100: Michael O’Heaney: Story of Stuff (transcript)

November 6, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Michael O'Heaney

Michael is the executive director of one of the most inspirational organizations I can think of. I urge you to watch their videos – The Story of Stuff, The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Solutions. There’s a whole series of them. They’re fun to watch, they’re quick to watch and they make a difference, at least to me. It’s refreshing for me to talk to someone who does a lot more than most of us. He’s knowledgeable and he’s acting on the companies like Nestle, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and so on that are bringing all this plastic to the world. That’s what we talk about most but they do a lot more than just that. I hope you’ll take to heart and act on what you learned from this podcast but also what you get from watching The Story of Stuff videos. For most Americans you can probably stop using 80 percent or more of the plastic that you use and, in the process, improve your life. You won’t be doing without. Recycling is nearly throwing out. Reducing your consumption – that’s what makes a big difference. You don’t have to buy or accept when people give you plastic. And that’s what you’d get from The Story of Stuff and listen to Michael, the strength and resolve and purpose to refuse this stuff.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Michael O’Heaney. Michael, how are you?

Michael: I’m great, Josh. Thanks for having me.

Joshua: Glad to have you here. And I want to start off by saying that The Story of Stuff which you are the executive director…

Michael: Executive director and Annie, our founder Annie Leonard who is now the executive director of Greenpeace, USA when she released the original video in late 2007 was kind of overwhelmed truthfully by the attention that it received and the exposure that it received and while she thought she was just putting a video on the internet, it ended up leading to the formation of this nonprofit The Story of Stuff Project and I came onboard shortly after the founding of the project to basically help her develop the organization and then when she went to Greenpeace I stuck around. And I am now the executive director of the project.

Joshua: Whatever attention it got I hope to bring it a lot more. I’ve recommended that video to so many people. It’s maybe the very top, it’s pretty close to the top of my list of resources because it’s so simple and so direct and so you know it’s not full of blame or anything like that. It’s just saying like this is the way things are. So everyone listening to this right now hit pause, go to thestoryofstuff.org. So there’s the original video, then there’s the one about bottles. There’s maybe a dozen videos that you, guys, have done?

Michael: Yeah. There’s 10 that we’ve done in animated style and then more recently we’ve been experimenting with other forms of media. So we have a podcast that we produced a couple of years ago that Annie actually hosted. We’re doing short-form documentary. We’ve had a sort of focused series the last couple of years on our fights around public water around the country. We’re doing sort of short social media ready you know motion graphic kind of stuff. So while we’re best known for the black and white animated explainers that we’ve produced now we’re making all sorts of different kinds of media. In many ways we kind of tracked the changes in how people make and consume media over the last decade.

Joshua: Well, I love what you… [unintelligible] I love what you guys are doing and you change a lot more. I mean one of my big things is how… I think I am in month 16 since the last time I threw out my landfill garbage.

Michael: Amazing.

Joshua: If people keep saying amazing and increasingly, I feel like I’m a parent. And like I said you know I change the diaper every time my kid needs a diaper change and people are like, “That’s amazing”. I am like, “That’s just what you do.” I mean I have to go back to the beginning. At the beginning I would have said that was amazing too. But the more that you do it and the more you watch these like Story of Stuff and you start picking up that… When did it become normal that we just throw plastic all over the place and litter? I mean I hope people who listen don’t litter bit you know it still makes it onto the landfills even if you are around for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. When did that become normal and became impressive to not pollute?

Michael: Yeah. Relatively recently. You know one of our purposes of the organization in the last couple of years about bottled water and I like to actually do the sort of thought experiment with folks because I’m not terribly old. I’m in my mid-40s. But you know when I was a kid there was no such thing. I mean you know sure there was sort of you know small bottled water brands, sort of local or regional brands with spring water and those kinds of things. But this kind of you know “I need to have this plastic bottle that I’m going to toss and likely not recycle to drink water” is a new phenomenon. So yeah, I know it’s there. I like to actually help people to think back to certainly my parents’ generation didn’t generate the kind of waste that we do and certainly didn’t consume in the kind of manner in which we do.

Joshua: Yeah. There was while ago I saw… There was a story in some newspaper and it showed a graph of world plastic production and I’m 47, so I guess it’s late 40s and it reminded me of what is popularly known as the Crying Indian Ad, Public Service Announcement. The graph that I saw showed the growth of plastic production and pre the 70s it was vanishingly small. You could barely see it. For people who don’t know I’ll put the link because it’s on YouTube. There was a Public Service Announcement that showed a Native American walking through some pristine area and he comes to some areas where it’s really polluted and some people are just throwing garbage out their car windows and he cries. Well, all of the world production of all plastic ever up to that point was like a week of what we do today and that was a crying shame. Now it’s kind of like, “Oh, well, maybe we can get rid of some straws.”

Michael: Yes. There are two things quickly. One, that Crying Indianan ad as it’s known was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful which ironically was a nonprofit formed by beverage snack and other packaged food industry companies. And so a very specific purpose of that ad was again to convince people that the real litterbugs were the people were throwing things out of their cars. So this is in the 70s, roadside litter among many other environmental problems were a focus of much attention. So it was the beginning of a real effort among the companies that you know are to my mind to the true litterbugs that actually put these materials into commerce, convince us that their you know convenience and all of those kinds of things. But that ad was actually sponsored by those companies.

But two, the ramp up as you mentioned in plastic production… You know we do quite a bit of work around plastic pollution. And one of the things that we’re really trying to do is focus people’s attention not just on that sort of end of life be wild life impacts and the oceans that you know have been getting an enormous amount of attention over the last two years and rightfully so. But to make sure people understand that plastic is part of a larger production system and that there are huge upstream impacts, there are impacts around the way that we consume plastics in terms of their toxicity.

But despite the fact that what we know about the end-of-life problems, about the upstream impacts and about the ways that it might impact our health, plastic production is forecasted to increase even over the next two decades dramatically partly fueled by the fracking and oil and gas boom so cheap oil prices, the sort of glut of hydrocarbons that have come online because of the fracking boom. The petrochemical companies in many ways the oil and gas companies and the plastics companies are the same folks are looking for ways to create more value out of that oil and gas that is sort of [unintelligible] the market. And so plastic production is one of the ways they’re doing that. The scary thing about that is the bulk of the growth that is projected by the industry is in single-use disposable largely unrecyclable plastics. So it’s not the durable plastics that are used in healthcare or in car fenders to lightweight cars, those kinds of things. It is these you know little plastic sachets or single-serve you know gummy bears or chips or those kinds of things, plastic water bottles, you know all sorts of plastic packaging, the kind of stuff that super annoys people that is increasing dramatically or is forecast to increase dramatically over the next 10-20 years.

Joshua: If you could see my face, the listeners, there’s a mix of fascination at what’s going. And I feel partly depressed and partly encouragement because I know you guys are doing something about and I’m trying…

Michael: Sometimes the most important thing is grasping the scale of the challenge and the problem making sure that the kinds of stories that we know and that we’re told are actually true and sort of busting up some of the myths and then ultimately for us, I don’t want to be a source of terror for people, it’s understanding the system can lead to better solutions. And you know ultimately that’s where we want to go. So but you know around something like plastics or water or any of the other kinds of resource issues that we’re having I think it’s super important for us to truly understand the system, who the villains are, who the potential heroes are, what’s actually happening when we’re thinking about how to solve the problem.

Joshua: You’re making me think…. A couple of videos…. Now I came in with a systems perspective, Limits to Growth is one of the big things that brought me in this direction. So I recommend people read the 30-year update Limits to Growth and read it with an open mind because it… Anyway, that’s another story. But the video that you guys had on it was kind of like a board game. I forget the title of it.

Michael: Story of Solutions.

Joshua: It really made the systems perspective make a lot of sense. And the upstream part… Your videos is where I first heard about that and it didn’t even occur to me. So if I get a pound of plastic, how much upstream have…

Michael: Massive, massive amount. Well, one massive, massive amounts of waste and environmental impact. Before you even open that bottle of soda or that chip bag or what have you, or unwrap that apple, that is my favorite thing, now we’re individually wrapping apples and bananas and those kinds of things. It’s nuts. But significant upstream impact. So you know places like western Pennsylvania that are being impacted, their water quality is being impacted by fracking so the actual production of the hydrocarbons. Then you’ve got these things, the huge number of proposals now for what are called cracker plants around the United States. So what cracker plants do is they take the gas from fracking. They basically crack the molecules to create the building blocks of plastics. And these cracker plants are hugely polluting, huge energy sucks. And there’s a series of proposals for them in western Pennsylvania and Texas, around Houston. And if the, I think, what 250-300 or so cracker plants that are proposed come on line they alone would have the CO2 emissions of the country of Argentina.

So this is just in the pre-plastic production phase before you get to actually the plastics themselves. The additives that they put in plastics, the exposures of the production of workers and their fence line communities around these plants, all of those kinds of impacts which are immense and truthfully have a much more significant human health impact before we get thing than any plastic consumption is ever going to have on a person who you know gets microbeads in their mouth or has plastic micro fibers in their water, those kinds of things. The real human health impacts of plastic production are upstream. So even before we see the material it’s had this massive environmental impact. And then the crazy thing is we use all of those resources, all of that energy and all of that money to produce this piece of plastic that then just gets tossed.

Joshua: 99 percent of stuff gets thrown out within a month or something like that.

Michael: It just gets tossed. And I mean just forget the environment, forget human health, forget you know wildlife, all of those kinds of things, just economically it’s an astoundingly wasteful and stupid system.

Joshua: You did something that was valuable to you that you cared about and you became a leader in a major force, certainly for me. I hope people listening are thinking if they want to be a leader and they care about the sort of issue, to act on this is one of the most…It is probably going to help them more than almost anything else.

Michael: Yeah, act on your passion. I mean you know this is easier said than done. I mean I had a lot of opportunities. I had opportunities to really learn at the knee of some incredible leaders. I mean you know I said earlier I think it’s important to listen. For me, I mean knowing the leaders, the activists, the researchers, the you know reporters, investigators who I’ve had an opportunity to meet, I mean I pick up things from them constantly. I’m constantly referring back to folks I worked with 20 years ago from whom you know I learned a quick thing. You know I’ve had a lot of fantastic experiences but those experiences have been really made great by the other kinds of leaders that I’ve been able to come into contact with. You know and I’ll go back again to I think one of the most important things about being a leader and this is certainly something that I try to practice in my organization is doing a lot of listening, is you know understanding where people are coming from, what great ideas do you have. You know we have a pretty what I would say sort of a horizontal team. I mean there’s not a lot of hierarchy in our organization. You know people bring ideas to the table, we try them out, we throw them over against the wall, see what sticks. And so both these sorts of experience that I’ve had and then again continuing to surround myself with super interesting, smart, you know compelling leaders. It’s been a real gift.


Joshua: Can I run by you an idea that I’ve had lately that I want to [unintelligible]. So I think one of the big things is we can measure the amount of plastic or the amount of emissions and things like that but that’s the result. I think the cause is our behavior. Our behavior comes from our emotions and motivations. And I think two really big ones that get me are “I want to do something but if I do something and no one else does, what I do doesn’t really matter.” It is a very sad thing to think. It’s you know saying, “What I do doesn’t mean anything.” And the other one was kind of similar, “If I do this small thing, it doesn’t make a difference. But the big thing takes too much effort so I’m not going do anything.” I’ve been thinking about how to get people to do… A lot of people say, “If everyone does a little bit, then it all adds up” which I don’t know, if everyone in the world stops using straws, it’s not that big of a difference. I think you run the risk of people doing small things and thinking, “Good, I am done.” and not doing other things.

So I came with this idea and you are only the second person I’ve talked to that isn’t like a close personal friend. That is a #1L1P where 1L means either litter or less. Because I pick up one, at least one piece of trash per day and put in a trash can. This is not decreasing anything. It is only moving it to another place but it also raises your awareness in a way that reading doesn’t do. And once you pick up one piece, eventually you’re going to pick up two. So someone said to me, “Josh, I’m a germaphobe. I’m not going to pick stuff up off the ground.” So I said, “Alright. For you we could do one less so instead of picking something up, you know instead of getting something, instead of getting some chips you know an apple that’s not wrapped or you know instead of getting a disposable cup you know use a reusable cup. And the 1P is tell one person every day to pick up one piece of litter and tell one person also to join #1L1P. That gives you something to do that’s modest but still doable. But if everyone tells one person and you keep telling one person every day, you get an exponential growth. [unintelligible] So I’m talking to you when I hear some of the scale you’re talking about, I am thinking, “Nothing is on that scale.” On the other hand, I’ve changed a lot in a couple of years much more than I would have thought. And it’s bringing a lot joy and fun and I really like it.

Michael: Yep. No, I think it’s important. I mean…

Joshua: Sorry, I’m going to interrupt you again.

Michael: No, go ahead.

Joshua: So you also take a picture of this and post it with the hashtag and so that’s… You know who knows which hashtags are going to take off like crazy. But maybe this would be one.

Michael: Yes. If I can suggest one more step and when you’re posting that picture and tagging it, tag the company who created the packaging in the first place. So we’re experimenting right now with basically a hack of beach cleanups. So beach cleanups super popular and in many ways very important environmental action. Hundreds of people get together, schools and companies sponsor teams to go and work together to clean up a shoreline. Problem is of course three days later the shoreline has plastic again because you haven’t actually stopped the plastic from getting into the environment but you’ve picked it up. But working together, being out and participating, all of those I think are important indicators to people that you know they’re doing the right thing and the likelihood that they will participate in the future is increased if they had a good event. Our hack of the beach cleanup is to do what’s called a brand audit where you’re both collecting but then sorting the trash that you have picked up and getting a sense of what are the kinds of materials that are ending up in the environment and then what companies made those materials that are getting into the environment.

So you know I agree with you culture and sort of person [unintelligible] store or/and you know that our businesses or schools or places of worship, the kinds of decisions that we make about the materials that we buy and bring into those places, all of those things are super important. I think that’s one leg in the stool – culture and personal behavior. There’s another leg which is technology. What are the kinds of changes that happen in terms of plastic, it might be in terms of material science or the ways that we deliver products. Those kinds of things. And then there’s politics, there’s decisions about the kinds of rules we make about either what materials get into the system in the first place, what’s safe for humans, what’s safe for the environment. And so that’s the world of sort of rules and regulations so I think it’s important that you focus on all three of those things.

You know I think what you’re telling me is your interest and focus is around the sort of culture and behavior piece. Again, very important but I think if you add that step of saying to the companies, “Hey, I just picked up this piece of trash that you created” you’re sending a signal that is stronger than just, “I’m refusing this product at the checkout.” You’re sending a stronger signal and in particular in this sort of reputational signal to those companies that you take the kind of packaging that they put into the world seriously. And the likelihood that they’re going to get that signal and start to think about redesigning their packaging, using safer materials, redesigning the way that those products are delivered to us because at the end of the day most of us just want the thing that’s in the packaging. We don’t want the packaging. So the more we can sort of signal to companies who ultimately I think hold responsibility for what gets put into commerce in the first place, the more we can signal to companies that I’m doing my part by living in alignment with my values and I want you to live in closer alignment with values of sustainability, health, democracy as well. And I think that’s important.

Having said that the personal behavior stuff, super important. The way that we put it is those kinds of behavioral changes when you choose to reduce the amount of trash that you create, when you choose to select a fair-trade product over a conventional product or an organic food over conventional food.

Joshua: Or less stuff.

Michael: Or less stuff entirely.

Joshua: Well, thinking along those lines is what’s been driving one of the big things about this podcast that one of the things I ask people is…I want to bring in leaders because and I ask them at their option if they’re willing to take on a challenge or something that they’re not already doing that they could do to live by their values more because I think that people listening when they hear other people doing something that makes it more likely for them to do it themselves. What I ask is people… Usually, most people have something that they’ve been thinking about doing. And I always point out – it doesn’t fix all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight but it can’t be telling other people what to do and it can’t be something you’re already doing. And I wonder if you would be willing to take on a challenge?

Michael: I’d be super willing. Actually, if there was something that came to the top of my head, I would mention it but there’s not something that comes to the top of my head. I know I need to get back on my bike more. But truthfully, I live in the Bay Area and I don’t really use the car that often anyway. I use public transportation to get to work. But yeah, I’d be psyched too I just have to think a little bit about what that might look like. Do you have suggestions of things that folks have done?

Joshua: Well, I will point out one thing. You said that the bike… One of the things I realize is that what matters is not how big the thing is that they do. It matters if they do it because increasingly, I view it as a matter of skills more than a matter of the total opposite of what you do the first time. So even if you did something… Because of the way the bike thing came up quickly my read was that it’s something you care about and I think that if you started riding, even if it was only a few times a month, I predict you would start getting into a new mode, doing more. I’m not sure.

Michael: That’s interesting. I like that.

Joshua: Yeah. I mean that’s certainly been the case for me. You know once I started avoiding packaging for food what happened… I originally did it for environmental reasons but that’s not why I do it now, although it matters. I do because it’s delicious. My diet is better tasting now than ever. It also happens to be saving money and it’s more… People who have listened to my podcast hear me talk about this all the time. And I think that what you think you see now you’ll see more when you do it. So my reaction is to go with what came out really quickly.

Michael: Yeah. I’d be psyched to do that.

Joshua: So then I wonder if we could schedule a second conversation to share what that experience was like.

Michael: Totally. Yeah. I’d be happy to.

Joshua: OK. So after we finish then we’ll schedule that. I like to end with asking two questions. Is there anything that I didn’t think to ask to bring up? And is there anything that you’d like to say directly to the listeners that I didn’t ask about?

Michael: You know, I don’t think so. I mean thanks, Josh. It’s been a really super interesting conversation. I really enjoyed talking and you definitely gave me some food for thought. And you know I think the only thing I would say to the listeners is invite them to you know watch our content, participate, you know get to know our community a little bit better. It’s a super interesting [unintelligible] a million people really global, I mean Europeans, Asians, Africans, North Americans, South Americans. I mean it’s a really interesting diverse community. And you know I would encourage people who are looking for opportunities to participate around you know whether it’s public water privatization or plastic pollution as two of our main sort of campaigns right now but really everything from you know creating a cancer free economy to Internet connected toys and devices for children, a huge range of issues related to stuff. So I would just invite people to get to know [unintelligible]. I am on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the usual suspects.

Joshua: Man, you guys are right at the middle of a lot of stuff. It was such a productive perspective. So I reiterate that. I recommend watching all the stories videos and getting in touch. One quick question that I meant to ask earlier. You are in a leadership role and you talked about all the leaders that you work with. So for someone who wants to be productive in this area, would you say there are more opportunities or fewer opportunities now than when you first got started for some of the be-productive and take-a-leadership role?

Michael: I would say [unintelligible] for two reasons. One, I mean even when I…

Joshua: [unintelligible]

Michael: Yeah, yeah, of course. I would say way more opportunities. So even when I started out 25 years ago to now the consciousness around environmental impacts that rolls in companies and universities and schools, churches and then you know nonprofit organizations among advocates or researchers, science people to express leadership around these issues are just so many more than they were even 25 years ago. So yes, I think there are certainly more opportunities to express leadership when I started.

The other thing I would just say is it is so much easier now because of the Internet to find people who care about the things that you care about. And so while you know I live in the Bay Area and there’s a whole lot of organizations that work on these kinds of issues, anywhere in America or around the world now you can find other people who care about what you care about. Start a meet-up, you can start a small group, you can you know go have a meeting once a week at the library, you can start a community garden. You know you can start a collective purchasing group. You know build a new community institution. There is just more ability for people to be engaged and involved and to find people who care about things they care about.

So yeah, I would say both because of the you know growing interest among companies, schools, churches, all those kinds of places but then also just if you have an idea, put it online, gather other people around it, you know share your ideas and see what you can make happen.

Joshua: Michael, thank you very much.

Michael: Thanks, Josh. I really enjoyed it.


As I said before, it’s refreshing to talk to someone who doesn’t just treat plastic and waste as something we simply have to accept as part of modern life and that is doing something about it by taking these companies on head on and also himself reducing waste. I have to say it’s really difficult to swallow that with the fracking and so forth that we’re going to get an increase in the amount of plastic and it’s plastic that we use for sometimes a couple of seconds before it just goes back into the environment unless we actively reduce our consumption. So these companies don’t make it. We as individuals can make a difference. I hope you do. You do not have to buy or accept when people give you stuff that you don’t want. You can simply decline. I do it all the time. It’s challenging sometimes, they really want to give you those bags but you can do it. I hope this conversation as well as The Story of Stuff video has helped give you the resolve to decline that stuff and improve your life by doing so.

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