Mark Herrema: CEO of Newlight Technologies – Ep. 125

About Mark Herrema & Newlight Technologies:

Mark Herrema is the CEO and founder of Newlight Technologies, a company with an out of this world solution to climate change: making “plastic” from the air.

By using nature as a guide, they’re able to pull carbon and greenhouse gasses straight from the air and create a physical, plastic-like material they call AirCarbon, which can be used to make everything from cutlery to straws to clothing and just about anything else plastic can make. 

There’s one huge difference… AirCarbon is biodegradable (even faster than paper), and is truly one of the most realistic, impressive solutions I’ve ever encountered to drawing down carbon. And it’s not just me who’s taking notice… They’ve raised over 100 million in funding, and they have partners like Nike, Dell, Amazon Web Services and more. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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4:34 – “If you say, ‘Hey, look, I can take your emissions, turn it into a useful product and pay you for those emissions.’ They’re going to like that, right? And if that product does something better than what’s on the market, either better sustainability or better performance or whatever, or even better cost, then all of a sudden you have a truly consumer-driven, market-driven pathway to scale.”

6:44 – “That summer between my junior and senior year, I came across a newspaper article about methane emissions from cows…each dairy cow was burping about 600 liters of methane per day. And what I found so striking about that was the tangibility of it, right? Like climate change seems so big and broad and almost untouchable. Like, what are you and I going to really do? But 600 liters – that’s a defined quantity. And you could do math with that. So methane has a market value. And you do that math. And it turned out to be about $20 of methane burped per cow per year. So you got a thousand-cow farm, that’s $20,000 of value into the air.”

8:21 – “There’s all this carbon going into the air, why don’t we use it? So we started looking for ways to do that. And early on we discovered that there are microorganisms in nature, including and especially in the ocean, that eat methane and eat CO2 as their food source – cool, and so we were interested in that. And then we further discovered that when they grow by eating greenhouse gas, they also make this material inside of their cells called PHB.”

Can PHB Replace Plastic?
*9:07 – “PHB is in almost all life and the other crazy thing is turns out when you extract it, it becomes meltable. And since it’s meltable, you can use it to make all these shapes and parts and pieces. So we’re like, oh, wait a minute. So now you can feed greenhouse gas to microorganisms that’ll turn it into this muscle-like material that can replace plastic. But because it’s made throughout nature, it’s a completely degradable material. And in the same way that when nature makes it, it’s a net-carbon sink. We can do the same thing. We use renewable power, feed greenhouse gas. Now all of a sudden you have this platform where you can make useful products from greenhouse gas and not only help decarbonize, but also help reduce the amount of plastic in the world.”

Creating Nature-Friendly Plastic
*15:33 – “Plastic doesn’t exist in nature. And that’s so important because what it means is when it gets into nature, nature just doesn’t understand it. So it doesn’t have a way to eat it, right? Like if it was a banana peel that ended up in nature, nature would just eat it as food and off you go. But plastic is synthetic, so it doesn’t understand it, so it stays around for a long, long time. The two biggest distinctions between our stuff and plastic is our material is made throughout nature. It’s made in your body, it’s made in most of the stuff that you see that’s green and alive. So if it ends up in nature, nature eats it like a banana peel, like a tree leaf and just re-consumes it. And that’s the difference between a natural material and a synthetic material. And of course, the second big difference is when you make normal plastic, it emits about three times its weight, more or less, in CO2e, whereas we’re a net-carbon sink. And so those are the two kind of major differentiators. And then we try to match or exceed on performance wherever we can.”

20:23 – “There’s a certain symbolism that we’ve all developed around the straw, right? Like no one likes a paper straw, but everyone knows or thinks that it’s better for the environment. But that’s a great example of the miss on the middle ground, right? Where you’re like, ‘Yeah, I care about the environment, but it really sucks that I can’t just finish my drink.’ And so our straw is something that goes away as fast as paper, but it’s something that is smooth, never get soggy. It’s like wow, we can have products for the environment that people enjoy also.”

23:53 – “I think there is a role for plastic to play in society, particularly where it can be recycled and where you have long-term durable parts. And we shouldn’t forget that, right? Like going to all paper products, it actually doesn’t make sense in certain situations. Plastic is better, but it’s finding like, okay, do you need to make any straw or cutlery or anything? No you don’t. Plastic are effectively forever materials or we can think of them that way. They just last so long. Why would you make something that you’re going to use for a few seconds out of something that never goes away? So that’s, I think, where society can and should shift.”

26:33 – “When you get a paper cup, whether for soda or for a coffee or whatever, that’s a paper cup, but it’s lined with plastic. The only reason that that paper cup isn’t as terrible as your paper straw is simply because that paper cup is lined with plastic. What the world is increasingly waking up to – and it will soon hate maybe even more than plastic – is those paper products lined with plastic because they’re the worst of every world. Because it’s a mixed material it can’t compost, right? Because that paper is now stuck to that plastic and it can’t be even recycled, even if there were good recycling rates because it’s mixed with paper. So you just have something that’s just pure bad.”

30:30 – “If we can turn greenhouse gas into a solid material, it shows that carbon doesn’t have to go into the air. If we can make products that don’t accumulate in environment, it means we don’t have to keep on this plastic pathway. And so I’m at once very worried. I’m also, like dramatically optimistic because I can see that, it was a dream 20 years ago. Now I’ve got a huge – not to overstate it – but we have a large commercial scale production plant.”

32:36 – “However you feel about Elon, that guy has created a fortune off of largely, creating a green product. And he figured out that if you can make that product cool, people want to be in the space. And I think the more examples we see of that, that’s going to create a really important dynamic.”

Companies Can Mobilize Change
*34:20 – (Ross) “It’s the companies that have the ability to mobilize change the fastest; whether we like it or not. It’s a Nike who’s able to make wholesale change faster than anybody else. And then that flows to the legislative change, not the other way around. Unfortunately, the government’s not telling Nike what to do, Nike’s telling the government what to do. But, you know, for example, McDonald’s incorporates your plastic or they incorporate an Impossible burger, these things – suddenly, boom, massive change is possible.”

36:24 – “I believe the beating heart and soul of all this change is coming from just consumers who truly care. And if they didn’t, the corporate response would be very different. But we have seen in all these marches and all these social media campaigns and all these speeches by everybody from middle school students through college kids – this stuff matters, when people are marching in the streets it is actually creating real change. And I’ve just seen that in the 20 years that I’ve been doing this, where it used to be like, ‘We should probably do this’ to ‘No, we have to do this. Like if we’re going to survive as a company, we have to make this change because people want that and are increasingly demanding that.’”

We’re Screwing Up The World
*37:51 – (Ross) “That’s the kind of thing that is always so frustrating about the people who are climate change deniers, they say, ‘Oh, the earth has gone through cycles of heating and cooling, and it’s natural’ and all that and it’s like, okay, but look at the oceans. Look at the great Pacific Garbage patch. Look at how much plastic is in the ocean – that’s manmade. There’s no reality where this Texas-sized land mass of plastic floating in the ocean is not human caused. So regardless of whether climate change is manmade or not, we’re screwing up the world in very big, obvious ways that we can see and that everybody knows. Like every time you see a Starbucks cup floating in the ocean, you know where that’s coming from. That wouldn’t have happened naturally. So I’ve always found that to be such a weird argument to make, like, okay, maybe it’s not the climate that’s changing, you could say, but the environment is changing in a negative way. Every beach in the world has plastic crap washing up on it constantly. There’s nowhere in the world that doesn’t. So we have some issues that we need to solve, right?”

40:06 – “CO2 and methane, the two primary greenhouse gases, are heat-trapping gases. And so, you can do your own experiments with this. But if you have a whole bunch of heat-trapping gas and you apply sunlight or any other source of heat, that’s going to stay hot for a long time versus just air that isn’t filled with CO2 or methane. So we’re dumping all this heat-trapping gas into the air. What’s going to happen? The air is going to heat up. It’s really simple. And so if you look at all the charts, CO2 and methane have both been going up dramatically. And those charts match up almost exactly to the rise in temperature, which also makes this very, very good, simple sense. So it’s unfortunate that this campaign of confusion has been fairly effective. We live in the disinformation age, and so it’s not overly surprising. But I think now we’re at a tipping point.”

42:01 – “If the argument is something like a natural cycle and that is only known through science and scientists. And if all those same scientists are saying, ‘well, that’s not what’s happening,’ then it’s sort of like, well, then who exactly is telling you that we’re getting closer to the sun? Who’s telling you that there’s a cycle here that’s happening? If it’s just you feel that way, well, I think we should look harder into those things. But I do think we should be open to all those questions. But let’s also be open to digging into the answer and coming up with logical conclusions.”

45:34 – “By the way, CO2 is nature’s favorite food source. Every piece of lettuce that you ever ate was just, nature, a plant pulling CO2 out of the air. So we demonise greenhouse gas, but nature loves greenhouse gas. So if we saw it the same way, as a resource, and people saw that smokestack, that power plant, all that CO2 and said, ‘Whoa. That’s untapped value right there.’ Imagine a world like that where we’re competing to gobble up that stuff. I mean, imagine if people are building direct air capture units to just pull as much CO2 out as they can because they can turn it into really useful stuff. I mean, that’s a vision for scalability that I think is really worth fighting for.”

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