the street and see, okay, this is fairly clean. We have this problem under control where the reality actually is that we don't have this problem under control at all. We still have a huge leak.

We still export roughly 15% of all our plastic waste to countries off the global South, which is big in 2020. Right? And we burn most of the stuff that we. So, so the actual material recycling rate is incredibly low and we don't actually have the problem under control even in our own front yard, but then we still export it to places that have no, no way of dealing with it.

[00:17:25] And so this part is the one that we're trying to tackle because we think it's extremely unfair to, you know, push your waste onto someone else within kind of out of mind out of sight, out of mind mentality and then say, Oh, you're the bad guy because you don't take care of the problem. So we say, okay, how we acknowledge the fact that there have been waste exports and there still are, and try to support those communities.

[00:17:58] Are inflicted the consequences of those exports 

[00:18:01] Agata Solecka: [00:18:01]  Plus in the global ecosystem. It's not like you can separate things from one, another countries and continents from one another. And it's only going to be an out of sight out of mind problem for a certain amount of time. And it's going to come back and kick us in the butt very soon.

[00:18:17] Christian Rühlmann: [00:18:17] Sure. Ultimately, everything comes back to us. There has been a recent study that found that microplastics were found in the placenta of pregnant women. So it's actually, it's in our very systems, right? It's in our blood and that stuff freaks me out, frankly said, and I mean, it's no wonder, right? Because we import the fish that we eat. We export the plastic. Eventually it gets carried on, it's blown into the sea or into a river, then it makes its way into the sea. And the fish of course eat the microplastic and it's, they haven't invested in their system. We eat the fish and boom it's on our plate. And so it is, we can't look at it with geographical boundaries. It is, it is really truly a global problem. Yeah. 

[00:19:05] Agata Solecka: [00:19:05] And just for a moment, I wanted to go back to something you mentioned. And I'm not sure if I got that right. Did you say that we burn the majority of the plastic waste that we don't actually export overseas?

[00:19:17] Christian Rühlmann: [00:19:17] Christian Rühlmann: [00:19:17] We burn about 68% of the plastic waste we generate in Germany, for example and we use it for energy production. So it's in power plants basically. And that is one of the messed up fun facts about the plastics system is that we say we're exiting coil because we want to get rid of fossil fuels.

Right? And then we produce something like yogurt cups or plastic bottles. We use them for a very, very limited amount of time. And then we throw them in the trash and then we run our energy generation off of that trash. So technically we're still burning fossil fuels in the shape of plastic trash. And where it gets really weird is that the oil that gets used for the plastic production does not get taxed with mineral tax. So essentially it's tax-free energy in the shape of a yogurt cup or in the shape of a plastic bottle. 

[00:20:26] Agata Solecka: [00:20:26] That's shocking. That's actually shocking. I actually had no idea.

[00:20:30] And I've asked myself this question many times what actually happens to this plastic, but it seems that a lot of organizations are benefiting. From producing plastic and making sure that the plastic isn't being pulled out as a material. And like you said, they're creating tax lists energy from it as well.

[00:20:53] Right. So it seems that there's a systemic issue here as well. 

[00:20:58] Christian Rühlmann: [00:20:58] Yeah. I mean, it's really amulti-headed headed beast really. So one big stakeholder in the whole plastic system, our oil corporates that are looking for ways to sell their oil and with when we look into the future and see, okay, electric mobility is totally on the rise, the demand for fuel.

[00:21:23] We'll go down. What do we do with the oil? Hey, we can make plastic out of it. So that's a huge market. Then we have the power plant companies that say, okay, we actually charge the waste management company money to take their plastic trash. Right? So the waste management company who gets all the trash that you collect and separate at home and they have professional sorting machines and.

[00:21:52] A huge fraction of that is what they declare non recyclables. And you have to be specific here because it's kind of commercially non-required non recyclables. So we have a whole lot of solutions for multi-layer plastics, for example to recycle them. But they're not scalable on the industrial level that we need.

[00:22:14] And so. The waste management company declares them as non-recyclable and then they need to do something with it. And since landfilling is in most cases illegal in Europe at the moment now incineration is a great end destination for the plastic waste. And so the power plant operator says, Hey, you have a problem and I will charge you for taking care of the problem.

[00:22:42] And then. They burned it in their power plant, and then they sell the energy to the grid, right. So they actually profit twice on and there are many more examples of how intertwined interests in, in the, in the plastic system is and how intertwined the interest is to keep everything as it is. Right.

[00:23:04] So for example, we have, we have green dots systems all across Europe and they are. Responsible to collect packaging waste from consumer goods companies and all the con all the plastic produce us essentially are part of those green dot organizations and the green dot sells. The material makes money out of it.

[00:23:29] There's money in the system. And. Now for example there's a push in the EU to maximize collection rates on single use plastics in order to meet those goals of high high collection rates for, for a single use plastics container deposit schemes are a very viable solution and what we. Observed now is that green dot organizations are actually lobbying against container container deposit schemes, because it takes plastic out of their system and therefore money out of their system.

[00:24:03] And so we have a well-functioning idea, container deposit schemes for bottles, for example, but we should have them for yogurt cups and everything else as well. And we have green dot organizations, which. Have the image of they're doing the right thing and they're, they're the good guys. And they're actually objecting the implementation of container deposit schemes, because that means they have less plastic in their systems and that therefore they make less money.

[00:24:32]And so those three examples show that. The plastic system, really? It, yeah, like I said, it's, it's a multi-headed beast. 

[00:24:41] Agata Solecka: [00:24:41] I feel like we're in one of those crazy like nineties action film, thrillers, where we're just discovering this, this huge conspiracy. And it's actually pretty scary. It seems that it will literally take years and years to change this whole system.

[00:24:57] And as you said, it's all intertwined and interdependent. Crazy. I don't know what to say. 

[00:25:02] Christian Rühlmann: [00:25:02] There was actually a very good, good thing that you said there, and that is, it will take years and years to change the plastic system. And that is one of the findings that we had in our research phase. That of course we need to reinvent materials.

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