116: Michael O’Heaney, part 2: Less plastic, less stuff, more fun, more family (transcript)

January 9, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Michael O'Heaney

First, if you have not watched the Story of Stuff or any of the Story of Stuff videos as much as I love my podcast, watch those videos from the organization that Michael O’Heaney leads. They’re phenomenal videos in my opinion and the links are right where you got this podcast. Next one what Michael O’Heaney does it’s ordinary, it’s simple – riding a bike. It’s something he could have always done but note, as usual with experienced leaders, he involves others, in particular this time his daughter. He spent more time with her. A lot of people think of other people as problems, “Oh, I can’t stop flying because I have to fly for work” or “I have to fly because of family.” Always someone else that’s the problems, always someone else who makes it impossible but leaders take responsibility, they take action. They hold themselves accountable. And more precisely in this case, leaders involve others to help solve their problem. They see other people as part of the solution, not part of the problem. So let’s listen how Michael acted on it and accomplished what he was looking for in his personal challenge.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Michael O’Heaney. How are you doing?

Michael: Excellent. Thanks, Josh.

Joshua: I kind of want to jump into this about… Actually, I want to jump in about biking because I believe you’ve been doing more biking than usual but there’s something you said last time that has stuck with me that you said that the fracking industry because it’s growing is producing more and more plastic than ever and we’re going to be producing yet more and more. And this has really stuck with me as it’s not like something that I can actually act on but it’s just such a sobering thing or maybe there’s something… The listeners can’t hear this but when I said that I can’t act on it your face was like, “Actually?”.

Michael: Yeah.

Joshua: I’m glad I saw this. Is there something I can do?

Michael: Yeah. I mean there’s tons of things to do. It just depends on sort of where you want to intervene. So step number one generally speaking we think is better understanding the system. So part of the reason we think understanding the sort of full lifecycle plastics is that opens up all sorts of new opportunities to intervene in assets and actually take action. So a lot of the focus around plastic pollution I mean it’s hard to open a magazine or turn on a news program without hearing something about plastic pollution these days but an enormous amount of that attention and not unrightly so is focused on sort of plastic’s end of life, the plastics that end up in the ocean. But the fact is plastic pollutes at all stages of its life from the fracking fields where the raw materials are extracted to the refineries in places like Houston, Texas where the petrochemical industry makes plastics. And then of course through to its end of life and in many cases even before its end of life in the sort of ways that consumers interact with it and the sort of toxic materials.

So knowing those things about it open up all sorts of opportunities to intervene whether it is supporting a group led by [unintelligible] family in western Pennsylvania that is fighting a pipeline that is bringing those hydrocarbons fracking gas to refineries where it’s fracked and turns into plastic. So it may be supporting that family and may be supporting a group like T.e.j.a.s. in Texas and Houston that is fighting refineries. It may be reducing your own personal use or single-use disposable plastics because it’s those plastics that are in many ways sort of driving the boom. So you have in essence this what the industry is calling a plastics renaissance and our job in many ways is one to say there’s too much plastic in the system as much as it is, recycling is not going to solve the problem and we actually need to reduce the amount of plastic that’s being created. So there’s all sorts of places to intervene, there’s ways to do it at a personal level, there’s ways to do it through your pocketbook and the kinds of groups you support, it’s turning up for events and probably in many ways most importantly over the coming year or two in particular is just really helping people understand the full lifecycle of plastics and the impacts it has that are all along it.

Joshua: I am glad that I asked and you mentioned a few links and I want to put those on. Now you mentioned events and I want to brag about something. I forget how much I talk to you about my no-packaging food. That’s what drove a lot of this. And so sometime early this year a friend of mine put me in touch with a friend of his and she’s the wife of these twins who started this clothing brand and I’m just sitting in there talking to her, a friend introduced us, we were just talking and I am talking about food and no packaging and life and how much better life is because you know it starts off with avoiding packaging but it turns into living by your values which is like a great trade. I mean I give away plastic and I get values. And she says, “If I got a roomful of people, would you come and say what you’re saying to them?” And it turns into last Tuesday, a week and a half ago, they brought in 50 people and in a Brooklyn North farms, in Brooklyn there’s like a kind of big garden small farm underneath the Windsor Bridge, I made my food for 50 people and there was no packaging. In fact, I had to give them receipts. And so the receipts was the most landfill stuff. I hope they recycle them. Now they brought without telling me… Well, one, they got sponsored by alcohol so there were bottles of alcohol. I didn’t have anything to do with that. And then they also got bags of bread and butter. So they brought some packaging which I was kind of annoyed they didn’t tell me about that. It was a whole meal for 50 people.

Michael: New York has a container deposit system so the bottles or cans or whatever it was hopefully got returned for the five-cent deposit and got back into the system.

Joshua: I hope so. I was over there, I was here with all the vegetable… I went to the farmers markets and my CSA and got all the vegetables with three pressure cookers set up and then I would just grab people from the event and put them in front of a chopping board and say OK you do this because I wanted them to learn how to do it. So over there was the bar and I didn’t get anything from there. I don’t know what happened with that stuff. But they said the total amount of trash that they had at the end of other things was one bag.

Michael: Great. We just did an event where members of [unintelligible] community around the world something called [unintelligible]. So you and your listeners are probably familiar with the concept of a beach clean-up. Folks go to a beach or a riverbank or park, they happen all over the country, indeed all over the world, pick up trash to sort of clean up the each. So this year we so that concept one step further by actually recording not just the types of plastic that were found but where identifiable the brands that created that plastic and put it into the world in the first place. So we had 60 events around the world including one in New York City and members of the Story of Stuff community sector I think over 100000 pieces of trash, cataloged it and just last week along with other members of the Break Free From Plastic movement around the world all of that data from hundreds of events around the world was compiled basically to figure out which brands’ packaging was most ending up in the environment.

Joshua: Can I guess?

Michael: Yeah.

Joshua: I’m going to guess and I am going to say all these names with the word “garbage” right next to them. Let’s see, Starbucks garbage, Coca-Cola garbage, Pepsi garbage, could be Amazon garbage. It could be Whole Foods garbage or Trader Joe’s garbage. They’re all very garbage places. I’m going to go with… I think it’s either the Starbucks garbage or Coca-Cola garbage and I’m going to go… Oh, wait. No, I was going to say it could be like Budweiser garbage or Miller garbage because it produced a lot of garbage but that’s not going to end up on the street. But I like seeing all these names followed by garbage. I think it’s going to be Starbucks garbage.

Michael: So the top 3, you are right with Coca-Cola, number one, number two Pepsi and of course PepsiCo owns a wide range of brands.

Joshua: Oh, McDonald’s garbage. Yeah.

Michael: Now number three – Nestle.

Joshua: Nestle garbage.

Michael: Now number two after the sort of just plastic packaging wrapper kinds of things were PDG bottles which is such a bummer because that is actually a plastic with value to the recycling system. So that’s why in many ways those three were the top three. We’re still finding PET bottles in the environment and it’s such a stupid waste. I mentioned New York has a container deposit system. One of the things that we’re working on is trying to expand container deposit systems. In this country there is only 11 states right now. Europe is on fire with them. The UK, the Baltic states, there is a series of countries right now, Spain, that are either considering or implementing systems. And it’s estimated that that would alone, just a container deposit system would deal with somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of the marine litter problem.

Joshua: It is so easy. And most of the stuff is like go to the water fountain. And here’s one that gets me is that when I was a kid growing up, and I forget if we talked about this, a bottle of water was like this frou-frou European thing that was like, “What? Just drink water from the faucet.” And now people treat it as the healthy alternative which means that there’s something else which they consider normal which is somehow not water. So somehow, I think that means that like soda or Gatorade is for them normal. Talk about the marketers winning, holy cow! They’ve totally won. We’ve replaced water that’s been around for… The water that we’ve been drinking since we first had, I don’t know, since the Romans brought in aqueducts like now they replace that with soda and bottles. And people are like, “But it’s healthier.” which I doubt. I mean certainly not healthier…Anyway.

Michael: Well, drinking water is certainly healthier than drinking a sugar sweetened beverage.

Joshua: I’m comparing it to…Well, certainly in New York if you get if from the faucet.

Michael: New York’s got a great water system. So there’s most places… In this country there are certainly places where the water has issues and problems so even in a place like [unintelligible] bottled water isn’t the answer either fixing the public water infrastructure is the answer or in the short term providing bulk availability of water to folks not giving them a case of bottled water, particularly in a city that doesn’t have the capability to actually deal with that plastic waste. So the bottling companies, Nestle – the biggest in the world, basically set out 20 years ago to convince people, one, that their product was safer than public water, in many cases in the United States it’s just not true, or that it was more convenient. And one of the ways that they could convince people that it was more convenient was by supporting the basic under-investment in public water infrastructure. You know when we were kids you could find a drinking fountain at a park, you could find a drinking fountain all over the place. You see it sort of coming back. Places like airports now with the sort of refillable fountains where you can bring your clean canteen or whatever you use. But you know there was for a long time this kind of under-investment in public water infrastructure and these companies were able to take advantage of that. So one, in most places water from the tap, one, is way cheaper and two, it’s safe. But these companies have done a good job sort of manufacturing demand for their products.

Joshua: Yeah. So it’s sickening.

Michael: And you know I think the great thing is there is an understanding and a growing understanding even among some of these companies that plastic pollution is a giant problem and they’ve actually got to address it. So there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be addressing this. I mean one of the more interesting things that I read recently, Pepsi recently bought, now the name of the company is going out of my head, the fizzy water company…

Joshua: Perrier?

Michael: No, no. You may get at home. You have a little canister that actually fizzes the water for you. Well, it will come to me. But basically, the idea being Pepsi doesn’t need to sell you a two-liter soda. What they want to sell you is the sugar. So the potential for different delivery devices if you want a soda that doesn’t involve actually using a plastic bottle where you can actually either make the soda at home or in your office or business, wherever, without actually using the packaging. I mean the truth is most people don’t want the packaging, they want what’s inside and the packaging is an irritation and ultimately could be a problem for the environment. So interesting, SodaStream, that’s the name of the company. Pepsi just bought SodaStream. So you can look at, one, things like recycling systems, I mentioned container deposit systems. There’s also other ways of delivering these products and companies are, I think, on the verge of getting serious about how they deliver their products in a more environmentally sensible way.

Joshua: You know that reminds me know… Vinegar was something that was packaged stuff that I was getting and now I get vinegar that I made from home. I just chopped up some apples, put them in water and I guess the process is fermenting and the first time I did it, it wasn’t the best vinegar I’ve ever had but it wasn’t bad. And so now I got these jars with apples and vinegar forming and it’s kind of cool. I don’t know if people listening are like, “Josh, that’s not particularly cool.” but I really enjoy it. It’s like kind of neat to make vinegar and it’s pretty easy like it was certainly less time to chop up the apples, put them in the water, put a lid on it, than it would be to go to a store and get it. I guess I could just buy sugar and put in water and make my own soda too although I wouldn’t want to do that.

Michael: Apparently, you can buy capsules but I’m not a big soda drinker so you’d have to ask someone else.


Joshua: So let’s get off of this. I’m really curious about how the biking went. Have you been biking for the past month?

Michael: I have. And you know the funny thing is two things. One, we generally say guilt is a poor motivator of action. But at some level once I’ve made that commitment to you and you knew that I would be back on it was a pretty good motivator to act because I didn’t want to come on here and be like, “No, I’ve been a total bump.” So I have, and probably 30-40 miles a week. A lot of that ends up in my commute but also taking a couple of rides with my daughter and I went out for a number of rides and then I think I told you we had to delay sort of getting back together. I was in Europe for a week and a half earlier this month, including a visit to Amsterdam for the first time which was just I mean I rode a bike there but it was just totally one of those sort of regulatory trips because Amsterdam is a city where 40 percent of the daily trips are accomplished by bicycle. And it’s no surprise when you’re there because the bicycle parking lots and the bike lanes everywhere, the infrastructure for it is just so extensive and impressive.

So you know I was on a bike pretty much every day we were there getting around. And typically, if I was in New York City or San Francisco or visiting you know cities in this country I wouldn’t have hopped on a bike. I would have gotten in a cab or a lift or gotten on the subway or something like that. So you know this is a system Amsterdam put into place in the 70s after that country finally decided that the number of fatalities they were having from auto bike interactions was unacceptable and decided we’re going to create a system of protected bike lanes that makes biking safe in this city. And that’s a decision cities around our country can certainly make so yes, it’s been great. And I was excited to be there in the context of that challenge and not only have this sort of personal accomplishment of doing more of it but then to actually sort of build a greater appreciation for how much easier we can make it for people in our country to get around by bike.

Joshua: And New York City is definitely getting there. It’s come a long way. I remember there’s so much resistance to putting bike lanes. People would like sue the city and they’d hire PR firms to make it difficult and then you go to Amsterdam and I don’t know if you had the experience of…If you had a particularly cold or rainy day but like I kind of like… In Amsterdam it’s a cold wet day, it’s dark because it’s really far north there and some 80-year-old rides a bike not like “Look at me, I’m so…” They’re just… Because that’s what they do.

Michael: We had one crummy day and I was like, “This is incredible.” People are at… Someone with an infant in front of the bike with like a windshield in front of the kids and they are like this is what we do. This is how we get around.

Joshua: This is so cool. And then you hear people here and they’re like, “Oh, I can’t possibly…” Yes, you can. So you did a bit of biking for your commute. You got family into it. Was that hard or was that easy?

Michael: No. I mean my daughter loves it. And I mean, listen, this is the time of year and I live in the San Francisco Bay area this is our summer in essence – September, October is when the weather is most beautiful here and so the ability to go down, I live close enough to the bay that I can ride to the Bay Trail and ride along San Francisco Bay and look at the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. It’s not that hard to convince a 12-year-old, “Hey, let’s go take a bike ride along the bay.” I mean in the context of this conversation about Amsterdam is you know we’ve been doing as a family a fair amount of advocacy in the last year to create safer routes to school because my daughter goes to school, I don’t know a mile and a half outmost from our house but there’s three major avenue crossings between our house and her school none of which have great protected crossings. And so we’ve been anxious about having her ride her bike to school because of this. There’s actually a kid at her school last year who was hit by a car on the way to school so trying to pair both so sort of personal enjoyment and the ability to get on a bike with a little bit of advocacy to make sure that the kids in our city have the ability to get to school by bike safely.

Joshua: I’m reading a lot about kids. Kids don’t get to play anymore but that’s a topic for another conversation.

Michael: Yeah, it’s organized play. They’re not really sort of running onto the street the way that we used to. She plays a lot. She’s an athlete but it’s all very organized.

Joshua: Yeah, the free play is what’s disappearing but let’s leave that for another conversation. Although I’m reading this book by Peter Gray which is phenomenal called Free to Play. So you talked about what you did and I hear the… What were the emotions attached to it? I mean I think I heard them but…

Michael: You know I mean it’s enjoyable, one, I can truthfully… You know, listen, I was taking public transportation to work, I wasn’t getting in a car, so generally speaking I was riding a bus so I liked that sort of space between home and work to think a little bit, kind of get out of your head, sort of observe the world around you, see what’s going on, that kind of thing so yeah, you can really do that when you’re on a bike. I mean I live in Berkeley so it’s a relatively suburban city and I’m riding up through parks and sort of quiet side streets and sort of seeing people out walking their dogs. It’s chill, it’s a great way to actually start the day and at the end of the day it’s a good way to sort of clear my head before I get home. So yeah, it’s been fantastic.

Joshua: Is that something that… OK. Actually, you mentioned guilt earlier but I think it’s public accountability is that tends to be…

Michael: And maybe that’s what it is. Yes.

Joshua: Certainly, as a professor I don’t give tests but I do have people present usually to peers not the whole class because that takes too much time. But I think it’s just as effective a motivator that you’re going to talk to someone and it really sucks to come and be like, “Sorry, I didn’t do the homework.” And you just stare and have them stare at you. But it doesn’t carry the judgment of the teacher grading. So now that said it’s possible that what you’re saying sounds more positive than because now you’re talking and you know people are going to hear this. Is this something you foresee yourself sticking with and increasing over time?

Michael: Yeah. You know I think the challenge to get back to you know the sort of bad weather is right now it’s really gorgeous here. Like it’s mid-70s and sunny basically every day and in a couple of months hopefully a rainy season will start which creates a very different environment to be riding to and from work for instance on your bike. So you know it doesn’t rain every day so I can keep that up. But, yeah, definitely as the weather changes that becomes one of the challenges but you know we have sort of [unintelligible] rain suits. There’s you know there’s sort of stuff you’re going to wear while you’re cycling in the rain and that kind of stuff. So I know in Amsterdam it was kind of surprising to me because they didn’t seem to have a lot of protection but they seem to sort of get through just fine and show up at a restaurant and they all looked very good altogether. So I don’t know if that will happen with me but that is probably… The biggest thing that will be most challenging is ultimately our weather is going to change. I am sure that’s the case you know places like New York City going out in the [unintelligible] with a little bit of snow in your faces isn’t necessarily fun whether you’re biking.

Joshua: I haven’t spent a lot of time in monsoon places but I did spend some time in Vietnam and I remember walking around Ho Chi Minh City and like suddenly the rain just opens up and everyone’s on scooters not so many on bikes but it’s like in ten seconds like everyone just pulls over. They have like the stuff that is attached to the bike and like three points in front and one in the back I guess and they just put it on [unintelligible]. I was like well, I guess it’s been monsooning here for something like 100000 years I guess. So they figure that one out.

Michael: That’s right. Years ago when I was in Vietnam we bought like this rain suit kind of thing for that very reason because every once in a while you’d be out about and here comes the rain. And you know in Amsterdam I saw a bunch of people who they sort of integrated their like scooters and riding their bikes lanes that you can use scooters on the bike lanes and you see people with lap covers like almost like lap blankets that they use on the scooters and there are adaptations.

Joshua: Yeah. Whatever problems people have with biking someone solved it. The trick isn’t like what I do, it’s who do I find the solution from. Well, here’s something, a guy contacted me. I did his podcast a year or two ago, Jethro Jones, he’s a principal in Alaska, Fairbanks, and he gets in touch with me and he’s like, “I want to do a show. I am ready to do your show.” I am like, “OK. Cool.” And so his pledge is, I think for a school year he’s going to ride his bike every day and he made a point of… I was so proud of myself as a geek to catch on this because he said, “You know sometimes it gets under to 40 below.” and that 40 below is what happens to be a Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same. So he didn’t have to say which one it was. So he’s going to go every day and…

Michael: Now you’re making me feel guilty.

Joshua: It’s not a guilt thing. I’ll have the podcast episode… I’ll make a point of remembering to tell you about it. But he was really gunning for that. Like no pun intended on Alaskan and [unintelligible] but that was something he specifically came up with that. It wasn’t like… With you I asked you and he listened to this podcast and came up with it on his own. It’s like, “This I want to do.” And did it affect other things? Did it go out from biking to other places? You know I mean your life is pretty full with not polluting.

Michael: Yeah. I’m trying to think did it. You know I mean I mentioned getting out with my daughter, that’s always enjoyable, it’s sort of quality time together, you get to sort of see the world and constantly having to remind her how lucky she is to grow up where she’s growing up and right down to the bay and look across the Golden Gate Bridge and people pay good money to come here to visit that you know once in their life to see it and we get to ride down there. So certainly, it’s great in terms of family togetherness.

And you know I think mental health it’s just a sort of good opportunity like I said to kind of clear your head, get a little separation between home and the office. And I think there is a way in which, and I think this is true of public transportation too, there is a way in which you are more connected with what’s going on in your community when you’re not sort of encapsulated in a car driving solo with the radio on and trying to sort of not pay attention to what’s going on around you as much as possible. So there is a way I think that you probably become a little bit more connected to what’s happening you know in your neck of the woods.

Joshua: I’m glad to hear that because I kind of thought a guy in San Francisco working for the Story of Stuff, I would’ve thought you’ve already said that to someone else like years ago. But I am trying to think from the listener’s perspective. I hope that if there are listeners thinking, “Oh, well, it’s easy for him because he’s in San Francisco.” or something like that, I mean it’s no more accessible no one has any secret entry to like their life is easier or like. I mean we all can get that joy from doing these things. That’s my experience.

Michael: Yeah, for sure.

Joshua: Anything I didn’t think to ask before wrapping up that you want to mention or anything, message for the listeners?

Michael: I don’t think so. I mean I really enjoyed our conversation and I’m happy to have you reach out in the future so we can talk some more. But you mentioned one, I think both you know storyofstuff.org or breakfreefromplastic.org which is sort of a broader plastic free movement that we’ve been a part of helping to grow around the world both places full of great resources, people who are interested in that issue in particular. I mentioned two groups so the [unintelligible] family in western Pennsylvania. They’ll actually be featured in a documentary we’re releasing next year called The Story of Plastic. Great group in Houston, Texas, T.e.j.a.s., working against petrochemical industries polluting communities along the Houston ship canal. Great groups for hosts to look up. Check out their website. So just generally I’d just encourage people to it’s a lot more fun to make change when you’re doing it with other people so look for opportunities where they live, there are certainly opportunities that people can find on breakfreefromplastic.org or storyofstuff.org

Joshua: All right. And I want to get all those links for you to make it easy for people to click those links. And top of all, I have to say the Story of Stuff videos, the Story of Solutions, the Story of Bottled Water, I guess I watched a few things about you guys talking about Strawberry Creek was it that taking on Nestle.

Michael: Yeah. We did a series of three short documentaries on communities around the country who were basically working to protect public water resources from water bottlers in this case Nestle. So there’s one on a fight happening right now we hope is coming to a head in the next couple of months in the San Bernardino National Forest, Nestle bottles as much as 40 million gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest public water. They don’t pay a dime for it. There was a successful fight in Cascade Locks, Oregon to stop a bottling proposal there. They passed a county wide initiative to say no commercial water bottling in our county. And then we did a movie released earlier this year called The Tale of Two Cities that looks at the stories of the city of Flint, Michigan which of course many people are familiar with the lead crisis there and a smaller town [unintelligible] about 150 miles away where the state is giving Nestle water again without making them pay for it for bottling. So it’s one hand the state has proven itself incapable of providing water to its citizens while it’s giving it away to this huge multinational corporation. So yeah, those three short documentaries you can find on our website as well as the animated videos for which we are probably best known and if you look on social media Instagram, Facebook, Twitter we’re producing new content pretty much every week.

Joshua: Michael O’Heaney, thank you very much.

Michael: Yeah, of course, so excited to be with you.


If you like spending more time with your family, your friends, people within your community and you think environmental action will get in the way, I hope that you see Michael O’Heaney could have made plenty of excuses but he didn’t. On the contrary, he acted and did spend more time with his family. Instead he involved others. And he’s not the first to find acting on his environmental values that they helped overcome separation from children. I recommend listening to Jim Harshaw conversations also on his podcast for another example of someone who took advantage of this challenge to make things better for himself, for his family, to spend more time with them, to involve them with a solution. And I hope you enjoy the riding your bike with your daughter or whatever it is that you like to do with the people that you like to do it with. Because spending time in whatever you call nature with the people that you care about it’s pretty quality time.

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