Techonomy recently partnered with Nestlé Waters to host a session on “Sustainability in a Pandemic-Ridden World.” Our speakers were Jenny Ahlen, senior director for EDF+Business at the Environmental Defense Fund, Keefe Harrison, the CEO of the Recycling Partnership, and David Rosenberg, CEO of Newark-based vertical farming company AeroFarms. Together, we tackled issues of corporate responsibility and business leadership, the pandemic’s impact on sustainability efforts at top companies and for the everyday consumer, the struggles and confusion of recycling, and the pathway to a cleaner, more sustainable world. Below are some thoughts from the panelists.
What’s the role of business in addressing the degrading environment and pushing towards more sustainability in society? In the opinion of Jenny Ahlen, plenty. “We need proactive business leadership,” she told Techonomy, “with the ambition and speed required to avert the worst impacts of climate change and build a more sustainable and resilient future.”
Ahlen spends all her time on such issues. “Even during the pandemic” says Ahlen, “we’re seeing more people shopping for sustainable products, from the food they put on their plates to the products they put on their bodies. Companies have a responsibility to create a safer, more sustainable marketplace because it shouldn’t be up to consumers to figure out what products are safe for their families or the environment.”
EDF works to help convince companies this is good business, without taking money from any of those companies. (EDF is funded by non-corporate donors, but it stands out in the environmental movement for the degree it attempts to help business do the right thing.) “Businesses can leverage their influence,” she says, “to set ambitious climate goals and drive change at the scale needed to get us closer to a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future. We believe by working with companies, we can transform business as usual and raise the bar on corporate climate leadership.”
David Rosenberg founded and leads AeroFarms, which operates the world’s largest vertical farming company, with its primary growing rooms in Newark, New Jersey. He’s a longtime partisan of a “circular economy,” in which re-use and efficiency drives the way we think about just about everything we do.
He’s not satisfied with how the world is doing. He says “Progress towards sustainability is tragically slow. Much slower than it needs to be. We need to move really fast.” Since global warming remains the single biggest environmental challenge, by far, Rosenberg adds that the most important move society needs to make is to create a price for emitting carbon dioxide.
Putting a price on doing the wrong thing, he says, is what can make many societal systems more sustainable. Another example is the use of water—an area where AeroFarms by design is dramatically more efficient than traditional farming. The point, says Rosenberg, is not to put “good actors at an economic disadvantage.”
He says it’s extremely complicated technologically to optimize the lighting, plant nutrients, and the back-end software that runs these giant clean-food factories. “But the macro economics are in the industry’s favor,” he says. “In vertical farming, technology can reduce both the capital expenditures and operating expenditures.” During the pandemic, though, the company’s packaging lines, where fresh greens are packaged for customers that include Whole Foods and other major grocers, had to be redesigned so workers could practice social distancing. That initially caused production to drop by half, though refinements allowed it to rebound.
“We’ve been telling the public a long time to do the right thing and recycle,” says Keefe Harrison, CEO and founder of advocacy group The Recycling Partnership. “But only half of Americans can recycle at home as easily as they can throw something away. We only have a 34% recycling rate, and communities are struggling to pay their recycling bills.”
The 6-year-old non-profit she runs works with all parts of the recycling ecosystem–companies that produce things, the ones that operate recycling infrastructure, and about 1500 American communities. “We believed they needed to be more connected,” she says. “That’s the circular economy.”
But Harrison worries that the pandemic may alter America’s recycling equation. Towns pay around $100 per ton to companies that take away paper and plastic to recycle them. But the cost to dump a ton of waste into the average landfill is only about $47. So, she says, communities “have to choose to do it…because they believe it’s important. But if they’re stretched financially because of the pandemic, they may have a harder time.”
Happily, major investment is going into recycling facilities, which should improve the economics. Harrison says the country has recently created more than $4 billion in new paper mill capacity to handle recycled content in the U.S., and billions have also been invested recently in new plastics recycling capacity.
We asked her about China’s recent tightening of restrictions on receiving U.S. recyclables, but she doesn’t place blame there. “If we’re forcing trash on other countries to make it happen, are we really making progress?” she asks. “People can easily say it’s China’s fault, but if recycling is working against cheap plastic and cheap landfills, we’ve got to work on that. It’s an economic problem.”
To create the new plants, buy the trucks, and otherwise build a national recycling infrastructure that is sufficient for the whole country, would cost about $10 billion, the Partnership calculates. But meanwhile, it is working hard with companies that produce things, like Nestle Waters, which is also partnering with Techonomy on the session described below, to help them do the right thing. “Nestle is walking the walk,” she says.