TOWN HAUL PODCAST
Welcome to the Town Haul Podcast
HOSTED BY AMY KOONIN
Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, earth lovers and for penny pinchers!
Interviewer: [00:00] Hey everyone and welcome to another episode of the town hall. I am so excited to have JT MarBurger. Long-term entrepreneur in the field of sustainability and founder of several companies and make products from recycled merchandise and one of Rubicon’s allies in the fight against the landfill in studio with me this afternoon. So thank you so much for being here.
JT: Glad to be here Amy.
Interviewer: Before we even get started with a million questions that I have for you. Why don’t you introduce yourself to our listeners and talk about a little bit about your background. You have such an extensive and exciting history.
JT: Sure I’ll be glad to. You know you never know how you ended up in sustainability. It’s my start actually it was with the Coca-Cola company. I had a 20 year contract with Coca-Cola and they came to me in 2008 and said hey why don’t you start making our clothing and stuff from plastic bottles and I was like, ” how do you do that, I have no idea.” so from there I said “well boy that certainly makes a lot of sense.” You know with the bottles and recycling and all that. so basically I dove in deep to say okay so how do I do this you know and a couple things is really I come more from a business background than just you know straight sustainability. I always believed in doing the right thing. But my background was really straight you know starting businesses and not as much straight from sustainability or engineering and stuff like that. So from a business side I said, hey a couple things that I knew I had to do. I knew that the product had to be of course equal quality and I thought the pricing had to be similar. If it wasn’t price parity I didn’t think there was a business opportunity. So with that I had a great adventure with coke. I went all over the world. I got to see all kinds of facilities from the haulers to the mars, to the processing plant and I became really knowledgeable. Probably a couple of the good foundations as I did the Vancouver Olympics and turn product there. Also [02:00] I did the London Olympics and I was proud to say, when we are in London the mayor said one of the companies I had at the time was his called incentive marketing said that we’re one of the most upcoming companies globally. Which was nice. I don’t want to brag too much about this. I feel uncomfortable with that. [Laughs] but actually we got governor’s award of Georgia because of our innovation. So I’ve been all over. I’ve seen a lot of things. My core still is a business person is how I make a lot of decisions. But you know what’s nice about it ten years ago I don’t think businesses looked at being socially responsible as part of their DNA and they do now and I always kind of work my businesses accordingly. So that’s a little bit about my background.
Interviewer: so you said how you didn’t think that corporations had some sort of social responsibility back in the day and they have it now. So let’s talk about what do you think the overall market and the impact of social messaging, recycling on consumer purchasing habits. Do you think those have changed kind of like how the businesses have in the last few years?
JT: I think so. I think you know what I find on the business side is everybody’s trying to appeal to the Millennial and what matters to them is recycling valuable, do they care. I would love to tell you that for sure I know that that’s a definite. I don’t think anybody knows. So I’ve been involved, actually I were teaching a class at Georgia Tech right now with one of the key professors and we’re analyzing this. So to us you know Rupert Khan and myself, I mean we live this. But sometimes you can’t fall in love with your own message. You got to really almost look at this as a third party. Does this matter, do people really care. I think so and with that it becomes challenging. How do you tell the message? [04:00] how do you tell what you’re doing. How do you share the recycling? So you’re venturing into a new area. It’s like anything that’s new, it’s challenging. In the case of merchandise when we make a t-shirt from bottles we’re against you know Hanes and Nike and Adidas and established people. Is there room to tell a social message and so all the companies that I’ve worked with, we spend a lot of time saying you know there’s a message behind this and saying how important it is. Now does that get, is it important to the consumer. I would love to tell you a 100% it is. I think we’re still in a discovery phase in my opinion.
Interviewer: I like a lot of what you said and one thing that stuck out to me was when you were talking about some of your competitors and you guys are doing such a different process than they are. How do you take a water bottle that I’m drinking in my house and how does that become a shirt on my back. What does that process look like?
JT: Sure so what we do is because one of the things with coke when we did the coke programs they wanted to make sure that everything that I made clothing wise, apparel wise we make hard goods too was made from post-consumer bottles. so with that in mind when I originally you know I’ve been in this business for 35 years and so when I originally looked at my current supply chain, I asked him I said ” hey do you have things you know made from recycled bottles” and they said yes. And then when I went down and looked at the fabric content and started diving in to see how they were making it, I found they really didn’t know. So what happened is I had to drill down all the way to not the hauler as much I got to know the haulers, but really the MRF and so I had to make sure that our MRF were separating post-consumer bottles from post-industrial.
Interviewer: Will you explain to our listeners what a MRF is for those that don’t know.
JT: Oh yeah sorry I didn’t know either. I was like MRF is that like surf. Is that like a cartoon character? [06:00]
Interviewer: I always thought that was short from Murphy. I didn’t know what they were talking about.
JT: I hate acronyms right seriously talk to us in English. Materials recovery facility. It’s where they separate the paper, the cardboard, the aluminum all of the different things and so like you I was just like they kept saying MRF. I was like “who is this guy, I want to go and have a beer with him. he sounds like he’s a lot of fun.” so anyway so what I did is I went into, I couldn’t even tell you thousands of MRF’s and made sure one of the challenges I found early on because coke made this requirement to me and I had to legally sign my name. So I was like “oh boy we got to be careful here.” nothing better than litigation to make you behave. so basically I wanted to make sure they had a process that they separated post-industrial from post-consumer and what that means is post-industrial means a plant just has extra PET in the case of apparel and so anyways and so once I got that verified which is challenging. That took me a couple years. That was not a quick process.
Interviewer: Oh wow!
JT: Yeah so then I got a third party. At the time there was no certification of that. So I got that a third party I used entertain and global control Union as third party certifications. Because you just, it’s better for validity to get a third party certification. So they would go in and certify that MRF had sort of had separated post-industrial from post-consumer. So the materials recover for friend MRF, [07:36 inaudible] the guy at the end of the bar. So from the MRF it goes to a plastic processing plant and there’s not a lot of them around the world. There’s probably eight. Basically they take those bottles. So what happens at a MRF is those bottles are compacted and put on a pallet and then that pallet get sent to a plastic processing plant and they start the process. [08:00] so coke at the time ended up patenting about five different plastic processing things. So the closest Atlanta they had a plant in Spartanburg. They spent a substantial amount of money with that.
Interviewer: Why do you think that Coca-Cola didn’t promote that sustainability message? Why doesn’t consumers know that coke you know was doing all of this behind the scenes that’s actually going to be for the greater good of the environment.
JT: You know it’s I think it’s one my original question to you is how you deliver a message to drink Coca-Cola and get that in. I mean I think that’s the challenge of this social messaging, is how you fit that in with product information. So I would love to tell you I had that answer. But we’re still always refining and trying to get that answer.
Interviewer: I think maybe they would do it now more so than back then. Because that’s kind of what they care about more now is you know what are you doing with my bottle as opposed to what’s the flavor inside my bottle.
JT: Yeah I agree. I think in ten years I’ve seen a lot of changes. I love telling I don’t know how far it can digress, but I’ll do it anyways.
Interviewer: Go for it.
JT: So when I came to my first meeting 10 years ago, I came in and I you know I was in the I don’t know some green chamber or something like that and so I was the only one that had you know covered shoes. Everybody had you know sandals and black socks on and I was a business guy and I did wear a suit. I wasn’t that stupid. But it was, so one of the people; so again I talk at ten years ago. one of the person says to me ” oh man you know I just, I hate big companies and I hate this and I love the environment and all that and so this is a big culture change for me and I said you know what’s bad for me is I love big companies and all this and this is a culture change for me. So we’re both meeting halfway and so and I said “I love it.” I think this is really cool. so that’s what the environment was ten years ago [10:00] and then two years later I started seeing business people show up. I just saw a dramatic change in the industry over the ten years. It’s just astonishing to a company that I’ve idolized as Rubicon. When did Rubicon get founded? What was a year?
JT: Yeah so follow the same thing.
Interviewer: Yeah around 10 years ago yeah.
JT: I’m sure you’ve experienced the same changes that I’ve seen. As anyway as I digressed that story, so back on our story.
Interviewer: Yeah how do we get a water bottle?
JT: I [10:32 inaudible] didn’t make a water bottle. Stay on track.
Interviewer: Good luck.
JT: yeah [10:37 inaudible]. So what you do is so from that plastic processing plant. It basically breaks the bottle back down to its raw material state. Now you can make another bottle. You can make an apparel item. You can make a hard good. So one of the challenges. So cokes original attempt was a change to recycle that bottle to make another bottle and they ran into issues with clarity of the, the product is fine. It’s all FDA approved. But you couldn’t get the clear bottle look at that time. So that was one of their challenges. One of my challenge is to turn it into apparel was the dyeing. So if the product wasn’t perfectly clear, some of the dyes wouldn’t take on the yarn. So I had to work through that. That took me another year or two. So I got about 22 PhDs
Interviewer: Yeah I was going to say that is quite the extensive knowledge about… I mean how you do, what does that process even look like? I mean you have this yarn. How do you turn that into a shirt?
JT: So then that yarn… so there’s two things we can do. There’s two kinds of yarns. I don’t know how technical I want to get. But there’s two kinds of yarn. It’s a fiber yarn, which means it can be mixed with cotton. So it has a cotton fill and then there’s a filament yarn and those are two different yarn plants. [12:00] so the filament yarns like your dry fits. So what happened is, so I’ve been doing this business for 35 years. I went to my current suppliers that I’ve been doing business a long time and said they listen I need you to test this. I need you to test and do. Because originally when this was done a lot of the product was not a high quality. It was really expensive. Because they didn’t have the biggest and the best making it. It wasn’t and so people like “oh it’s the bottles” and nothing to do with the bottles. You got to get the best yarn guy and the best fabric guy and you’ll get a great product at the right price. But it took some salesmanship on my part to say, hey because there are these plants are massive. They’re huge investments. I mean there’s you know they’re ten football fields long. There’s a hundred people working there. So to get them to stop and say “hey I know you’re running virgin polyester and I need you to stop here for an hour to put in some recycled.” it was a lot of convincing and that’s part of my history of doing it. So fortunately they did that. Because I had always been a good business partner with them. So I was able to get them to do it and they made the yarns and you got to test the yarns and then the yarns get knitted into a fabric or woven into a fabric and then you cut so you get anything you want to make.
Interviewer: So when you’re selling those apparel items, are you selling that message with it? I mean is there anywhere on the shirts that says you know this is made with bottles. Is that a big part of the sell for people. I know myself as a millennial I would rather pay extra money to have a shirt that was up cycled than I would to you know get the clothes that I was buying even five, seven years ago.
JT: So this is one of the other learns in the 10 years. What am I, so that’s juts PhD number 18. So I did, I used to lead with the upcycle story and it failed. I have to be honest [14:00] with you. I found really quickly over a period of time that ultimately someone doesn’t go in, they go in to buy shirt and so my first thing is to have a fantastic shirt. It feels great, it looks great, has the right decoration and then they look at price. And those are their first two lead and then lastly it is the upcycle message and when you deliver those first two, then you got them. Then you got them and I just learned this through trial and error. I mean just through success and failures as I’ve always done with these businesses. I would love to tell you how successful I was breaking for. I mean I’ve had as many failures if not more failures than successes. So that’s kind of how my you know…
Interviewer: That’s how you learn right.
JT: yeah so we don’t lead with sustainability. But we do lots of things. Lots of different things around that. We’ve done some fantastic latest greatest. So how do you get someone’s attention as you asked me? How does coke tell that story? We all face the same thing is how do you still sell the story of why you want to buy a coke. But these are some things that appeal to Millennials and everybody. I mean it’s just the right thing to do.
Interviewer: You know it’s really interesting because I’ve been doing a lot of research. Fashion Week is coming up in the next couple weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of research on sustainable fashion and a lot of these blogs and a lot of the articles that I’m reading are praising Pharrell for example, Pharrell Williams. As a pioneer of creating this Bionic yarn from plastic and oh we’re taking ocean plastic and turning it into denim and look at what we’re doing. It’s new and its revolutionary and I’m hearing you know when I’m talking to you and it’s like “well people were doing this ten years ago.” I mean you were really ahead of your time. Where do you see any trends or forecasting for sustainable fashion going forward? Because you really seem to be at the forefront of it all. Before it was the cool thing to do, it was just [16:00] the right thing to do.
JT: Yeah I think the way I’ve approached the business model is you can’t just be a textile expert. You have to go to the Rubicon level and that’s the difference that I’ve taken. The different approach is that you have to connect that. When you put that bottle in the bin, you got to tell that story. Because that’s the powerful story and so that the people you mentioned they’ve always focused more just from the textile side. and I think it’s storytelling that’ll be commonplace and what’s great as I love it’s all good. You know you know about Pharrell. Coke did a program with will.i.am. We had products in Harrods of London and all the highest-profile. Nothing is taken off the way. I expected this to take off three or four years ago. But it’s going to take off. I think as long as you do what I said in the beginning, you offer fantastic quality at the right price I think we’re going to get better at the messaging. We get lots of interest I’ve worked with all the largest brands that come to me. Because of the diverse we don’t just start at the textiles. We start at the level. You know we have a variety of different clients that we look at their waste as you do and that’s where we partner with you. It has been a really key nice partnership. You know we always try to find the right partners around the thing and then provide that to the clients we service.
Interviewer: I think one of the reasons, I mean one of the reasons why we’re in the studio today together like you said is that we have a partnership and we align on a lot of the same mission and values. And this is not a commercial for Rubicon and this isn’t you know a big promotional platform. But we are both passionate about eradicating the need for a landfill and taking material that would have been thrown into a landfill and turning it into something else. What are some of the [18:00] things that you can tell our listeners that might not know too much about landfills, about landfill diversion and really how terrible they are for our future and our environment?
JT: Well this is definitely not a Rubicon commercial. Because you haven’t paid me anything. So can you me lunch or something.
Interviewer: l will buy you lunch.
JT: The only reason I took the time today is because of the shared passion to be honest with you and I believe in you and so I do that with my partners. And I’m very selective of what partners I choose. So to answer your question, it’s ridiculous. Every property I work, I have over 700 colleges. I have amusement parks. I have national parks. I have airports. I have seen everything imaginable. I have Quick Serve restaurants. I have convenience stores and they all asked me to come in and the first thing I do is I told you I don’t start from the fabric. I start from the beginning and I say so what are you doing. You know if you’re going to talk about this story you better have your act together and you better be doing the right things. 99% of them don’t know and 99% percent of them, the recyclables go to landfill and it’s a passion of mine to give them alternatives and that’s [19:26 inaudible] well you know I recently had a property who is Bizarre. It was a large amusement park. They generated about 12 million people a year and I looked at each of the parks on that 12 parks. so two of the parks were paying no money for hauling fees of recyclables and getting back about $3000 and the other parks were paying anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 a year in hauling fees. They just didn’t know about Rubicon and I just said “oh my gosh [20:00] you know number one you know there’s alternatives out there.” they just don’t know and so my job is to tell them the alternatives. Because ultimately I’m a consumer of the plastic. One of the challenges with the system is when you recycle the plastic bottles you got to sell it to somebody and I’m a buyer of those. So any hauler at first as I called ” Jesus you know are you a [20:25 inaudible] JT, you’re going to take our [20:25 inaudible].” But I do want to buy your plastic bottles after they go over there like oh my gosh. Because as you know with Asia you know we can’t put bottles there. So there’s something unique when you’re in the business that not only are you assisting with recycling, but you’re also in control of the supply chain in the needed supply chain. So it really change the thing. So I can put together programs that are more robust working with Rubicon. Because I want to buy the plastic bottles. I went on the recycle and Michael one day is all polyester [21:00 inaudible]. We got so many bottles. Why would I not get there?
Interviewer: Can I ask a really, my mom always said there’s no such thing as stupid questions. Can I ask a very, maybe?
naive question and I’m sure one that people other than me out there is going to have, ” what is polyester made out of now if it’s not made out of..” like what is that? Where does that come from?
JT: That is such a stupid question I can’t answer it. No of course not. It’s the same chemical PET. It is polyethylene terephthalate, that’s polyester.
Interviewer: But how is it getting… so it’s just the bottles are an alternative way to get to the PET.
JT: So when you look at the chemical makeup, that’s why people think it’s this amazing magic trick. But you’re really drinking out of a polyester bottle. Because polyester is such a pliable plastic it can be used for many things. So [22:00] it can be used for you know hard goods and soft goods. So it’s probably the only plastic chemical breakdown that can be used for both hard and soft goods. So everything else and I’ve focused on bottles a lot. I mean Chick-fill-A hired me to do Styrofoam and we do a lot of different recyclables just because of our understanding of the waste stream and ultimately the manufacturing of all that. So it’s one in the same and so what you got to do is get it back to its Raw Material State. So once it gets back to the Raw Material State, then you can do anything. You can make a bottle and all of that. So the answer to your question of water bottle is polyester. It doesn’t for some reason.
Interviewer: No cause I think of like itchy polyester shirts and I don’t think of water bottles and that’d be made of the same thing.
JT: And that’s the reason we think you know I’m biased with this is that wow what an easy way, cut no one knows what happens when they put a bottle in a bin and so when we tie those stories together, it’s so impactful for what you just said. It’s like there’s no way.
Interviewer: That’s what I’m saying. It’s the shock factor. that’s the story is how is this you know itchy turtleneck I’m wearing right now made out of the same you know chemical compounds as that water bottle on my desk.
JT: It’s a magic and it can make such an impact and that’s where we build a lot of programs. I’ll give one. we just introduced a lot of green games recently and one of the programs we did with a major university in the West was, every time that they recycled a bottle before a football game they were able to get a $5 off coupon on their phone to go into the bookstore and buy the product. It wasn’t made from that bottle they recycled [24:00]. But they connected that message that made them ask questions and so we focused a lot on the university market. Because of inquisitive minds. We feel they are the thought leaders in the communities. To educate people that, believe it or not that bottle you did is a shirt.
Interviewer: Well that’s a tangible way to explain the circular economy to a college student.
JT: Yeah it simplifies it. Dumbs it down. I always love though I get this question all the time and I always say well you know the cuts they kind of keel over after a while and when they think that [24:35 inaudible] I’m like “oh you know after a while the cuts and the scabs it works, “really? Of course not.” Soft and feels great. It feels even better I say that virgin.
Interviewer: I mean that really is, I mean that’s certainly answered like a personal question of mine was I just couldn’t make the mental connection between the bottle and you know the regular polyester that I’m used to wearing. That’s really interesting. You have so much experience in the industry. You know you are a wealth of knowledge and I’m so happy that you’re here and so I do want to take the time to get your opinion on Rubicon’s business model and then how does, you know what we’re doing impact the products that you’re making from recycled waste.
JT: Well I find and I’m going to give you my version. Because this isn’t a commercial and hope you’re going to buy my lunch today. Today the user doesn’t really know they have options. It’s not like you can go to Airing and find you know 60 haulers that you can get. So they just don’t know. The industry does not know there’s other ways to be done and so I love it. I mean I’ve never, it’s amazing to see where the changes are. Because right now they just think there’s three alternatives and they recycle, [26:00] I don’t know a little bit massive amounts. But they’re not going to do the little stuff that matters that really becomes very big stuff and that’s what Rubicon does. So I just think they just don’t know and so I end up spending a lot of my time. Because I think you’re getting the idea. I try to service that client from start to finish and that brings value to them and I say here’s an alternative. They are best in class and you know they can’t always solve it. But I’m pretty comfortable that most the time they can and now you know companies of all sizes. I was surprised about that, have an option to know there’s other things out there in other places to reduce their landfill and improve their recyclables. Because I mean I’m not going to get into politics and everything. It’s just the right thing to do and I think and that’s why I’m here. Because I love the model. So did I answer your question?
Interviewer: Yes you did. Thank you very much. JT thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m going to go buy you that lunch right now, I promise.
JT: I need to be on a diet anyway.
Interviewer: No, Well thank you again so much and you’re welcome back on here anytime you want and anything you want to plug? Any new business ventures, anything you want to talk about?
JT: I just, I really am using this just as best business practices and what Rubicon is doing is good for what I do. So that’s really, I don’t have a plot.
Interviewer: Perfect thank you. [27:40]