Food + Feelings

Rebecca Hu

Plastics, Robotics, and Waste Management

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Recycling robotics founder Rebecca Hu joins me to talk about her career arc and founding story, finding herself in the waste management industry to automate materials sorting, and why so many items fall out of the recycling stream.

Other topics include the "single most eye-opening experience I've ever had," how exactly recycling fights climate change, the economics of recycling plastics and why recycling glass isn't always profitable, the Tetra Pak paradox, PFAS chemicals and contaminated compostables, the sustainability of aluminum vs. glass, Rebecca's "red pill" moment, the most surprising thing she's learned about waste management, industry mafia rumors, and the one takeaway she wants everyone to know about recycling.

And, of course, we also get into some feelings: what drives her decision making, the emotional rollercoaster of founding a company and how she self-regulates, emotional intelligence vs. emotional maturity, and what gives her hope around climate change.

Show Notes

00:04:20 Who is Rebecca Hu?

  • Born to immigrant parents in suburbs of Chicago
  • Third grade-science class lesson on climate change
  • Graduated Amherst, started career in consulting at Bain
  • Then Thumbtack, employee 80-ish
  • Eco anxiety drove her to pivot career into sustainability work
  • Consuming something means you're producing waste
  • "The seedy underbelly of what you do when you consume something, is you're producing waste."
  • "Recycling is just another form of commodity manufacturing."

00:08:50 Founding story

  • Glacier is "building an AI-enabled industrial robot to automate sorting at recycling facilities."
  • Big picture: "to use technology in any way we can to help end waste."
  • Has the window of time to prevent runaway climate change already passed?
  • Recycling leverages existing infrastructure to create immediate climate impact
  • The beautiful equation that drove her to tackle recycling
  • Her personal theory of change in a capitalist society
  • "Aligning financial incentives with environmental incentives is a really effective way to create fast and broad change."
  • Spent months looking for a startup to join that could have a big climate impact and benefit from her skillset before connecting to a fellow waste management enthusiast working on sorting tech and teaming up to start [[Glacier]]
  • Founder-product fit

00:15:20 What happens after you put something in the recycling bin?

  • Highly recommended field trip: visiting a MRF = Materials Recovery Facility
  • An investor: "The single most eye-opening experience I've ever had."
  • Sorting is still largely a manual process, people standing shoulder to shoulder picking materials off a conveyor belt
  • Injury rate is twice as high as in construction
  • Exposure to hazardous materials
  • The weirdest things found on a MRF conveyor belt
  • Lithium ion batteries can explode and start fires - don't recycle batteries!
  • Why China banned recycled material imports
  • Contamination rates in recycling are hard to measure, but anecdotally very high, 10-20% trash
  • Allowable standard was around 6-7%, but hard to enforce due to difficulty measuring
  • Overnight, changed it to 0.5%

00:21:50 Chronic understaffing and the unbelievably high employee turnover rate in waste management facilities

  • 500% annual attrition; employers have to refill the same position 5 times in a year
  • Automation without the negative societal impact of job loss
  • Over 50% understaffed

00:24:35 Using computer vision and robotics to identify and sort items

  • Capturing this data at scale can also offer real-time waste and recycling analytics to understand what is in the waste stream

00:27:15 The future of waste management and recycling

00:29:10 Why do so many items fall out of the recycling stream?

00:32:00 The economics of recycling plastics and why it doesn't make financial sense to recycle

  • Cost of labor is 50% of any MRF's operating expenses
  • The financial levers of operating a recycling facility

00:35:50 Some promising new recycling legislation to shape the financial incentives

  • Unpegging the market for recycled feedstock from that of virgin resin
  • Huge deficit of recycled feedstock based on current infrastructure

00:38:20 How virgin plastics are made and how recycling fights climate change

  • One key is energy use: recycling materials for reuse uses far less energy than creating new materials from scratch
  • Fact check: correct, according to the US Energy Information Administration, 60.8% of US electricity generation came from fossil fuels in 2021
  • Many manufacturing facilities rely on their own electrical production, which is also largely fossil fuel-based
  • Aluminum has the biggest gap in energy usage between recycled and virgin product, with recycled aluminum requiring ~95% less energy to produce than producing new aluminum from bauxite
  • Why virgin resin prices are so volatile

00:41:50 Recycling glass in the US isn't profitable

  • Glass can also be recycled infinitely
  • Glass is unprofitable to recycle in the US, whereas in Europe it is profitable, likely due to infrastructure; glass is heavy, making transport expensive, so the further it has to travel, the higher the cost and less profitable recycling will be

00:43:20 Why Tetra Pak is technically but not practically recyclable, and aligning incentives for a more circular economy

  • Shelf-stability, aesthetics being prioritized over recyclability
  • Lack of understanding of recyclability
  • Materials, even if individually recyclable, become near impossible to handle if layered together into one package like Tetra Paks; they require highly specialized machines, which most facilities do not have

00:46:20 The person who cooks should do the dishes, for the sake of the environment!

00:47:20 Plastics, PFAS chemicals, and contaminated compostables

  • We are ingesting a credit card's worth of plastic every week! (Source)
  • PFAS chemicals getting into our milk by way of transported hay, causing dairies to go out of business

00:50:55 Aluminum vs. glass: which is more environmentally friendly?

  • Definitely put aluminum cans into recycling
  • How much aluminum is already out there circulating in the system?

00:53:10 How her views on recycling and waste management have changed since starting an AI waste management company

  • Her red pill moment
  • Attacking the climate problem on all fronts
  • Getting out of the extreme tech bubble
  • In awe of people who have been in waste management for decades
  • Recycling as an industry has sprung up entirely reactively to our consumption patterns
  • Reacting to Amazon
  • The most surprising thing she's learned about recycling and waste management
  • How shifting consumption patterns and innovation can have massive repercussions that inundate the recycling industry, namely fast fashion and the intentional overproduction of textiles as well as batteries and the shift to electric vehicles

00:60:05 Getting into values and feelings

  • What about the "Mafia"?
  • The brief yet fascinating history of the recycling industry
  • Recycling as a concept sprang into prominence in the 1970s
  • Started out fragmented, followed by consolidation
  • Regional dynamics vary from communal and cooperative to cutthroat

00:63:10 What drives her decision making and what she optimizes for in life

  • What does a life well-lived look like?
  • Creating a lasting impact on a problem bigger than self
  • The importance of the 'how' within the 'why,' upholding core values

01:06:25 The founder experience and the emotions she struggles with most day to day

  • Riding the emotional rollercoaster and self-regulating
  • The value of being able to confide and find emotional support in cofounder
  • Emotional intelligence vs emotional maturity

01:09:50 Coping strategies for regulating emotions

  • Exposure and calibration over time
  • Professional Development chats = feelings and feedback conversation
  • What they did over past couple weeks
  • What could have gone better
  • What are the growth areas for each cofounder and company overall
  • What went well - big emphasis here, i.e., practicing gratitude
  • Becomes a living document of all the things they're proud of
  • "What would I rather be doing than this?"
  • The Smile File

01:13:25 New upcoming regulations and innovations in waste management that she's most excited about

  • Accountability for printing the recyclability logo
  • Computer vision and AI will let us better understand what's actually getting recycled
  • Legislation + technology = a better waste landscape
  • The deceptive nature of the recycling symbol
  • The creation of new recycled plastic markets for polypropylene, marked with triangle 5, by an industry coalition

01:17:35 What gives her the most hope around climate change

  • People she meets in the space
  • Other tech folks waking up to the climate reality, urgency, and priority

01:20:20 The one takeaway she wants people to have about recycling

  • Visit a MRF
  • Understand the flow of materials through a MRF to get a more intuitive sense of what should and shouldn't go in the recycling bin as opposed to trying to remember a rote list
  • Do NOT put batteries in the blue recycling bin
  • Wish-cycling can do more harm than good, better to err on the side of not recycling if unsure

01:26:10 Where to find Rebecca Hu and Glacier

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