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Transcript: Climate Solutions: Next Generation

MS. SELLERS: Good morning and welcome to Washington Post Live. I'm Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer at The Washington Post. My first guest this morning is the co-founded and CEO of a plastics recycling company, BioCellection. Miranda Wang, welcome to Washington Post Live.

MS. WANG: Thank you, Frances.

MS. SELLERS: Well, we're delighted to have you. From what I've read, this all started with an 11th grade trip to a refuse center. But tell me what prompted you to start BioCellection and what the company actually is.

MS. WANG: Sure. So, when I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to visit a waste transfer station while I was growing up in Vancouver, Canada. And it just dawned on both me and my co-founder, who is my high school best friend, that, you know, we have this huge problem. Few people know what happens to their plastic, to their trash in general and their recycling after they leave it out at the curbside. But actually, globally, only 9 percent of plastics that we produce every year is getting recycled. And of that 9 percent, very little of it, even less of it is actually getting effectively recycled. And so, while most of us might think that recycling starts and ends with putting things in a recycling bin, that's actually not true.

And the problem is that when we talk about plastics, we make it sound like it's just one material. But in reality, it's a class of multiple types of materials. It's actually, you know, a whole world of lots of different mixed materials. And right now, you know, for a lot of plastics that we most ubiquitously use, such as low-density polyethylene, which is, you know, what we would use for a plastic bag, for example, materials like that are very hard to recycle. Just due to the chemical nature of that material is part of why it's so cheap to produce that material at scale, because of its chemical structure. But it's also because--but also because of this chemical structure, it's really difficult to recycle it.

And so, what my company does is we are creating a circular economy solution for these types of plastics that are very hard to recycle. And we do it by using an innovative technology we've invented to chemically break down this plastic, and not into fuels, but into chemical building blocks that can then be used to--whether to be turned into performance materials that can be reintroduced back into the economy, into products like shoes and cars and apparel, but also into a variety of other kinds of products through technologies like biotechnology. And so, we're creating, you know, a chemical solution for a relatively complex real-world problem.

MS. SELLERS: So, you're really talking about taking the plastic bags I throw out every day and turning them into useful objects: shoes, apparel and other things. Tell me why this--you've said this is a really dire and urgent problem at the moment. What's the biggest message you would like to get over to the general public, and how are you doing it?

MS. WANG: Yeah, I think--I think as an everyday person, you know, the technologies are in development. And it's not just our company. There are other companies doing this too in different ways. You know, the solutions are in incubation. They're being scaled up. But our solutions are not yet at a level that can handle all the problems, the scale of the plastic problem we have available around the world. And so, as an everyday person, what you can do to, you know, ease the pain here is to really be conscious about the plastics you're using. You know, every day it seems impossible to be getting any goods that comes into your home without packaging, you know, plastic packaging around it. But for us to make the conscious choice and to give the feedback to the merchants and the retailers that this is, you know, constantly push back that this is not something, you know, we can continue consuming at--in this type of volume. We have to work on reducing our footprint and not treating the use of plastics and the discarding of plastics as if it's something that is free, that is unlimited. Because, you know, the solutions are not yet at the scales that are needed. And we're quickly scaling them up, but, you know, in times like COVID, for all manufacturing type technologies, you know, there is a setback. There is--there are challenges to scaling up these types of technologies. And society needs to be aware of, you know, how there is a mismatch between the volumes out there and the amount that technology can handle still.

MS. SELLERS: Miranda, take that point a little bit further. How has the pandemic made this more of a challenge?

MS. WANG: So, the pandemic has really taken a lot of energy out at a time when obviously the world economy is the least prepared for it. But in a way, you know, we came off after, especially United States, a decade of positive economic growth. So, you can kind of argue either way.

And of course, this is, you know, something that took out a lot of financial resources, a lot of time, you know, caused a lot of exhaustion. But it's created new opportunity and has forced us to look at how do we move into this new decade, you know, doing the right things that we have to do.

We have a lot of kind of backlogged work that we need to do for our society. We can't accelerate the society and our technology development asymmetrically, focusing only on things that, you know, are--you know, for, you know, first-world problems or for making life make comfortable and enjoyable. We have to catch up on things that would make, you know, our environment something that we can actually have in the future, that we can pass onto future generations. We have all sorts of critical issues right now that, you know, we don't have enough young people working in these fields, which is--which is people, scientists, inventors, business people, working on them in general. You know, we need to field those voids, and we need the financial resources to be there, the policies to be there to accelerate those solutions.

MS. SELLERS: But tell me what role you think government should be playing? Some governments have banned single-use plastics. What would you like to see here? You talked about your Canadian background. You now live in the U.S. What should the U.S. government be doing?

MS. WANG: It's a challenging one for the governments because the technology solutions are emerging but they're not fully at scale yet. And so, for policy, you know, it's easy to say let's just stick with bans. I mean, I think from a policy standpoint, there are not that many tools right now in their tool chest, as they will have in a decade from now. And so, I think policy--it's important for policy to continuously keep up with what the technologies are, with understanding and assessing how these new technologies should be implemented, and constantly updating every single year to make sure that we're implementing the best plan that we can, you know, as things change.

And also, understanding the complexity of this plastic problem, right? It's not a black or white problem. It's not that we're either pro-plastics or against plastics. Plastics are a human-made material that is the best invention really of the last century, of this century. It's the material that's really enabled a lot of people to be able to get clean food, to get, you know, the quality of life that we have.

And so, it's not a fight against plastics. It's more about how do we--how do we ensure that we're all able to live well in this modern age and sustain this kind of--you know, the kind of lifestyle we have without destroying our planet. How do we use this material, plastics, and redesign it? How do we--how do we create this material while thinking about what happens to it after it's used? I think we're definitely capable of doing this. It's just that, you know, for anything like--for anything like these problems, it takes some time for the solutions to be invented and to be scaled up. And we just have to not lose hope. And we need to continue focusing on solving these problems until they're solved.

MS. SELLERS: Miranda, we've been hearing from our audience, and I'd like to read you one of the questions that's come in this morning. This is from Leila Hawkins who lives in California, and she asks, “Do you think colleagues should be training students for careers in climate solutions?“

MS. WANG: Absolutely. I mean, 2020 is a decade for humans really to reflect on, you know, what does our future look like, where to do we stand and what does our future look like. And I think we're forced to have to do that. And I think it's--you know, once you think on that problem, it's inevitable you come to, you know, these huge issues that have been kind of swept under the rug. And climate change has become this, you know, politicized, huge complex issue.

But really when you start chipping away at it, there are definitely concrete issues, concrete problems that we can start knocking out to simplify the problem and to make it, you know, significantly better. And what we need, first of all, are people who will work on these problems. And education is, you know, the key to opening that up. So absolutely. I think in this--in this era, if you want to learn something that, you know, will be relevant to society, will make your skills valuable in a workforce, you know, that is a must-have. You have to know how to join this fight.

MS. SELLERS: So, you've been talking to me about the plastics that I throw out in my recycle--put into my recycling bin and I hope don't get thrown out. What about the plastic that's already broken down in the sea, for example and polluting in very small particles our oceans?

MS. WANG: Yeah, so what happens when plastics get out into the oceans is that they actually pass through an oxidation pathway. That's been well studied for decades. Usually what you read about in, you know, sources like National Geographic or other kinds of news sources is that, you know, we get this huge amount of micro plastics in the ocean. And that's the problem, is that, you know, plastics start to really fray and decay and become little bits and bits. But eventually after hundreds of years, you know, these micro plastics, they do end up breaking down into biodegradable chemicals and from there being ingested by bacteria and organizations that are in the ecosystem. It's just that that period is extremely prolonged. And so, you have these partially broken-down plastics in the environment getting contaminated, you know, getting--contaminating into our food streams, and that's what's causing all of these problems and that's why it's dangerous.

The thing is that, you know, animals in the environment, organisms, they don't live for hundreds of years. They can't tolerate that. So, we really have to keep plastics out of the environment, and we have to figure out how do we responsibly use this material that we've invented and doesn't break down, you know, very readily in the environment? And since this has already produced a huge scale, how do we close the loop? I think that's--from an industry perspective, that's the first thing we have to do. And then we need to go in and assess, you know, have we overengineered this material? Have we created too many types of plastics that don't need to be here? Have we for example always prioritized things like color and surface finishings and making the plastics fancy and nice to touch over the practicality of it being recycled at the end of use, right? We have to choose a society. You can't have it all. You can't have the beautiful products that are on the shelves and having 50 different kinds of it at any given time and having amazing recyclability and sustainability. We just have to pick. A lot of the things I think people that wouldn't even know that that kind of luxury that we have is at a huge expense of sustainability.

MS. SELLERS: Miranda, I think I have time for one last question, and it's a kind of big one, but you've been working on plastics recycling. Do you see that for the--being the quest for the rest of your life, or is there another environmental challenge that you will be working on in the future?

MS. WANG: You know, I think it's hard to find a problem as big as working on, you know, the plastic pollution problem, which is so--it's not just on the surface, you know, materials in the environment creating pollution but it's tied into the carbon problem directly with climate. It's tied in with social justice, you know, because people who are living near and affected by plastic pollution are usually the most poor in the world. And so, it's a very meaningful problem to be working on. And I think I will be working on it for a very long time.

MS. SELLERS: Miranda Wang, thank you very much for joining me.

MS. WANG: Thank you for having me.

MS. SELLERS: Well, we were delighted. I'll be back soon after a short video to talk about two other young leaders in this world of environmental challenges: Sarah Evans and Karan Jerath. I look forward to seeing you again after the video.

[Video plays]

MS. SELLERS: Welcome back to Washington Post Live. If you're just joining us, I'm Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer at The Washington Post. I'm delighted now to introduce two young leaders in the environmental world, Sarah Evans, the founder--co-founder of WellAware; and Karan Jerath, who is an inventor, entrepreneur, and more. Welcome to you both.

MR. JERATH: Thank you for having us.

MS. SELLERS: And just checking we can hear you, Sarah, too.

MS. EVANS: Yes, thank you for having me.

MS. SELLERS: Delighted to have you both here. So, Sarah, let's talk to you about what is [audio distortion] tell me a little bit about how you founded the company and also about the complementary company WellBeyond that you've worked with, which is a consulting company?

MS. EVANS: Certainly, yes. I founded WellAware about 12 years ago. It was not my background. I went to law school and have a legal background. But I was asked to join a project in Kenya to fund the replacement of some livestock in this village because of the drought. But the more I researched the issue and dug into the problem and started to get some--to know some of the community members, I realized that the core issue was a lack of clean water there.

So, we switched the project to raise money for a water well instead. And the first project was exciting, exhilarating, and I knew nothing about what I was doing. We got really lucky and the water well was successful and high-yielding, is still benefiting that community. So, I really feel in love with the work and I fell in love with the region. But I also saw that there were really big issues with the way that water system infrastructure was being put into not just rural places in Kenya but developing regions all over the world. Most of the water wells that are put in Africa actually don't work about a year after they're installed, and that's a big issue. And there are so many resources being put into solving the global water issues. But they're not really being directed toward effective solutions.

So, we built WellAware around studying the failure and understanding how things go wrong. And really the biggest two issues are the lack of technical expertise and the lack of true community partnership and understanding communities before you go in and offer a solution, because they're the ones who know the solution and we only plug in the resources that they lack. And that's typically the expertise and some funding.

So WellAware began to grow and build capacity. And we knew we could continue to scale, but I started to feel like I could probably tackle this bigger issue of all the resources being put into the water sector that really were not--not only not benefiting the community, but actually a big disservice to communities because they changed their lifestyles and they put in their resources around a new clean source of water and then it goes away and it's further devastating for these regions.

And that's the inspiration for the formation of the new company WellBeyond, which began consulting for other NGOs around their clean water infrastructure implementation and now we're developing technology to leverage the technology that's already rapidly evolving in these regions to further support these communities and put the power and the knowledge and the education in their hands to manage their own water.

MS. SELLERS: Sarah, thank you. Karan, Sarah was inspired by a trip overseas. But the disaster that came to your attention was right on your doorstep. Tell us about what prompted you to get involved in this environmental work.

MR. JERATH: Absolutely. So, this was the Deepwater Horizon spill, which happened in 2010. And my family and I moved from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in 2008, and essentially just seeing the devastation in our backyard, the Gulf of Mexico, because we live around 30 minutes from there, really sparked my interest in trying to solve solutions that could have a global impact. At that time, I was in high school. I didn't have a college degree, and so what my limiting factors were, were just not having resources. And so, what I decided to do was to use a science fair as a way to be able to engage in these types of solutions.

And freshman year of high school, I got involved with the science fair, talked to one of my teachers who happened to have contacts within the oil and gas industry, and that ultimately then allowed me to use software and simulations to develop this solution. But what really sparked my interest in this was just seeing this devastation over the course of three months not come to a standstill. As you can imagine, the news headlines were all over, not only within our local community but around the world. And after seeing all the solutions that were developed, that really sparked my interest in thinking if I could do something regardless of the scale, and regardless if it even worked, me actually contributing and making an attempt would be--would be something that I would--that I would want to do.

And so, over the course of two years, within the science fair program, I developed this device for cleaning up oil spills. When I saw the Deepwater Horizon solutions being were all centered around stopping the spill, which ultimately had then--you need to think of those permanent solutions. But in my mind the solution was what if temporarily stopped the spill. The spill would still be leaking, but there would be some sort of capping mechanism that would allow for more time and more research to be placed to then ultimately think of a permanent solution. And so, my solution ultimately was a capping device that used temperature sensor and density sensors to ultimately monitor the oil and gas coming in and separate them into homogenous spaces to then be recycled.

MS. SELLERS: Sarah, you chose to start a nonprofit and then this consulting branch. But can you talk to me a little bit more about the roles nonprofits can play and how they can scale up and deal with this enormous problems?

MS. EVANS: Well, the nonprofit sector has a big role to play in conjunction with the private sector and governments. What I--one of the other things I realized being--having been in the nonprofit international development world for about a decade is that the NGO industry alone will not solve these issues. However, I think once we start working together a little bit more and sharing information and data, we can reduce some of the redundancy that you--we are seeing in the sector.

A lot of times we go into the field to implement a new system or actually rehabilitate a system, and we're finding that there have been several NGOs in and out without knowledge of each other and with no way for these communities to get back in touch with the NGOs. That's one of the inspirations for developing this new technology, a smartphone app to connect beneficiaries with their funders and regional offices so that we don't just go in and put something in and leave and never be heard from again.

So, I really do think that nonprofits can support each other in helping to maintain that contact and to help each other measure results over time and not just consider a project complete after it's been implemented. So, it's a long-term monitoring, sharing of information and collaboration within nonprofits that I think will really have an impact on tackling the global water crisis.

MS. SELLERS: Thank you.

And, Karan, you've mentioned earlier on the importance of the science fair for you. But can you talk a little bit more about education and where science fairs fit in training young people to be able to take on these sorts of challenges?

MR. JERATH: Yeah, absolutely. I think the power of the science fairs is that it allows youth to come together and essentially solve any problem that they feel are ones that they need to solve, specifically solve problems in their backyards. And so, the importance of science fairs is ultimately that outlet to allow for creativity to be, you know, tackled--or creative solutions to then be tackled. And ultimately, I think that the power of youth in participating in science fairs, where it comes in is that we don't have limitations in how we solve problems, because we're not burdened with these barriers that industry individuals place on themselves with how problems are solved, and we ultimately have, I believe, this massive creative outlet that science fairs allow for solving these problems.

MS. SELLERS: So, I'd like to ask--we've had some--been hearing from the audience. Sarah, I have a question for you, which I'm going to read out now. It is from Chris in California, who says, “What indicators for climate change have not had enough attention, and which ones are being overemphasized?“

MS. EVANS: That's a very, very good question. As it specifically relates to water, I'm so in the weeds in this sector, I'm not really sure what's being overlooked by the masses. But I think it's pretty common knowledge that we're looking at aquifer recharge issues. That has a lot to do with climate change and a lack of snow cover and local geography. That is an issue for groundwater. It's also an issue for surface water. Of course, as Miranda expressed, these issues always affect the most impoverished most, as well as women. In these rural developing regions, once there's conflict over water, it is the women who are not prioritized for access and who use the water for their own commerce and needs, unfortunately.

Another issue, though, that we're seeing in these regions that is not talked about much is the drastic change and fluctuations between droughts and floods, which we have not seen in recent years. So, the groundwater is changing based on these variable climates, which are often already variable in these regions. So, the dramatic change between a drought and the flood will actually affect the groundwater. So, we're seeing more turbid water underneath the surface, especially in the deeper aquifers, and that's problematic not just for water quality but also for the equipment that's downhole if you're pumping water out of the ground. It's compromising that equipment. It's making it more costly to have to--be able to rehab and install these systems. So, if it gets much worse, it's going to be incredibly problematic. So, I'm hopeful that these amazing young people are going to help us address these issues and the awareness of these issues.

MS. SELLERS: And a quick follow-up on that, because many of the problems you describe we have documented as well in the United States and your focuses overseas. Do you see yourself bringing these technologies back to work in areas like the Texas border, the Navajo Nation, other areas where there's very poor water quality or lack of access to clean water?

MS. EVANS: We get that question a lot. And we have actually done a little bit of disaster response work in Texas after hurricanes. The problem in the U.S., of course, is politics and policy. It--we have this really niche expertise in groundwater and cultural understanding in the United States, that's a lot trickier, there's a lot more--a lot more red tape to get through. However, I think with the new innovations we're working on right now, it can be translated anywhere in the world. So, we are actually hopeful that we can start working on the border or on the reservations and provide solutions at home, as well as overseas.

MS. SELLERS: Thank you.

Karan, Amnesty International recently had a survey that suggested that Generation Z has been more affected and is more upset about climate change than prior generations. Why, Karan, are these issues resonating so much with young people now?

MR. JERATH: Because this is our problem. This is ultimately a problem that we have inherited, that we, I think youth especially in this day and age, are realizing that our leaders, if they're not going to solve it for us, we have to be the ones to take this initiative and solve it ourselves. Quite frankly, in today's day and age, climate change is the biggest threat to national security. But the thing is, it doesn't just go--it's not just national security for the United States, but it's international security. And I think the United States needs to take a multilateral approach and can't approach this in isolation, and that's what youth are kind of seeing right now, is that because climate change does not affect who we--who--because climate change does not choose who it affects, it affects everyone. And unless we are the generation that brings this to light, it's not going to be--it's not going to be solved. And I think, ultimately, youth are--we're seeing especially in today's day and age youth organizing events and speaking up for what we believe in, because we're trying to show that our voices matters in this stage. And we're being creative, resilient and showing that we care, because we ultimately are trying to have a seat at this decision-making table that affects our future and the generations to come.

MS. SELLERS: So, Karan, how exactly is it a threat to national security? Where does the national security impact come in?

MR. JERATH: I think a lot of that comes in with institutions. We're seeing the wildfires in California impacting infrastructure and power and ultimately impacting the community there. We're seeing storms and hurricanes in the Gulf Coast impacting the local economy and infrastructure. And ultimately, this is--this is truly where I think that national security angle comes in, in that if we're not addressing this problem early on and being proactive rather than reactive, we're going to see the way in which we live be affected. And I think that's something that, as more--you know, as more devastation occurs, we're going to [unclear]. We don't want it to, you know, impact us then and only then realize what we've done and what we could have solved. But, yeah, I think that's where that infrastructure angle comes in.

MS. SELLERS: So just one more follow-up for you. What advice would you have for young people who want to get involved--and actually both of you could probably take this. What advice would you have for young people who want to get involved in this environmental movement? Karan, why don't you go first, and then Sarah. Oh, Sarah, go ahead.

MS. EVANS: Well, before we wrap up, I just want to say I'm so inspired by Karan. I watched a lot of your stuff before this interview. And it's young people like you that give me hope in making a change. I have a Gen Z daughter, and it breaks my heart to see what she's inherited, but then I'm hopeful. And the whole Greta movement has been very inspiring. The Fridays for Future is just an incredible movement, these young people that get out there every week. There's a young women in Uganda. Every Friday she goes and she speaks her mind. And it's incredible to see. So, I would just say if these young people could keep it up and stay motivated and don't give up or get discouraged, because the future really does rely on you. And I hate to say that, and I'm sorry that it does, and it rests on your shoulders. As a Gen Xer, we're here to help, and we're here to step aside where you come in with greater knowledge and greater energy. So, I'm just so proud of you, Karan, and everybody else involved in these movements right now.

MS. SELLERS: So, Karan, how do you inspire younger people, and what do you think--how do you think they can step up?

MR. JERATH: I would think--I would say right now we need to use what we have, what we know best, and that is social media, and using social media as that medium to build the conversation but also share accurate information and limit disinformation. I think we're at this stage where there's so much disinformation circulating that we first need to address sort of the facts. And that's something that youth have been very proactive about. And it's great to see, you know, peers from all over the world do that. But I think that second stage is the hardest, and this is what truly differentiates youth being able to--being the ones to solve a solution. And that is actually going out into your local communities and finding ways in which you can make impact. So, it's shifting away from couch activism, just sharing your views and not doing anything about it, but more so then find even the smallest thing that you can do in your local community and start there.

And then it doesn't only end there, but also, you know, comes in your home environment and making sure that while you can, you know, educate your younger siblings about what's going on in the world, but it's also sharing that information with your parents and changing mindsets and, you know, within your own family trying to have more sustainable habits that sort of shift the mindset and contribute to a more sustainable path.

MS. SELLERS: Karan, you tackled the oil spill, which was a memorable and enormous disaster in this country. You've looked at transportation uses in Africa. You've created a documentary. What is the next challenge you have your sights on?

MR. JERATH: I think the next step for me is to just--so the work that I'm currently doing, Africa, is one that I'm very passionate about, and I think that is going to be a stepping stone for contributing--continuing to work in that region. Specifically, we're starting off in Zambia and trying to disrupt the transportation sector and taking a sustainable angle towards it. But then I know there's a lot of other angles that we can take, such as financial literacy for the local community and helping build more sustainable energy solutions. And so, using that as a stepping stone. But, yeah, we're going to see where it goes from there.

MS. SELLERS: So, I want to finish with a question for each of you. What problem do you think we are overlooking right now that's going to be a problem for a generation ahead? Where are you seeing the need to reinvest interests and young people's energy? And, Sarah, maybe you can start with that.

MS. EVANS: I will. This might be a little bit more broad than what you're getting at, but I'm discouraged by the lack of focus on corporate accountability and the portion of climate issues that actually come from industry and agriculture. As consumers, we're told that it's up to us to limit our showers, limit our plastics and recycle and compost, but we're only about 10 percent where water is concerned of the consumers of the fresh water on the planet. So, I'm hopeful that along with this next generation we can force that awareness of corporate responsibility and hopefully force some change.

MS. SELLERS: Thank you. Karan, take it on yourself.

MR. JERATH: Yeah, I could not agree more with what Sarah just mentioned, and that while we have the public sector that ultimately is the one to enforce, it's really what we see through the private sector and what corporations do that ultimately shape our opinions and show that progress is being made. That was the whole purpose of the Bancolombia documentary where it was me connecting with an executive within a mining and ceramics company and sort of showing my perspective on what I believed him and his company needed to change to sort of have that youth time and that belief that corporations are changing, because while government does do a lot, we really firsthand see what corporations do in our local communities. And so, I would really hit on that point. It's where corporations and the messaging that they now pursue that are ultimately going to be the ones that reenergize youth.

MS. SELLERS: I can't resist asking you, are you optimistic, looking ahead?

MR. JERATH: Absolutely. I don't think you can take a pessimistic approach. I think even with everything that's going on right now, you need to--you know, the optimism is what carries you in your creativity and your continuous efforts in solving these solutions that don't have a definite solution and that are, you know, larger than you. And so, I think that mindset always has to remain within youth, because that's the only way that progress will then be made.

MS. SELLERS: And, Sarah, you, are you optimistic?

MS. EVANS: I will echo that. Yes, we're devoting our lives to tackling these issues, so we must remain optimistic. So, and it's not forced optimism. We really are, especially getting to see this next generation and the stand that they're taking. I have concerns, but overall, I am optimistic.

MS. SELLERS: Sarah Evans and Karan Jerath, thank you both very much for joining me this morning on Washington Post Live.

MR. JERATH: Thank you.

MS. EVANS: Thank you.

MS. SELLERS: We were delighted to have you. That was a fascinating conversation. Thank you.

If you’d like to watch highlights from this morning’s video, please go to WashigntonPostLive.com, where you can also find a calendar of upcoming events.

I'm Frances Stead Sellers and thank you very much for joining us.

[End recorded session.]

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