In this episode we’re talking about the clean-up and recycling mission of The High 5 Initiative. This organization focuses on ways to provide paths to communities to be environmental stewards. We also talk about the importance of positive feedback loops and how that’s impacted High 5’s relationship with dispensaries!
Host: Kevin Johnson, Director of Creative Marketing at Peake ReLeaf
Featured Guest: Phil Ash, Executive Director of The High 5 Initiative
Tell us about you. And what is The High 5 Initiative?
[00:00:00] Phil Ash, Executive Director of The High 5 Initiative: I was born and raised in Baltimore. And then I guess my mom moved to the county but they were split, so I split my time between the county and the city. And eventually they took me out of the cities or the city school system and put me in the county school system.
[00:00:35] So the first step was the county. And then, I moved to Harford county and then I eventually moved to where I am now, which is in Cecil county, which is pretty far away. So right now I live about an hour from Philly and an hour from Baltimore based on 95. If I get the itch to go to the cities, I can go.
[00:00:55] But at the same time I can also get a real, crazy dose of nature. It’s totally like a different environment. And people are people, but the environments are quite different. And that, it’s an impressive thing to find some nature and some solitude and some of that.
[00:01:13] It’s a hidden kind of scenario when I was in the city. It wasn’t the same, like it is a different story. So I guess I’m lucky in that kind of sense where I get to, we really do get to visit some crazy, really unusual Maryland environments. Right now I live in a watertown called Northeast, Maryland.
[00:01:37] And it’s got things that I’ve never seen. It’s got five different soil types and stuff because the town itself is, like it’s on the beginning of a peninsula. So there’s lots of little tributary creeks and rivers that end up hitting the bay. So there’s actually five rivers in this little town or not this town, this county.
[00:01:56] And you see the evidence of such great, environmental changes in different things that happen here. You can see it really quickly. And it’s pretty impressive.
[00:02:06] And I dunno if I’m allowed to cuss, but I’ll probably cuss (sorry) but you see these massive rocks on either side and I’m always like, man, that’s crazy. Like we’d go down to port deposit and put deposits a little town, but it’s got this massive granite rock on either side. And it’s just this fascinating, like section of geography that just is very unusual.
[00:02:26] It turns out those rocks are 4 million years old and it’s from a volcano that actually separated and laid out this sort of valley that allows for most of the walls. All the way up from New York to come down through this one watershed into this river and then ends up in our bay.
[00:02:53] And you just don’t know that stuff in Baltimore, around and be like, you can’t touch the Waterfield. Why? Because you’re going to get something. Pennsylvania’s got, we got this one dam here. So like in Maryland, we get to the dam to wind your dam. And we’re like, that’s it Maryland actually goes a little bit above that. But north of that, Pennsylvania’s got tons of dams. They’ve got, I dunno, four or five more. And each one holds in each along the entire waterway is hospitals and wastewater treatment facilities and all that stuff.
[00:03:31] And it turns out that’s where you get your water, like the stuff that you drink. So here, when I was in Baltimore they had the golden eggs, which are now in trouble. But before that, they were the golden eggs you’d drive by and you’d be like, I don’t want to drive by, you roll up your windows and turn all this stuff and you’d be like, oh man, up here.
[00:03:53] Those golden eggs are a water treatment facility. So they actually, when I was a kid, Baltimore had the number two cleanest water in America. Like it was the best like you could do, it was sellable up here on a real rainy day. Like today it’s raining.
[00:04:11] Pretty good. I’ll get it in the mail in about two weeks. It will say that I got to boil my water and that’s because the water that’s coming down from New York and through Pennsylvania and through all of that stuff ends up being the water that we use to drink. It’s called surface water. So here and actually it’s everywhere except for Baltimore, one of these massive cities that have really, they have to really do good.
[00:04:43] It changes the name of the game. So you start to think about it a little bit different, and you’re like, W why is that? And, the further, more rural you get, the more tied in you get, but you become, you ended up [00:05:00] understanding a lot more and becoming a little bit more self, dependent instead of an interdependent, is the right way to say that with the local environment because it affects you more.
[00:05:14] And in the city, you’re shielded from that to a degree like your initial stuff, but the longterm stuff sits there and gets you on the backend. Like you didn’t know about the air quality is for sheriff and the big companies that have taken out your trash. If they throw it in the incinerator, they’ll put it in the same landfill that sits right next to the waterway, which is the same surface water that ends up in.
[00:05:40] And then you wonder why you got this weird, gross stuff happening to you. So yeah, it’s an interesting thing over here. But it is, yeah, it’s pretty far away. Yeah. It feels a lot more like I actually live in a small town and a Watertown on top of that. So there’s a lot of this localized scenario.
[00:06:03] So it tends to make the world a little bit smaller. And you have a little bit more connection with the people around you. And the result of that can be pretty impressive in a lot of different ways. But the cool thing about it for me is that it really enables me to focus on what I have control over instead of.
[00:06:32] What’s going on way over there, and I’m going to get mad about that thing over there, here locally. If you focus on yourself and this, locus of control or whatever you want to call that center point, instead of being so distracted by way the hell over there and judging yourself against that stuff, you can actually have a much closer impact.
[00:06:54] And that’s one of the things that helped us or help me. I think my wife already knew that stuff. She’s a lot smarter than me. But they, she generally is, but yeah, I think it helped me understand that you could either, you could complain about something or you could do something right.
[00:07:16] In this small town kind of aspect You can really have a greater impact just by enabling people to do the thing. So in the city I don’t know, it’s a little bit different. There’s a lot more people, so it makes it a lot more difficult to enable everybody to do this thing. If we do a cleanup, it’s really about enabling the community to clean up the community, right?
[00:07:44] It’s not like rocket science, all of our programs are the same. They’re just paths that enable somebody to do something that they were already wanting to do. And up here you can do that and see it differently. It’s a different strategy in the city. So it’s an interesting process, the recycling industry or the recycling program tells me, is one kind of strategy.
[00:08:10] The clean-up initiative is a different kind of strategy. The water monitoring is another different kind of strategy. They adopt all these things are slightly different strategies that enable different things. And what do people actually want to do? That’s a big thing to make it a sustainable thing.
[00:08:30] The feedback loops have to be there and it has to be something that people would like to try and do. I explain this stuff differently to different people but there’s always, it always comes back. The simplest way to explain it is just, we were this last time that you could vote or whatever, we were standing in line.
[00:08:52] And I guess people like there was a big ass line and people brought their kids and stuff and it was that like a school. And the kids have. They do what kids do, which is they eat candy. And then if there’s no trash can around and overdue to whoop their ass, cause they didn’t put it in the right thing, they just drop it on the ground.
[00:09:12] So eventually if you’re standing in line for a really long time, you’re out of school, you’re going to start seeing all these little wrappers and whatever. So everybody in this line, all whatever, cause it was pandemic season two and they’re all stressed and whatever. And they’re looking at this trash on the ground and the feedback loop in their head is very strange because they look at it.
[00:09:35] They don’t like it. It doesn’t look right. It makes them get a negative feedback response. But then they don’t do anything. They don’t pick it up, they just look at it and then they get them. Now they’re frustrated. It’s a different part of the mind. Now you’re frustrated because you didn’t like it. You shouldn’t have to pick that up, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, this whole thing.
[00:09:54] And they get more and more mad. And I was watching this, I was standing in there[00:10:00] doing whatever it was cold. And I was watching this gentleman and he was so mad. He was just mad at this whole scenario. There’s trash on the ground. So I looked down and there was trash on the ground.
[00:10:12] So I picked it up, it seemed like easy, right? Yeah. Can you hold my spot in line, pick up this trash. And I walk and I’m walking to the trash candidates are there and the trash can and I picked up one that was right next to him that it really upset him. And I throw it in the trash because what are you going to tell you?
[00:10:35] The thing, and that simple act. He like had a whole mine, then he was like, oh shit, I can pick it up. And then he did, and then it was really funny. So it was like, I throw, I literally picked up to it was probably some old ladies stuff.
[00:10:53] And all of a sudden this guy started picking it up and then some other people started to pick it up and because they weren’t doing anything, they were just sitting there giving them an action that enabled them to do or correct, or work on the thing that was upsetting them was really all it took.
[00:11:12] And by the time I actually ended up going to vote, which is like another half an hour, 45 minutes. It was a long line. Yeah, the whole place is frigging cleaned up by the people in the line.
[00:11:23] And it
[00:11:23] was just because this guy had been very obviously upset and I’ve picked up two things that were those originals and threw them.
[00:11:31] It was just this idea that, all right, here’s the need is you don’t like the trash there. That’s a very valid need because if it’s on the ground, then it devalues what is there. And then we find that trash ends up being a magnet for other tracks. So if you have a clean area, you will throw trash in a different area, just humans.
[00:11:54] That’s what we do. But if you see trash there, you’re like, oh shit, that’s trash. And more trash ends up there. So it tends to be like, when we see this all the time, the cleanups, if you clean up an area and it looks pretty good to throw trash there, you have to overcome your own shame. So like you internally have to go, oh, I’m that asshole.
Why such a big push to collect Maryland Cannabis patients recyclables?
[00:12:20] Kevin Johnson, Director of Marketing at Peake ReLeaf: So you think that mirror is going to be your experiences with dealing with different dispensaries where initially, maybe dispensaries were like a little standoffish about the initiative, just because they didn’t see it as like a viable avenue, then they saw someone else committing to the action and then they were like, oh, maybe there’s some value in doing this.
[00:12:36] And that kind of changed their mindset. Did you have any experiences like that?
[00:12:40] Phil Ash, Executive Director of The High 5 Initiative: We did. Yeah, we have each. So when we started the recycling program, it was for the recycling program itself is literally for everybody, it’s a forest bias kind of program. And it is just to enable people to do something with this stuff.
[00:12:59] They don’t, you’re a patient, you come in, you buy weed, you smoke your weed and then you’re left with this plastic thing. And then you don’t know what to do with it. So you think you’re going to recycle it. So for us, I thought I was going to recycle it. So I, was stupid. I asked the question, I was like, do you have to take the label off?
Why not just put the recyclable items into “blue” recycling bins?
[00:13:18] That was my question, to risk, to enable the existing industry, to recycle this thing. And they were like I don’t know that answer. So we got this education in recycling and ended up finding out that none of this stuff is recyclable, which sort of was like, And then we went to the dispensaries and we said, Hey, did you know, this stuff is too small to be recycled?
[00:13:47] They were like, no, I didn’t know that. And some of them, you ask these questions to different people and it builds on. And when we were asking different dispensaries about it first, they didn’t know. And then second, they were afraid. I was like, all so why don’t you like to do something about it?
[00:14:09] They told me, when we first started, there was a concern with compliance. So when we first started, it was November, 2019. So right before pandemic kind of. And when we started to ask people different things, they told us that they were concerned that it wasn’t compliant because at the time that if some, if a patient had come back in and dropped off recycling in a dispensary inside the dispensary it would have been considered something called green waste.
[00:14:43] And this goes back to every single time that’s slightly different obstacles and things to enable people to do what they inherently want to do. So this was called green waste. And that actually put a dispensary in jeopardy. Like they could get they would be [00:15:00] out of compliance. They would be potentially liable for fees from the MMCC.
[00:15:07] And it was just this inaccurate feedback loop. I’m trying to do the right thing, but you’re going to find me for it. That’s dumb. Don’t do that. So we ended up talking to a lot of different dispensaries and finding out what that was. No, they wanted to do it. They wanted to do something. The amount of packaging waste in any industry isn’t new, but the cannabis industry and the patients and everybody else, the people working in it were aware, they were aware of this issue and they didn’t know what to do.
[00:15:39] They didn’t know how to pick up the trash and put it in the trash can deal. And they had a couple of blocks. The first block was the compliance issues. And then the second thing was, yeah, there was a question about how you get people to think. And now it’s okay to do this.
[00:15:59] There’s a thing called a theory of design. It’s called Maya: M-A-Y-A and it’s the most advanced yet acceptable. So that’s about where people will adopt something, they won’t go farther than that. So if I tell you, you can fly to the whatever–moon or something, you won’t do that.
[00:16:19] But if I tell you, I got an electric drone, that’s gonna pick you up and move. If it makes sense to you. You’re okay with it. But too far is too far, you won’t do it. So while people were concerned about the dispensary, the industry itself was concerned about the obstacles.
[00:16:37] It had to enable people to do it. We were trying to figure out what those things were. And then, not intending to actually develop a recycling program where we do the recycling or the first step. It was totally a research intent to try and figure out how to get somebody like TerraCycle cycle or.
[00:17:00] Preserve or somebody else who specializes in this thing to actually be able to do it. And then eventually those people said they can’t. When we went to TerraCycle, we figured out how much essentially plastic in pop tops that the industry locally just here in Maryland was producing and they said they couldn’t do it.
[00:17:24] And we can’t actually do it for other states. We get questions about other states all the time, but we can’t cross a state line. So there’s no difference in DC cannabis containers, then Pennsylvania canvas containers in Maryland canvas containers. They’re all too small to be recycled in a normal single stream.
[00:17:44] So everybody’s got the same problem, but if you travel across state lines it’s considered What is that diversion, et cetera, it’s a federal offense. So you can get us to fill up the Subaru with pop tops and drive across. Let’s say Pennsylvania, I live really close to Pennsylvania. That’s a federal offense and that’s a bad feedback loop, right?
[00:18:10] It doesn’t make any sense. So the first feedback loop was Maryland and the cannabis commission’s feedback loop that was really blocking the dispensaries from even trying anything. So we redefined it and Maryland was the first state to redefine it and they did it really easily. Other states have had to pass bills to do the exact same thing.
[00:18:34] So they have to pull legislation and stuff. They settled on recycling when I went to the MMCC and talked to them about it. But I pushed for reusable. I said, what about reusing? The container, why don’t, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been snuggling me for a really long time.
[00:18:53] And if I had an extra bag, I’d fill that back kind of game. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have to go buy a new bag every damn time or whatever. It just seems simpler. Why don’t we just wash it, but it turns out that you need a lot of different answers. There’s not just one solution.
[00:19:12] And so anyway I didn’t know how to do legislation. I had never done that before, but I didn’t know how to do recycling either. So I said, what about recycling? They said, show me recycling, calling my bluff that you could build a recycling program specifically for these things. And eventually, I guess I got irritated cause they said bullshit.
[00:19:38] And so we ended up making one and it was a, it’s a pretty incredible process. To build a nonprofit is different than building a regular business. It’s a lot, it’s similar in a lot of ways, but it is different because it is fully mission [00:20:00] based. So you can’t actually make money and apply it to anything differently.
[00:20:06] Like it’s a very, the structure itself limits you to focusing on the output of what you’re doing. So it was a pretty interesting process and we ended up working with all of them, so every county in Maryland has their own recycling coordinator. I don’t know. What do you know about recycling?
[00:20:31] Kevin Johnson, Director of Marketing at Peake ReLeaf: Not as much as you for
What happens to the recycled items after patients bring them in? (the recycling process)
[00:20:33] Phil Ash, Executive Director of The High 5 Initiative: sure, but I didn’t, I was just like you trust me if I, there’s a lot of times where I’m like, I don’t want to know any of this stuff. So recycling it’s like let’s go back and we’ll talk about recycling. Recycling itself is scrapping, so it’s easier to do that. I always tell people it’s just scrapping with better marketing.
[00:20:58] But it’s generally for your waste, your trash, things that you don’t want to use anymore. But in order to scrap something, you have to separate it and it is specific materials. So if you’re scrapping metal, it’s easy, you can pick it up with a magnet, get it out, separate it. And then they melt all the metal down and it’s.
[00:21:18] When you melt metal down, it levels out. So this top level will have this lighter metal, this middle level, we’ll have this different metal on the bottom level of this other metal. And there’ll be slag on the top. You scoop all that stuff. It’s very energy consuming, but it’s easy to do. Plastic is a little bit different.
[00:21:38] You actually have to separate the stuff because if you mix the two plastics, you can’t actually recycle it. And it ends up being not a good deal. So you want to separate all these different types of materials and, to do that on a mass scale, eventually they came up with something called the single stream.
[00:22:01] So there’s different streams. So you can imagine like you throw all your stuff into one stream and it goes somewhere and then they sort out there’s other things called dual streams, which is what this is. Where you separate them in Israel. So you can think of those, there was a time where Baltimore used to separate the paper.
[00:22:21] You put the paper over here, but you keep all the other stuff in this thing. And that’s because they had a buyer for the paper because recycling or scrapping is a for-profit industry. So if they can’t actually make money off the thing it’s a waste to them as well. Does that make sense?
[00:22:44] So papers are pretty easily recyclable. There’s a big old industry for it. Metal is easily recyclable because you could separate it. And there’s, it becomes a commodity. So the eventual price for that thing that you’re recycling is really the economic driver of that type of industry. So for instance, if you do aluminum for the last 20 years, Has had a, I think it’s like a 33 cent per pound price on very consistent.
[00:23:15] You can build a business off of that price. When we started with this plastic, it was 2 cents a pound. It’s just not valuable. So they, unless it’s not valuable to separate small things, right? So you can imagine it’s just not enough meat on the bone for them to actually make any money quickly.
[00:23:41] Because when it’s 2 cents a pound, you actually have to have 40,000 pounds to be able to sell it. And it has to be a certain quality. So it has to be a certain, like if you’re going to have 40,000 pounds of number five plastic the way the industry was right when we started. You had to have a contamination rate.
[00:24:03] That means any other materials in that number five had to be less than 0.5%. So 40,000 pounds 0.5% is, it’s hard to verify that you have this kind of quality material. And then it’s only 2 cents a pound. 40,000 pounds of cannabis pop tops seven 53-foot containers . We didn’t produce that many at that point in Maryland.
[00:24:30] And I was like, so anyway that particular price per pound tells you where you’re, when you can transport it, when you can send it to the next place, because that’s the limit. It’s the transportation cost. So dual stream is, when you separate the material prior to putting it all in one thing the single stream is the sort of thing everybody ends up with.
[00:24:58] So you’re talking about your blue [00:25:00] containers outside of your house. You’re recycling whatever containers outside of your business, they all go to the single stream. A dual stream would be like the oil that some food producers actually separate and put out to the back that goes to a different place, right?
[00:25:20] It’s about separation at once, so for the single stream, they ended up all going to someplace called an MRF material recovery facility, which is sorta like this Willy Wonka style sorting facility. You can imagine what you think of these big resorts. Flags are flying and things are going all over the place and.
[00:25:45] But what happens first is there’s, so I’m in Cecil county, right? And I throw stuff in a blue bin and it goes to the dump, the local dump. And this happens in every county. It’s just, this one does this one thing, each one I’ll tell you about other ones, but so I send it to this dump. They send it from there.
[00:26:07] They only have a buyer for the paper. So they take off all the big pieces of paper that they can get because they have somebody who will pay for that. And that’s an income stream. So they want that everything else is trashed to them because they don’t actually recycle. So there is a recycling coordinator whose job it is to actually do the logistics and figure out where to send this material to be recycled.
[00:26:32] So they all go to a MRF or material recovery facility. The recovery facilities are spread out through the state of Maryland. There are. Four are, I believe four are privately owned and two are county owned. So the privately owned ones are there for money and money owners. It turns out the county ones are there for money and money too.
[00:26:58] So from my county, we ship it to Baltimore county which is a decent amount of way. And we pay them for that. So that comes out of our citizens taxes or residential taxes. So my stuff goes to the dump. The dump puts it, drops it off of that truck onto something called a roll off container, which is an open top sort of giant dumpster.
[00:27:24] And then they put that on. And they pay for that truck to drive from Cecil county to Baltimore county. And then at Baltimore county, they drop off the roll off. Now this goes over the water and a bunch of other stuff. And it’s an open top. Remember? So this stuff flies out the whole damn time. In fact, that’s an industry term, it’s called leakage.
[00:27:43] When stuff comes up, there’s a standard leakage number of 3%. So 3% of all your trash is expected. It’s expected. So it’s an actual measurement that if you go over that, then they want to do something about but if you under that, then they give you a little sticker. You didn’t do it as badly as you could have.
[00:28:04] So then they go over to Baltimore county and they drop it off on this big ass conveyor belt. And they run all the stuff over a conveyor belt. Now the conveyor belt leads to a screen and I don’t know if I always call it a strong screen. That’s well, obvious why anyway, other people would call it a “what is that”?
[00:28:27] A horizontal trellis or a horizontal gun, a system that has, so it’s a screen with holes in it, but I call it a strong stream because the sizing is similar. It’s a four-inch hole. So anything smaller than four inches is going to fall through that hole, right? Everything that falls through the hole gets sent over is considered, not enough meat on the bone, too much work to actually make any money off of all considered trash and goes into the local dumps period.
[00:28:59] So everything from Cecil county that you don’t get, it turns out that it’s about 3% of the stuff that you throw in your do people typically throw in their blue bin, ends up getting recycled. It’s incredible to me. And it’s all about the system behind it. It’s very difficult. And they had, they did, they had gotten sort of complacent.
[00:29:24] They were sending everything to China for China to deal with, waste was our number one export risk or mixed recyclables was the US’s number one export. And then China in 2017 and implemented in 2018. So they wouldn’t take any because they changed the spec. So it was 5% contamination.
[00:29:47] Then they’d just crunched it down to 0.5%. Nobody could meet that spec. So then we actually have to deal with it now. So since 2018, none of our stuff has been leading. It’s all been, [00:30:00] we had to deal with our own stuff here and it wasn’t just the United States. It’s about 92% of the world, which is a lot of it.
[00:30:06] There’s this, then there’s stuff in China now. Everybody’s got it. So it’s here, it stays here. So what happens when you have 97% of your trash or your recycling staying here now, it ends up, they, put it in the landfills and it stays in the landfills. And it just fills up the landfills.
[00:30:27] So during the pandemic, while everybody, it’s the same thing happening at the exact same time, the landfill capacities have just been so reduced. Baltimore is, I think the last time I checked when I was looking, I stopped looking because it was tricking me out. But they stopped collecting recycling and all types of stuff to the landfill capacity in Baltimore is almost full.
[00:30:53] So they’re actually having to ship out. So they ship it to other places, just the regular trash, because they don’t have enough. What, and that you were paying for, right? Not only can you, not the, is the system not able to catch and do anything with all this material you’re going to pay for it. And that the end result is the people have to pay for that stuff.
[00:31:18] And then on top of that, the health effects and the environmental effects are just crazy. So all this stuff is happening at the same time. And we ended up contacting every recycling coordinator and going through all of the different cannabis packages, what’s the best one. Is there a best one?
[00:31:37] What’s the least bad one, eventually, going through all these things. Cause I don’t know. I didn’t know. And I wasn’t sure how to define that. And it turned out that no matter what I showed them, bags. I showed them big pop tops. There’s the giant one’s place to stump.
[00:31:58] And he said, no, I can’t, we don’t recycle any of that stuff. And I’d call every other one. I’d call the ones that were supposed to be really good at it. The best in the state. And when you talk to the people in the front end, you read the flier and they’d be like, oh yeah, I can take this.
[00:32:16] And then you’d call. And you’d say here, it’s this pig. And they’d say, nah, I don’t want that shit. And you’d be like, what, do you want me to do with it? And they’d say, throw it away. So it didn’t matter if you were a patient, if you threw it in your blue bin, it was going in the trash. If you throw it in the regular trash can, that’s exactly where it was going.
[00:32:38] It just felt like a lie. Like I was lying to myself, but threw it in the recycling. So I, we were a little bit like. So while we were talking to the recycling coordinators today, explained all this stuff, that it was basically an economic decision from the industry. It’s just, they didn’t have the infrastructure to actually separate it.
[00:33:00] And the economic impact was that it was too difficult to actually do, which resulted in us having to fill up landfills extremely quickly. I don’t know if you’ve ever done it, if you don’t, maybe you shouldn’t, but if you Google where the landfills are, you’ll find out where they are. And if you Google, or if you just look at that and then you associate that with all the different things that happen environmentally around, you’ll find out right away.