The Last Straw

Andrew Krause wants you to stop sucking and help him save the planet.

Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause

In Mike Nichols’ iconic and Academy Award-wining, 1967 film, The Graduate, a fresh-from-college Dustin Hoffman gets a one-word piece of career advice. “Plastics,” says a middle-aged neighbor at a cocktail party. “There’s a great future in plastics.”

Fifty-one years later, that career advice has come back to haunt us.

Plastics may be the miracle product of the industrial (and post-industrial) age. From heart valves to car parts, from computer keyboards to raincoats, umbrellas, cameras, calculators, eyeglasses, telephones, plates, bottles—look around you; we’re surrounded by plastic.

And that is not, in and of itself, a problem. The problem is the excess of non-essential plastic we throw away. The problem is where that plastic ends up.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you know about the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

It’s a convergence zone of ocean currents between Hawaii and California creating a gyroscopic flow that traps marine trash in a slowly swirling space the size of Texas.

Actually, that’s old news. The so-called Eastern Garbage Patch (or, more scientifically, the North Pacific Subtropical High) is now believed to be more than twice the size of Texas, approximately 617,762 square miles, and growing exponentially.

What is troubling—even alarming—of course, is the fact that the most common ingredients in the garbage patch are plastics, swollen by an estimated 8 million more tons that end up each year in the ocean.

And a small but significant part of that plastic mass comes from drinking straws, of which, according to industry figures, 500 million new ones are used and discarded in the United States every day. That’s an average rate of 1.6 straws per person per day, or enough—as one inventive anti-straw activist calculated—to fill 125 school buses a day.

According to Lonely Whale, a Seattle-based marine protection NGO, at current rates of accumulation, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

The consequences of this accumulation are hard to accurately measure, but the scientific consensus is not hopeful. Part of the problem is that plastic breaks down fairly quickly into very small pieces, but it doesn’t magically disappear. According to an interview in Gizmodo, the science and technology website, Scripps Research Institute biologist Miriam Goldstein wrote in a recent paper that, “Microplastic debris in the North Pacific increased by two orders of magnitude between 1972 and 1987, and between 1999 and 2010, in both numerical and mass concentrations.” Goldstein and her colleagues have trolled very fine sampling nets through the gyre and on one sampling trip they found pieces of plastic in 117 out of 119 random samples, and in a second trip they found plastic in each of 28 samples taken. The plastic, we know, is ingested by birds, fish and turtles, and may be bio-accumulating in the food chain, in ways we haven’t yet discovered.

Which leads us to Andrew Krause, who would like all of Sonoma to give up plastic straws. Krause, a product of Sonoma Valley High School (where he was heavily influenced by David Donnelly, the now-retired and revered economics teacher), and of Arizona State University, where he attended undergraduate and graduate school, became the first person in the country to be awarded a degree in Sustainability Science.

What does Andrew Krause have to do with plastic straws? The answer is a window into a vital new discipline, cultured and incubated at ASU, which created the nation’s first degree-granting program in Sustainability Science.

The very name of the program, and of Krause’s degree, suggests that achieving sustainability—the green buzzword of the century—requires a lot more than good intentions to protect Mother Earth, it requires scientific discipline.

Krause was originally going to get a construction engineering degree, but says a simple epiphany changed his mind. While he was still an ASU undergraduate, he explains, “there was a lot of emphasis on green building, efficiencies, systems integration. And that was really the first time in my mind that I thought, ‘You know, it’s not really the building, it’s the occupants.’ Nobody’s talking about designing for people’s behavioral participation, they just want to make better buildings. Very engineering thing to do.”

Stay with us here, because this begins to get deep.

Sometimes the best engineering in the world doesn’t matter, if people don’t incorporate it into their daily lives. It’s much easier to engineer technical solutions to social, cultural and political problems than it is to get people to adopt the technology. Unless they really want to.

Polls tell us that a sizable majority of Americans—and generic humans everywhere—accept the premise that human-influenced climate change is real. But far, far fewer people know how to, or are willing to, change their daily habits in response. How, for instance, do you get people to give up plastic straws? What will make them want to?

Thus, sustainability science.

The Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU organically gave rise to the creation of a technically and socially remarkable resource called the Decision Theater.

“Decision Theater,” says Krause, “was based on the idea that people would make better decisions if they weren’t so damn hard to make. And that, if we could just give everybody all the information and ability to sort of fly through a decision, that they would do the right thing. We would take the burden off their decision-making process.”

Sounds sensible, but how?

George Brasile is a former Stanford and Berkeley physicist who was recruited by ASU to run the Decision Theater and has become a Krause mentor and business partner. This is how he describes it. Decision Theater, he says, “allows decision makers and experts to leverage a vast amount of information. …We’re able to ask ‘what if’ questions …Are we headed where we want to go? It’s decision making for a sustainable future. We’re building the tools that are socially networked, web enabled and platform agnostic.”

In brick-and-mortar terms, that means a facility with a 270-degree sweep of high-definition computer screens accessing incomparable quantities of data and scenario modeling. Put the right minds in that horseshoe with enough information and modeling power and they will come up with practical solutions.

But wait, there’s still another element in the equation—the mostly intangible issue of human behavior.

“When I went back to grad school, I had a very strong purpose,” says Krause. “I knew what I wanted to do was to take on and model very hard, complicated social problems, the whole range of sustainability problems. Which, by the way, all have one key thing in common. People don’t talk about this much, but they’re all common-pool resource problems. They’re generated through our daily behaviors. Drought, climate change, food systems, plastic pollution. These are challenges that many in classic economics would say are ‘tragedy of the commons’ challenges.”

So, he continues, “these guys at ASU were studying things like the effect of trust and cooperation. And they were doing the math, they were really trying to formalize the social processes that led to these common pool resource challenges. And I thought, ‘This shit is hard. This is perfect for what I want to do.’”

So within the umbrella of his Masters of Science of Sustainability program, Krause tracked a specific focus on behavior and decision making. “Towards the end, it became apparent that social media was going to have a role to play in this. So we focused on the intersection of social networks and how people communicate and how they live their life offline.”

Which brings us back, once again, to straws. If you haven’t seen the viral YouTube video of a drinking straw being removed from the nostril of a sea turtle, perhaps you should watch it to understand the emotional impact that is driving a developing campaign to eliminate use of plastic straws. Already, the city of Seattle has taken the radical step of imposing a ban on all non-compostable plastic straws and utensils beginning in July. Led by Lonely Whale’s “Strawless in Seattle” campaign, Seattle Public Utilities is spearheading the city’s efforts, which have been endorsed by the Seattle Seahawks, the Mariners, the city’s Space Needle and the Port of Seattle. As an alternative, Seattle businesses are being encouraged to use degradable paper straws made by Aardvark Straws that the company says will decompose in 45 to 90 days.

The city of Manhattan Beach has taken similar action, and Krause would like Sonoma to join the movement. “Strawless in Sonoma” has a nice, similarly alliterative ring to it, and this is his hometown.

All that said, Krause is thinking way beyond straws, which he considers simply one convenient gateway to a pattern of changed behaviors that are more planet friendly. And, again, the lever that moves the earth is human behavior, for good or ill. So finding ways to change that behavior becomes, if not the holy grail, than at least a fundamental requisite for addressing climate change.

To that end, he formed a corporation called Impact Mill Collective, a tongue-twisting, counter-intuitive name for a brilliantly clever business plan to hitch human behavior change to everyday commerce. Impact Mill has a number of well-heeled investors, several in Sonoma, who believe in Krause, not just because of his global vision, but because he is modeling a marketplace solution for a series of social behavior problems that can, at least in principle, generate profit while changing the world.

Here’s how. Let’s say you currently pack your lunch sandwich in a Ziploc bag that is subsequently thrown away after one use. There’s a planet friendly solution for that.

Under your kitchen sink you probably have up to a dozen spray bottles of various kinds of (sometimes toxic) cleaners. Krause has a solution for that too.

Maybe you go to a taco truck or a take out restaurant for your lunch, and you come back with a Styrofoam or plastic plate. There’s a solution for that too.

Ever wonder about those non-static dryer sheets? Krause has an alternative. The list goes on (see sidebar).

What Impact Mill is doing is aggregating the discovery power of online communities to unveil innovative, planet-friendly alternatives to products and behavior patterns we’re all mired in, and then test and promote those products through the networking power of its constantly expanding “collective.”

Which is one reason Krause seems to travel with a Merlin’s satchel of intriguing alternative products, including beautifully packaged glass straws, in case you still can’t live without one.

The common denominator of all his products is that they replace unsustainable alternatives. He and George Basile have created an impact framework to vet products and describe how they are moving the needle toward a sustainable operating state. You can learn more about it at impactmill.co, where you’ll also find a wealth of information on sustainable actions and products in general.

David Bonnelly, Krause’s high school mentor (and now an investor in Impact Mill), describes him as “very articulate and smarter than hell. His mission is to change people’s behavior, and he’s put together an amazing team. He’s a force of nature.”

If you want to know more about his mission, he can be reached at akrause@eecosphere.com.

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