Heart of Gold
Heart of Gold: Talking Trash with Lisa Kaas Boyle
November 25, 2020
This interview took place on: October 16 2019, in Malibu, California.
If Lisa Boyle isn’t on your radar she should be. An environmental and social justice lawyer, mother of two, and longtime activist, Lisa has an influential and illustrious career. Some of her successes include creating a federal law that bans microbeads in cosmetics; serving as a lawyer for multiple nonprofits including 5 Gyres, Heal the Bay, and We Tap; and co-founding the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Seriously, check her out.
We are incredibly grateful for our conversation with Lisa. Read the full interview below to learn more about the plastic pollution epidemic, what it means to be an activist, and our thoughts on how we can create a plastic free world.
A lot of the information Lisa shared with us has come up in subsequent conversations. Before we dive in, we want to emphasize two pieces of knowledge that continue to shock our friends and remind us why we’re long overdue to transition away from single use plastics.
SINGLE USE PLASTICS LEACH CHEMICALS WITH EACH USE. Although you may think reusing your single use plastic water bottle is helping the environment, you’re harming yourself, and not really extending the life cycle of the plastic. Even “BPA-free” plastics contain other endocrine disrupting chemicals. Most notably, dioxins. These additives have known adverse health effects, and are especially concerning when the plastic in question has been heated or scratched.
The solution: avoid plastic in the first place. instead, opt for a refillable steel or glass water bottle or an on the go coffee mug… If you want to up-cycle plastic that you cannot avoid, use it in ways where you do not have to ingest it.
The second scary fact that continues to come up again and again is that babies today are born pre-polluted with over 200 chemicals in their bodies. Let that sink in. This is a direct result of the toxic chemicals allowed in our products like shampoos, cleaning supplies, makeup and packaged goods. Lisa recently executive-produced, Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story, a documentary that takes an in depth look at our personal chemical loads and how it affects our health.
Lisa and I both agree that awareness about the environment can be taught. We began the interview by discussing Lisa’s “pivotal” moment that inspired her to become an “environmentalist”.
I think I decided to be an environmentalist in second grade when the first Earth Day happened in 1970. My class was taken out on this field trip to walk around my elementary school. I couldn’t believe that we were going outside and walking into the woods and talking about it in a manner that was just as important as everything else we were talking about. From that moment on, I looked at the outdoors as something exciting, something really important. Because these adults had taken me outdoors and told me I was connected to the outdoors and shown me that importance. I carried that torch on from second grade.
Over the years, I became interested in many things. My parents were very active in civil rights from when they arrived at Duke for graduate school in the segregated south. The South was still segregated in many ways when I was a girl in Nashville, even though I was in the first desegregated class in the public schools. I grew up with a very strong sense of social justice. When I attended law school, I thought, “What am I going to do?” Because I cared deeply about social justice and the environment, I constantly wondered how I could integrate these passions into my study of law. It wasn’t until I discovered environmental justice that my interests became perfectly paired. Because environmental crimes usually happen in poor neighborhoods, negative environmental impacts often occur first to those most vulnerable. I instantly knew what my mission was.
Gemma: I’ve been struggling with what I’ve deemed the ‘environmentalist’s pedestal’. When you come out as an activist, and suddenly you have to do everything perfectly. I’ve found myself having to constantly defend myself by saying, “I’m not perfect. I’m learning. There’s a learning curve..” Have you had similar experiences? What do you think of this phenomena?
Totally lame. Yes, we're all looking for heros. Beyond the age of six, I think most of us realize that no one is perfect - not even our parents. The idea of perfection getting in the way of the good is a real danger. If you tell people unless they go all the way and never touch plastic for the rest of their life, then they cannot consider themselves an environmentalist, then that’s a harmful idea. Everybody has something to learn. The idea is to provide attainable solutions - not guilt.
Is there a specific approach you would recommend?
At the Amsterdam Plastic Conference, there was a really great woman whose talk was after mine. Her opening statement was, “I am a plastic addict”. It was powerful because it’s the truth. Using plastic has become unavoidable. She called attention to the fact that we need to put the blame on where it belongs - the corporations. Sadly, we, the consumers, don’t have as much choice as we should. Beyond an individual level, it’s really worth the effort to get corporations to change their behaviors. Why are we allowing these companies to package everything in plastic and limit our choices?
What was your biggest takeaway from the plastic pollution conference?
Scientific research is just now confirming the human health impacts from petrochemicals. It’s indisputable. There was a lot of media traction where people were getting upset seeing straws in turtles noses and birds with their bellies full of plastic. Now, scientific research agrees that we’re full of plastic, too. It’s not just the Albatross. I think it's going to be a lot harder for corporations to distance themselves when people realize the impacts it has on their health and their children.
Do you think this knowledge will be a turning point for lifestyle changes in people who think they are not affected by plastic?
We are all dosed so much without our will. When these California fires happen, peoples houses are burning full of plastic and electronics. That dust on the car, it’s not just dust. It makes me mad that I cannot entirely control my exposure to chemicals because they’re legal. I think we need to have some sense of power on how we can limit our exposure. And there are definitely ways.
We can all incorporate lifestyle changes and diet changes, but we’re still exposed to some extent. Half life depends on the chemicals. Some chemicals are excreted rapidly. For instance, our body expels BPA and BPS through our urine. We might think, “Oh that’s good it passes out of me really quickly”, but we’re constantly re-exposed and re-dosed. The most dangerous time to be exposed is when you're ovulating and/or pregnant because these chemicals can impact your baby’s development since they're known endocrine disruptors.
Other chemicals that have really long half lives can store in your fat. Soozie, the protagonist of Overload, tested positive for levels of DDT, a chemical that has been banned for years.
The challenge is that most of us never know, so the issues seem invisible. The movie's major cost was her blood testing. The normal person doesn’t have the means to see how polluted they really are.
Me: Do you ever feel like you’re not doing enough?
I know that I am not doing enough because the issue right now is that plastic manufacturing companies are coming online. This means that the demand is going to dwarf what we currently have. The problem is expected to explode in the next 10 years. I know I am not doing enough because this is happening.
Can you explain what you mean by “coming online”
The oil industry is seeing that cars are going to need less and less fuel, so they’re redirecting their business into plastic manufacturing (also known as fossil fuel material). They see that as the growth of their industry. Fracked natural gas is "cracked" in huge facilities. Cracking is the separation of ethane from the natural gas to make the main ingredients for plastic. These cracking facilities are going to be extremely polluting, as is the entire process from creation to use. It’s really devastating. By 2050, we expect there to be more plastic than fish in the oceans and you can see why with the planned growth of plastic.
Are you discouraged?
Of course I feel discouraged! My policy work can get totally dwarfed by the increase and manufacturing of plastics. But am I going to stop? NO! I am continuing to work on policy solutions for plastic pollution because I don’t think we can just rely on behavior change, and I don’t think we can rely on the good will of companies to give up something that is really cheap for them. I have been specifically focusing on the “Top 10 Items” that are found on international coastal cleanup day. For me that's a good checklist of the worst offenders and so I focus on those and I try to support legislation that will get us into a truly circular economy where we don’t create waste. I also advocate for requirements on public education. This empowers people to understand our place in the cycle of life rather than feel totally disconnected with it.
Me: How do we change the education system so kids really learn and incorporate the teachings?
It’s not about the lesson plan. If kids go home and tell you not to drink from the tap because their teachers told this to them at school, you're going to buy water in plastic. Right now plastic water bottle companies are the only companies that are allowed to advertise in our public schools.
Rather than investing resources into cleaning up our public water systems, kids are getting the message that tap water is dangerous. California is making sure schools' water fountains will be tested. Water curriculum is essential. In addition to lessons about water, kids need to not just see that there is a clean nice refill station. They need to be taught about the water cycle, the steps that go into water filtration, and why that’s a better idea than using plastic water bottles.
What is one thing you wish people would stop doing immediately:
“Don't’ drink bottled water”! A bottle of water uses 3x the amount of water to package it then what's actually in the bottle. On top of this, the water is less pure than when it went into the water bottle. We only have one water cycle, which we are all dependent on. We need to fight to protect the purity of our drinking water and invest in keeping it safe and public rather than allowing corporations to take away a portion of our water and sell it back to us.
We can’t recycle our way out of this.