I was fortunate to sit down with Upstream’s CEO, Matt Prindiville. During our conversation, we covered sustainability versus climate change, the power of the public and private sectors, ESG, circular economies, rational climate optimism, and more!
Upstream Solutions is a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 with a mission to not only reduce but remove single-use plastic from the world. Their organization finds, makes, and celebrates practical solutions that help people, businesses, and communities shift from single-use to reuse. Over the past few decades, they’ve worked with countless orgs committed to a more sustainable future.
When asked about the future implications of climate change, Prindiville said, “I’m an optimist. What scientists are saying is, of course, very scary. But when I think about the change I’ve seen in my career, it’s incredible how far we’ve come. Ten years from now, you’ll see environmental and social responsibility be the norm worldwide.”
Dig deeper → 10 min
Question (JW): I think many people are interested in learning how to work full-time in the climate sector. Walk us through your journey.
How did you transition from public policy to becoming a leader in a major nonprofit organization?
The collapse of Georges Bank
Answer (MP): I don’t know how far back you want to go. I grew up in Massachusetts in a little fishing town called Gloucester, and my parents weren’t environmentalists. So environmental activism wasn’t a part of my upbringing. One thing I do remember is a lot of my friend’s dads were fishermen. And so we were surrounded by fishermen’s families.
And I remember when the cod fishery collapsed off Georges Bank in the early 1990s. With many families dependent on the fishery business, our town was economically destroyed overnight. Houses were foreclosed, and cars were repossessed. It was a big deal.
I realized that if we don’t take care of the natural world, it is not only bad for wildlife and the planet. Climate change can also have significant ramifications on people and communities. And I think that’s stuck with me ever since.
Environmental activism on campus in the 1990s
Again, I wasn’t considering doing any kind of career in the environment. I think I was thinking about a more standard route, like becoming a doctor or getting an MBA.
At college, I took a first-year seminar class that changed my path. We read the Ecology of Commerce by a guy named Paul Hawken. He’s still writing and publishing today. He’s a wonderful human being and an excellent seminal environmentalist.
And so that book was the first time that I got exposed to the idea of what we now call a circular economy. We weren’t using that terminology or language back then, but he emphasized similar sentiments in his book. He described it as “Natural Capitalism.”
When I was at school, the people I was surrounded by were hardcore environmentalists. I got to hang around these on-fire young people, seeing what they were passionate about. And it made a profound impact. Many volunteered for local environmental organizations and joined the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group, or SPIRG.
They were trying to get me to help them gather signatures, spread the good word, and so on. Shortly after, I dropped out of school, bouncing around national parks and ski areas. I just fell in love with the West and started to be exposed to a lot of the conservation fights that were going on there.
Back to Maine to fight at the grassroots level.
Eventually, I moved to Maine, where my parents had set up shop, and finished college here in Maine. And my initial thought was that I had decided at that point that I wanted to pursue a career in environmental policy. Initially, I wanted to try normal science or ecological studies, but I felt you could make the most amount of change in policy work.
I spent ten years working at an environmental watchdog group in Maine, a big organization with 30 odd staff and a $3-4 million budget. It was a powerhouse kind of environmental lobbying firm in Maine. I worked my way up from a grassroots organizer to a legislative director. I was running their state house lobbying by the time I left.
On my first day on the job, I was tasked with organizing a press conference for an environmental law that was the first of its kind in the country. The issue was around getting a bill requiring computer and television manufacturers to pay for collecting and recycling their products. It’s called extended producer responsibility.
I had read about it in school, and on my first day on the job, I got to work on it. This EPR law paved the way for the rest of the country to follow.
Twenty years ago, there were very few experts in this area in the United States, and one of them was the founder of Upstream.
I forged a relationship with the founder of Upstream in the 1990s, bringing him to Maine to help testify and write the bill that eventually got passed. We worked together subsequently on several other first-of-its-kind federal laws.
These laws required not just computer manufacturers and TV manufacturers to extend their responsibility as producers but also cell phone companies, the makers of mercury-containing products, and the makers of paint. They all had to start paying for their product collection and safe recycling.
Matt gets hired at Upstream.
By the time I joined Upstream, I was ready for a change. We made a significant political change in my home state of Maine. And I saw that I would likely play defense for the next four years after playing offense for ten.
I wanted to figure out how to take the skills I had built and work on the national stage, not just at the state level and during my time at my previous organization.
A lot of my prior work dealt with national campaigns and coalitions. Now at Upstream, we were doing state-level policy that dealt with large-scale environmental groups and other state-based environmental groups around the country.
My career didn’t just help products become more sustainable. We also influenced climate change policy, regulating the use of toxins and implementing environmental health policies. We helped get new climate legislation passed in Congress. That experience helped me build national networks and see the magic of NGOs coming together and aligning their fundraising, resources, and media work. We are much more powerful when working together rather than apart.
At Upstream, the organization had primarily focused on helping state and local governments organize around this extended producer responsibility policy area. I wanted to bring NGOs as a significant component for building more power and leverage in state houses and Congress.
Question: You spoke a lot about the impact of your work. Let’s dive deeper into that by differentiating between climate change and sustainability.
What’s more important? Recycling, reusability, ocean restoration, building circular economies of scale, or fulfilling grander climate mitigation goals like deforestation and decarbonization?
What role does Upstream play in the broader conversation about climate change?
Answer (MP): I love this question! I mean, so much of climate change is driven by consumption. We like to think about it not so much about consumption because everything needs to be consumed to live, but unnecessary overconsumption is driving the planet’s unnecessary overconsumption, right?
Linear versus circular economies
Suppose you look at the linear economy as it exists today. The extraction companies mine for metals and drill for gas and mow down forests, and create all the materials that become the stuff that we buy.
Then you have the brands that make the materials useable and package them. Then the retailers help sell it. Lastly, when consumers finish using a product, we have this whole other waste management chain.
This current economic structure favors extraction. We have suppliers and producers on the front end and waste management companies on the back end. And so, a considerable amount of the climate change emissions in the United States (roughly 55%) come from the manufacturing, use, and disposal of stuff.
The use and disposal of stuff
Many people think about climate change in the context of cars, heating my home, powering the office building, and turning the lights on. But so much of what drives climate change and pollution is consumption, and a vast amount of that is unnecessary, what we call unnecessary overconsumption.
Instead of Starbucks developing a reimbursable cup system, make having a reusable cup and having a cup sharing or cup leasing system is required so that those reusable cups get collected and washed. You make one cup, and you use it hundreds of times.
Instead, they’re serving that same customer hundreds and hundreds of disposable cups.
You add that up over time, and what’s the carbon footprint of that disposable cup versus a reusable cup? Also, not just their carbon footprint. What’s the natural resource footprint too? How many trees feel to support a coffee habit? Versus making that reusable cup once and stewarding that cup for as long as possible?
But circular solutions are not always straightforward. Let’s say that cup gets too damaged or scratched up. Is it still in a closed loop system? Is it recycled into the next cup?
That’s that circularity we need to create for not just coffee consumption to reduce the environmental impacts of that, but all consumable products. And what I like to say to folks is don’t just bring it home.
That’s what’s frustrating. Most producers can use utilize reusable systems and services. We need to shrink these massive supply chains for single-use packaging, which are the norm for all consumable products. It’s the norm. Whether it’s takeout food, to-go coffee, the grocery store, the beverages you buy at the convenience store, and so on.
Getting producers to reuse
The world is shifting more and more into reuse service streams. We’re not talking about the customer bringing their reasonable grounds where just want to be clear, or their good stuff everywhere.
Businesses are creating systems that enable reuse to be the standard way of consuming. We’re now familiar with how we go to the grocery store or order stuff online.
It comes to us, we bring it home, or it comes to our home. And you have a variety of bins we put stuff in, like a garbage bin, a recycling bin, maybe you got a composting bin. How can you retrofit that infrastructure?
The convenience standards are still there. You don’t need extra reuse bins everywhere on top of your other bins. We can also adapt the recycling bin to put usable containers in there. UPS and FedEx could come to our home or apartment building a couple of times a week.
What if there was a milkman, and they were also picking up reusable containers while they dropped them off?
What about when you’re out and about, and you’re on the go in a city where there’s not just a recycling bin or trash bin, but you’ve now got kiosks to put the reusable coffee that you’ve just borrowed from the coffee shop or a to-go container that you’ve just taken out for your lunch for the day?
See, if the infrastructure is there and convenient standards are there, the consumers are still getting the things they want to need. Still, it generates less waste, and the burden for shifting how we consume is now on corporations instead of the individual.
And so that’s the world that we’re working to create. And I would say the excellent news is that we have BIG brands, not just small companies and cities, that want to do this.
Brands want to figure this out. Because they know two things:
1) if they want to cut their contributions to climate change, more recycling will not cut it. They have to find ways to reduce packaging and reduce the number of resources to sell their product for reuse has to be a part of it.
2) at scale, actual packaging is cheaper than selling. We feel like we’re not only we’re selling something better for the environment. Scale is better for business and consumer experience. Even the aesthetics of consuming durables and reusables is better than what it’s like when drinking from a plastic bottle.
Would you rather have your coffee out of a reusable ceramic mug or a stainless steel tumbler, or would you rather have it out of a paper cup or a cheap plastic cup with a slit in the straw? Right? It’s a better experience in addition to being better for the environment and at scale.
Question: Where do you think you can make the most significant difference between business, government, or nonprofits?
Should we focus heavily on fixing the private sector? Is there a clear role that local or national governments should play in addition to your nonprofit work?
Where do you see all the different actors contributing?
Answer (MP): You can’t have individual companies trying to fix themselves on their own. Imagine every company had to figure out how to recycle their products without any support from the government. It’s the same thing with reuse.
We need meaningful public-private partnerships between government and big brands. The service providers also need to build out that infrastructure that can serve multiple companies at the same time on a similar platform.
Right now, you can go to the industrial area of any country. You’ll typically see an Amazon logistics hub, a UPS, or a facility in our “Smurf” section (as we call it in the business), and those are permitted to have tons of trucks in and out.
Rail or port services are coming in and out of those areas where the distribution engine lives.
Bring recycling to the root of the problem.
Now imagine that distribution center right next to the recycling facility. You currently have a washer that is coming in, and it’s accepting to-go containers, to-go bottles for all clients, containers for your fillable containers at the grocery store or personal care products, snack packaging, etc.
All of this comes into one or several industrial parks. So those containers are coming in dirty. They’re getting cleaned, sanitized, and dried. And then, they move into the next phase, refilling and restocking. Then this is what we use to consume.
The handling of products is a big business. Regarding the beverage sector, I was on the phone with Anheuser Busch last week. 34% of their product worldwide is sold in refillable glass bottles—the largest beer company in the world. A third of their product is in refill.
Knowing how to do this is doable, and the infrastructure is not rocket science. Right? It’s really about marshaling enough people to come together and build infrastructure that can serve all of these companies at the same time.
Question: Collaboration can be a powerful tool to achieve challenging missions.
Do existing nonprofits need more crossover, or does the world need more Upstreams?
Answer (MP): The only way to make the most impact is through collaboration and networking. We exist today because of our network. Those are the people we serve, and if more environmental nonprofits were looking for people to get involved in growing and building our mission, that would be a good thing. And that can happen at different levels, right? So we need more nonprofits.
More important than how many nonprofits there are, we need the existing brands and government leaders to make a swift change. It doesn’t have to be sustainability directors that influence a big company, and community activists can change society too.
To shortly answer your question. I’m 100% in favor of collaboration, and it’s all about mobilizing networks.
Question: We’re all working on this grand mission to help the environment.
So why are we doing this? We must believe in it if we’re building it. What’s your long-term outlook on the planet?
Answer (MP): I love this question. So I’m an optimist.
What scientists are saying is, of course, very scary. But when I think about the change I’ve seen in my career, it’s incredible how far we’ve come. Back 20 years ago, there were no sustainability departments at corporations and no sustainability departments in cities. Environmental studies was a total niche major at random universities. It was an unheard-of degree at some random small colleges.
Today, large companies cannot function without some form of sustainability commitment. Whether or not we realize your responsibility comes down to effective leadership. But the change is there. I also see the next generation coming up, and people are hungry. We have an incredible amount of technology and social media as a way to spread ideas and connect people.
Even just considering a more sustainable and resilient supply chain, the information at the fingertips of corporations and city governments is at a completely different level than when I started my career.
Twenty years ago, corporations were 100% against an environmental policy, which was a slog for nonprofit work. Early in my career, it was a zero-sum, winner takes all, us versus them mentality.
Now, you see a lot of corporations that see cooperation with environmental guidelines as necessary. And I think that’s why I’m hopeful about the future. Ten years from now, you’re going to see environmental and social responsibility be the norm around the world.
Question: What’s your stance on ESG? Do you think it’s important? Do you think it’s helpful or overhyped?
Answer (MP): Great question. I think ESG, more than anything, expands the climate change conversation in corporate circles.
So if you looked at ESG today, I would say the most significant thing it accomplished is C suite of corporations around the world are grappling with sustainability in ways that they didn’t before.
I’ve heard every stakeholder of any type and listened to every type of organization across the political spectrum. You have to realize that it’s a balancing act of different desires. That’s how we make progress. That’s how we go further, faster.
When we start pointing fingers and adding guilt, we begin to fail. We must move forward as a group to tackle these incredibly complex challenges.