When we reached Upstream Policy’s executive director Matt Prindiville, who runs the national environmental organization from Rockport, he confessed to burning the midnight oil for days, if not weeks. The modern, passive solar house he and his wife have been designing and planning and dreaming about for more than a decade had just cleared its bank inspection. He’d been tiling a bathroom into the wee hours to make that happen. “I kind of want to take a weeklong nap,” he said. But he rallied to talk to Source about the joys of solar power, how “playing defense” is often the norm for those involved in environmental work today but how thankfully, plastic waste, one of the key issues he works on, has so far remained an issue politicians from both sides of the fence can agree on.
LAW SOUP TO NUTS: Prindiville worked at the Natural Resources Council of Maine for almost 10 years before moving to Upstream Policy. “It was a great time,” he said. “It is kind of a pressure cooker kind of place to work.” He tackled legislation in a “soup to nuts” kind of approach, learning “how to take an idea and get it passed into law and implemented.” During the Gov. John Baldacci administration, he worked with a crop of young leaders, including Hannah Pingree. “We worked a lot together on climate and toxics and product policy and watersheds. It was really a heady time.” Then Gov. Paul LePage was elected. “A lot of that came grinding to a halt in 2010,” he said. Prindiville saw the writing on the wall. “I didn’t want to spend the next four years – I thought it would only be four years – playing defense.” When the founder of Upstream Policy contacted him about running the group, which is national but works with other, similar organizations all over the world, he signed on.
MISSION CONTROL: Upstream Policy’s stated mission is to advance sustainability, end plastic pollution and reduce climate disruption. Big tasks. The group calls itself a “think/do tank” and works with local governments, public interest groups, companies and citizen activists on product stewardship initiatives. It is part of a “Break Free from Plastic” campaign with other nongovernmental organizations, including Greenpeace. It also works with cities, including Portland, on developing best practices and reducing plastic waste. Then there is the sustainable packaging policy project, which encourages take-backs from corporations – where a company is responsible to pay for recycling the materials it generates. “Plastics are really the poster child for what is wrong with our material economy. Many of them have applications destined to last just minutes.” Like coffee cups and plastic cutlery. “There is this systemic design flaw where we are using this material which is really an alien substance to the planet and where nothing really biodegrades,” Prindiville said.
FOOD CHAIN: Including in the oceans, where one of the world’s most important food sources live. “Here is seafood, which is supposed to be one of the healthiest foods out there and yet we are perpetually contaminating it.” To the tune, he says, of 8 million tons of plastics that end up in the ocean every year, the equivalent of five plastic shopping bags (washing up) on every foot of coastline in the world. “The other statistic that is really alarming, too, is that there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050 unless we change course.”
U-TURN? Is it realistic to think of changing course, especially right now, when the world is in such turmoil and the United States is backing out of, say, climate change accords? “I actually feel like with plastic pollution, it has not become a politically polarized issue yet. You don’t have Republicans and Democrats lining up on either side the way you do on climate and energy issues.” Plastics, with all their single-use applications, are more tangible than big issues like climate change. “People see and touch plastic every day. For them I think it is more tangible than, ‘I get into the car and drive to work or drive my kids to school, and I might be contributing to climate change.’ ”
THE LIMITS OF RECYCLING: For those who say, “but, recycling!” Prindiville has a message: “A lot of these products have literally no value in the recycling process.” Sure soda bottles and water bottles and milk jugs have value as they’re recycled. “But pretty much everything else, there is no value in. It’s a net cost to process.” In places like the Philippines and Indonesia, the scale of plastic pollution is “just staggering and astounding.” Scavengers scoop up the high-value plastics, leaving things like single-serve food packaging. “And single-serve shampoo or laundry detergent bottles are just rampant.” Upstream Policy works to get manufacturers to move away from these kind of uses for plastic. “You need to identify the high-pollution items.” And remember that not all plastics are bad. “I am quick to remind people, I love my surfboard, I love my snowboard. I just built my dream house, and it has Styrofoam insulating the foundation,” Prindiville said. “There are good and important issues for plastics. But we do not want to be using plastic for all these single-use applications.”
BRIGHT IDEAS: There are a number of work-arounds to the those single-use applications that Prindiville and Upstream Policy are excited to promote. These include encouraging coffee shops to establish a deposit system for customers who arrive for a cup of coffee and want to take it to go in a reusable cup instead of the usual cardboard. Or how about biodegradable cutlery? “They are making cutlery out of bamboo or compressed paper fibers. They can do a lot with engineering.” He’s got his eye on a new company in New York State making take-away food containers out of mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms. Grown into molds and highly compressed. “It is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea. They just inked a major deal with Ikea to replace all the Styrofoam in their packaging supply chain.” That’s a game changer, Prindiville says, and exactly the kind of model Upstream Policy tries to promote. People want to see progress,” he said. “They want to see wins.” What if he and his colleagues could convince say, a Starbucks to start putting low-cost, reusable mugs in its stores? “What a change that would be.”
ON GOLDEN POND: Prindiville and his wife, a cranial sacral therapist (that’s a form of body work) bought land on Chickawaukie Pond in Rockport 12 years ago, thinking they’d build a house on it right away. “It was the dream land,” he said. But life intervened (including taking care of aging parents), so they rented in Rockland while slowly hatching a plan for a house in the Frank Lloyd Wright tradition. Low pitched shed roof, huge windows on the south-facing side and built into a slope. “It’s an upside-down house.” Meaning you enter on the second floor, and the bedrooms are downstairs. “You walk in and you really just see the woods and the lake. It feels like you are outside when you are inside.”
PASSIVE PEACE OF MIND: The house is built to be heated passively, and for this first winter, Prindiville has been supplementing solar heat with just one heat pump. “Even when it is 10 degrees outside, the upstairs bakes,” he said. In the summer, a 6-foot overhang keeps the sun from overheating the house and the heat pump doubles as an air conditioner. His wife’s practice is in an small building just down the lane from the house. “We pretty much both work from home, which is pretty sweet. That was the goal.” He does have to travel for work a couple times a month, but, “I feel really fortunate that I can do nationally significant work from Rockport.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: