Educate your children on what the problem is and who it impacts, and research it deeply if you don’t know every detail. Parents need to educate their children on the impacts that plastic has on this earth. We see examples of how landfills leak toxic chemicals into the water supplies of local communities, and the implications of that need to be explored: what happens to the people that need that fresh water? What happens to the wildlife that depends on those water sources? What happens to our bodies when we consume animals that consume micro-plastics? We need to participate in learning sessions with our children because it will make us much more aware as well. I feel strongly that we do not do enough to teach our children how to share love with the entire world.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ry Russell.
Ry is a serial entrepreneur and self-proclaimed “Mad Scientist.” Ry started his entrepreneurial journey at the age of 21 by resurrecting the nation’s second oldest operating drive-in movie theater into an icon of the industry. Ry was one of Maine’s youngest 40 Under 40 award recipients and continued work in the film industry producing and co-founding the Dead at the Drive-in film festival. After retiring from the film industry, Ry moved on to work on a number of startups but found himself frustrated with the overwhelming amount of plastic waste that poisons our planet. In 2019, Ry set out on a journey to explore new technology and better ways of dealing with our plastic pollution problems. Now, Founder and CEO of Knot Plastic, Ry is dedicated to finding solutions for both consumers and industry partners to make significant advancements towards a Knot Plastic™️ world!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in the beautiful state of Maine with my parents and sister. We had relocated as a family almost a dozen times before I went to high school. This experience of always being the “new kid” was something I enjoyed, and it prepared me for a life of being able to adapt quickly to my surroundings. I was fortunate enough to attend Gould Academy, private boarding school in Bethel. It was my experiences in high school that prepared me for what has now become my life. At Gould Academy, I was introduced to sustainability and the impact we have on the planet. I definitely didn’t envision where I’d be later on in life, but it excites me to reflect and see much progress.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I wish I had this profound moment of genius where I finally identified my place in this world, but it came more over time and was part of an intense journey. I was seeing some of the unethical ways that industry blames consumers for our plastic pollution problem and this felt wrong. I started studying and reviewing all the materials I could about plastics; the origins, the marketing, and the green washing. The more I studied, the more frustrated I became, and I knew that if I kept waiting for someone else to get mad and tackle this head on, it may never get fixed. Before I could call out industry for causing these problems, I needed to be able to come up with solutions. I searched my network for the best and brightest and have found and continue to seek partners that help consumers make better choices and provide industry the tools to produce better products.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
One thing that I have learned is to step away from hypocrisy, to the point where now, one of my biggest pet peeves in life is hypocrisy. I’m not a perfect person, no one is, so before I can call anyone else out, I need to be able to call myself out. I am not sure this concept would inspire others but at the end of the day reducing your own hypocrisy will reduce your pollution and will help others to recognize where they can make changes, too. I spent a lot of time in retail across many different industries, when I realized the vast amount of waste I was contributing to the problem; this caused me to make the ethical switch into finding ways to reduce my own hypocrisy. From there, it became an obsession and drove me to create Knot Plastic™️.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
At the end of the day, like everyone, I was born to share love with the world. I found my unique way of sharing love when I came up with the idea for Knot Plastic™️. Our mission is to work with partners all over the world to find ways to tackle plastic pollution, and we’re starting by making plastics out of biodegradable and compostable materials. If we can start by reducing single-use waste from items like plastic bags, packaging, and cutlery we will be able to significantly reduce the annual weight of plastics that flood our earth and oceans. We provide a marketplace of goods and we’re always looking to expand those offerings to anyone that is providing consumers with a Knot Plastic™️ alternative. In addition, we consult companies on phased sustainability plans that will look at their plastic consumption and make recommendations on how either we or our partners can help reduce their plastic consumption and usage.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
First and foremost, start by adding an at-home compost. It’s easy to do and there are even compact machines now available to assist those that may not have a yard or live in an apartment. The next simple step that makes a large impact is spreading awareness. For example, go to your local grocer and share solutions for biodegradable produce bags and shopping bags. The consumer’s input is very important to retailers, and a huge impact can be made from even the smallest businesses. Now that we are in a post-pandemic world, we recognize that bringing your own bags to the grocery store may no longer be a sanitary option, so if we need single-use bags, it’s important to make them from renewable resources. The final easy step towards sustainability is awareness, and Gen Z is great at this. Do you need that straw when you go out to eat? Do you need that bottle of water or can you refill a container? Always remember to do your research. We are trying to build a marketplace where consumers can go and know they are getting a more sustainable product.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
1: Educate your children on what the problem is and who it impacts, and research it deeply if you don’t know every detail. Parents need to educate their children on the impacts that plastic has on this earth. We see examples of how landfills leak toxic chemicals into the water supplies of local communities, and the implications of that need to be explored: what happens to the people that need that fresh water? What happens to the wildlife that depends on those water sources? What happens to our bodies when we consume animals that consume micro-plastics? We need to participate in learning sessions with our children because it will make us much more aware as well. I feel strongly that we do not do enough to teach our children how to share love with the entire world. There is a ripple effect to our consumption, and that ripple effect requires our attention. I think once children see that in order for a product to be made, these are the lives that go into that product, and here are the lives impacted when we are done with the product, that will be the foundation for global change. If we can introduce these impacts to children at a young age, they will begin to understand their consequence and their significance on the world. I think we can solve a lot more problems than just plastic pollution.
2: Have some self-awareness. We need to embrace our own hypocrisy and let our children know when we recognize we made a choice and there is potentially a better one that can be made. I’m 30 years old and my mother sent me a photo of her shopping cart at the grocery store. She had seven produce bags, all with different products in them. She sent me a message and said I know this is wrong, but I can’t bring in my reusable bags, is there a better way? I was so proud for many reasons. One, I’m lucky to have parents that are interested in still learning and growing as people, and two, she recognized that there should be a better way and started a conversation. This conversation leads to us both doing some research and finding out how many bags are consumed in a year, and we started to strategize ways that we can solve these problems. When it comes to shopping, as challenging as it might be to get shopping done with the children around, I think there are a lot of things consumers can explore when it comes to their shopping habits and shopping better. First, look around the store, how much plastic do you see? Are there alternative products you can purchase? This is a data driven society we live in now, so if we make better choices and stop buying certain products, grocers will stop ordering plastic-packaged products. The producers will get those numbers and they will be forced to adapt to consumer demands. Industry does not hold as much power over our behavior as it used to, and it’s time to send a message. If you look at most farmers markets, you will find paper bags and maybe even some Knot Plastic™️ bags and all these little steps will force industry to react.
3: Set goals and monitor your progress. Any time we as humans try to change our behavior, it takes practice to turn actions into habits. We see this from a young age; we need to be teaching our children good habits (like brushing their teeth twice a day) and it’ll be easier for them to simply do it as they grow up. As for those of us that are already grown up, we need to be disciplined, as we are with our diet, exercise, and emotions. I recommend to my friends and their children that every time they recognize that they are throwing away a piece of single use plastic, to record it in a journal or a note on their phone and then at the next family meeting everyone can recognize which wasteful products they consumed and do some research into alternatives. All of my themes and stories relate to conversation. We have to talk about these issues.
4: We need to raise community leaders, no one individual is going to be able to fix all of these issues on their own. We have to get strategic and we have to build an expansive community of “Waste Warriors.” If we teach children that they have a strong and measurable impact, they will learn to scale their efforts over time just as we do with any business. Ideally, we should start with the schools, where we pay for education for our future leaders. If a few parents got together and organized a group with their children and offered their schools some solutions for real impact, I know we would see our educational institutions spending more time discussing these issues. Create a volunteer group to organize different types of bins for different types of waste, see about adding a compost to school cafeterias. Throw food waste in new receptacle, and then teach the students how to farm and grow and be self-sufficient. There’s so much potential that can come out of these types of efforts and the more we can get schools involved, the better. At the end of the day, we cannot wait, and we need to take responsibility. As an added benefit, these types of things will empower children and help them to develop leadership skills, because you’re teaching your children to take some initiative and lead.
5: Children are hands on, as we know and as parents we need to do everything we can to enhance their problem solving and creativity. I think experiments are a great learning tool. Take a fish tank outside, and then glue a piece of cardboard to the bottom, throw in a water bottle, a plastic bag, a biodegradable plastic bag, some paper, and other types of materials and leave it outside in the elements. Take photos daily and watch what types of products break down and the amount of time it takes for each to break down. Then, talk to your kids about how many of each of these items are produced. Maybe save all of your trash for a week, spread it out, and show them just how big those numbers can get. Explain how garbage will eventually fill up our earth if we continue to make products the way we currently find to be normal. I think anything that allows children to develop their own ideas and see things for themselves will always be more impactful in the long run. Everything we do revolves around our world and natural resources, and children have some of the greatest problem-solving minds of all ages. We need to get them excited from a young age because at the end of the day, they have more time than the rest of us to create a lasting impact for future generations.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
I think there are a few ways to dissect this and explore it. I think we should look at the consequences of what happens if we do not become more sustainable and environmentally conscious and then answer, how can we not afford to do so?
However, I recognize that is a very simplistic approach. The reality is, our waste is causing significant, undeniable, and lasting problems. It is disrupting our world, water, and food. Governments are already taking notice and there will be fines for certain behaviors that negatively impact on the planet. If industry does not make these changes on their own and start investing in ways to do so, there will be potential financial punishments. To look at this from a less bleak point of view, we can try to see how we can add value to industry in order to incentivize ethical behavior. Hypothetically, if a company is making a component out of petroleum-based plastic for 10 cents and bioplastics can be within 30% of that, we are looking at the component having a cost of 13 cents. Can we allocate those three pennies to different departments that add value to their overall brand? Could they potentially sell more because consumers will appreciate their new value? Will they be able to write this off as a marketing investment? Will this prevent them from paying a fine? Depending on your local governments and where they are in their sustainability measures, there are often grants available for investments to help your company adopt more ethical solutions.
There are many ways to break it down; and they all ultimately lead us to say that it is good business to do good business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
From the time I was little until my Baba passed about a year ago, she would tell me I was born to share love. I suppose that is one of the important things that has made me, well, me. My grandfather passed when I was just becoming a teenager and he asked me to make sure my Baba knew that she was the most beautiful woman in the world and the love of his life. She and I were already very close, but this loss was a hit for the whole family, and I feel like it brought us even closer together. She taught me how to love someone, even if they were potentially not sharing love in return. I believe strongly that we are all born to share love, but what that means is different to all of us. What sharing love means to me is having the strength to lead a change that positively impacts my community and my world. My ability to share love is that I can help lead the efforts to reduce toxic plastic waste, providing a healthier environment for my brothers and sisters and all creatures we share this existence with.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There are two main themes to everything I do. First, “share love,” and second, always ask, “why not?” — although, since founding Knot Plastic™️ we changed it to “Why Knot?”
The first is because at the end of the day I believe all action should come from a place of love. If we put more thought into how we each share love with the world, this would be a much more beautiful place from so many points of view. The concept of Why Knot, I think, is a bit more complex but very important to think about. We are so often taught to look at all the ways starting a business could fail, we are told that things will be hard and that there is a certain way to do things and we cannot do them differently. I always ask, “Why knot?” If you ask me to do something, there’s probably a good chance I’ll say, “Why knot, let’s explore it!” It is so easy to put in a little bit of effort, think creatively and problem solve using ideas that seem crazy. Be crazy, and stop waiting for someone else or something else to do “A” before you do “B.” There is no time to wait, and if we waited for someone else to do something that we should be doing, then that thing may never get done, and that is the biggest loss of all.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
One of the most significant life lessons I received is almost counterproductive to any other theme I have mentioned. I think that because I am so often viewed as someone who loves unconditionally and wants to have a positive impact on the world, that I am somehow void of negativity. Trust me, I am as imperfect as everyone else. There is one phrase that has changed my actions and the way I evaluate things; When someone tells me “no,” it doesn’t mean I cannot do it; it just means I cannot do it with them. There have been many times when I thought I found someone that would make a great partner in a venture or had an expertise that I did not, thinking they would benefit a project. So often when we find someone that we think would be a good fit to tackle a certain problem and they start listing off all the reasons it cannot be done, just run away as fast as possible. That mindset is toxic, and I am here to tell you “knot” to listen to it. Find someone else, study more, and ask more questions. There is always a third option in life, and nothing is simply black and white or yes and no.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
I usually find myself on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/russellry/ and I always welcome anyone to reach out and connect! We all win together!
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!