You might not see a link between acting and the sustainability industry, but for Ross Gibby ’89, it’s been a very natural journey! This month Ross walks our listeners through his journey from working in the entertainment industry to working for a company finding new uses for nonrecyclable plastic waste. Join us this month to discover some surprising facts about concrete and how one Laurentian is doing what he can for the environment.
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Beth: Hello everyone. And welcome back to another addition of Scarlet & Brown Stories. I'm your host, Beth Dixon. And I am so excited this month. Not only do we have another fascinating Laurentian story, I also have a new co-host for this episode. We have Megan Fry Dozier, another one of the producers of the podcast. She is the associate director of Laurentian engagement and development initiatives. And I'm so excited to run this interview with Megan. Megan, how are you doing today?
Megan: I am doing wonderful, Beth, thank you so much. And hello to all of our lovely listeners out there. It is my great pleasure and privilege to introduce our Laurentian guest for this afternoon. His name is Ross Gibby and he is a graduate of the class of '89. Ross was a government major and took part in the Kenya semester program. From there, he went on to work in television with various acting credits to his name, which led him to working in documentaries and to his position today at CRDC Global, working to solve the problem of plastic waste, which is a huge problem in our society. So it's really exciting to see Laurentians taking ownership of that and making the world a better place for all of us.
Beth: He just sounds so fascinating. So I can't wait to get into this interview, so let's wait no further. Here is our interview with Ross Gibby, class of 1989.
Megan: We are so excited to be here today with Ross Gibby, class of '89. Ross, thank you so much for being with us today.
Ross: Absolutely. It's my pleasure.
Megan: So we're going to jump right into it. Could you tell us a little bit about your St. Lawrence journey and how it led you to where you are today?
Ross: Wow. Okay. Well, it was a long time ago, so there's a lot that's happened between then and now. But I think what I would say is that St. Lawrence really started an exploration. My career has been incredibly circuitous. It's been all over the place. And I think what St. Lawrence really established was that freedom to explore that safe community. Obviously a liberal arts college, obviously a campus that is relatively self-contained. So a lot of opportunity to just figure it out, try new things, try new subjects. I think I changed my major probably four times.
Ross: I took advantage of one of the Jan term programs in Australia. I went to Kenya on the Kenya semester program. So I think St. Lawrence really set the foundation for that exploration that's continued into my professional life, into my career, but I pursued acting after I left St. Lawrence. Oh, I actually should mention that St. Lawrence really was the place that started my real interest, my professional interest, in acting. It's a small theater arts program there. It gave me an opportunity without a whole lot of experience to audition for a production. It ended up being probably the top three best acting experiences of my entire life, oddly enough. It kind of set the hook.
Ross: It was literally a two person play about Vietnam. It was called TKO. It was written by one of the professors, one of the theater professors, at St. Lawrence. The whole thing was set in a boxing ring. So the audience was on all four sides of the ring. It was in the Black Box Theater and they hired a real Vietnam vet to play one of the roles. And then I played everything else. In other words, I played his entire experience. And so I had probably 12 different roles from his guy in the foxhole with him to a Vietnamese girlfriend, to a drill Sergeant. His entire experience. So it was a real incredible artistic experience, a real incredible theater experience that really got me hooked. And I ended up pursuing that afterwards and I went and got an MFA and acting after, and then pursued a professional career.
Beth: When you were pursuing that career in entertainment, were you going more for film and television? Were you doing theater? Were you doing whatever you could find at that moment?
Ross: Yeah. I mean really ultimately what happens is you got to pay the bills, right? I was trained in the MFA program at Rutgers University as a theater actor. That's really what most formal acting programs do is train you for probably the most difficult type of acting, which is going to be Shakespearean, acting stage acting. I was never really cut out for a lot of the period pieces like Shakespeare. Just the roles I got cast in were much more contemporary, but theater really is and was the passion. And that's what I really wanted to do. However, the theater just does not pay the bills.
Ross: At that time it was, it was something like $400 a week for like an off Broadway show. And off Broadway, there's off, off Broadway, where rarely do you get paid at all. Then off Broadway is basically a theater that's between a hundred seats and 250 seats. And then Broadway is over 250 seats. And so you had to take what you could get. And I was fortunate enough to get some soap opera work early. So I got some on camera experience and then most of my career was really in television. And I liked doing that because most TV jobs, at least when you're a guest on a show, it's quick. You're doing it for two or three days at the most. You're doing it for 10 days over two weeks. So it's the kind of thing where you could make a good buck, but still have the free time to audition and the free time to pursue the theater.
Beth: That's so interesting to me. So I attended St. Lawrence and majored in what is now performance and communication arts. And so you had the theater arts kind of side of it, and then rhetoric and communication is the other side. And my whole idea was like, I would love to be involved with theater, but I cannot go to college and just major in theater. I'm not going to do that. And then I did. And I loved it so much with this idea that's where I really learned like, oh, theater's very much the acting side of entertainment. And then you have television which is writing. And movies which is directors mediums and those kind of things.
Beth: But you're right. You kind of have to follow where the money is at that time and hope that you can get involved in some capacity in that field. And so I wonder, do you have advice for people who are hoping to make it into entertainment in some capacity as they graduate from St. Lawrence? Is it going to those audition if you're on the acting side or how do you make those connections in order to continue a career in the entertainment field?
Ross: Yeah. I mean, the only thing I would say is do everything. In other words, it's such a competitive industry, regardless of whether you're on the acting side or the production side, or even the writing, anything creative is going to be incredibly competitive. So what I would say is you'd better have the passion because it's a rough ride. It's definitely a rough road. But if you have the passion and if you have the commitments and the determination, it works itself out, because you will basically take every opportunity you can get. Every opportunity grows your skillset, it grows your level of experience. It grows your network. And those of things that you may not feel are tangible in the short term, but when you look back five years later, you say, oh my gosh, I can't believe that one project allowed me to meet that one person that then two years later ended up being a director of that one play that I got into that was kind of my breakout. I would just say, be determined and stick with it and do everything you absolutely can make it a priority and go for it.
Megan: It. I think that follows into a little bit more of your career path now. You and I met during SLU Connect Live, which is one of our programs for students to learn more about careers. And as I remember, you're now a COO working in the sustainability field. So could you tell us a little bit of how Broadway and off Broadway and network television led you to where you are now?
Ross: Yeah, it's actually more connected than you might think, albeit sort of a distant connection. So a as you can imagine, and as I've already alluded to, a career in the entertainment industry means a career in a whole lot of things. In other words, it's very rare that you, especially at the beginning, support yourself solely from your craft, solely from your art. So you end up needing to pursue other avenues to pay the bills and to make ends meet. And as a result, you end up being very creative in how you make your money. And ultimately you end up developing a lot of different skill sets. And I think what I ended up doing was I sort of had a entrepreneurial mindset.
Ross: And so, because I wanted the free time to be able to audition, I wanted the freedom to be able to take an acting job when it came. I didn't want to commit to any full-time alternative career. I developed a lot of skills. And one of the things I did was I learned how to build websites during the initial .com boom, and then ultimately that evolved into marketing websites. So what I ended up doing in the very early 2000s, was create my own digital marketing agency.
Beth: Oh wow.
Ross: And I sort of grew my client based and I developed a really nice business for myself. And a lot of my clients were in the industrial manufacturing space. So when you're marketing for them, you learn their business, you learn exactly what their needs are and what it is they're capable of doing. So I had this kind of network that was already completely outside of the entertainment industry because of this alternative career that I created.
Ross: Flash forward to probably about five years ago. When I started to evolve, not necessarily out of acting, but a little bit more into writing, producing, directing. It was just an area where I wanted to be a little bit more in control, having my own vision, having my own voice, telling the stories that I really liked and cared about. And so I started to make films. And I made a few films and I got them on some festival circuits. And then through some of the networking that I did there, I ended up coming up with an idea for a TV show. It was not a scripted show. It was something that'd be more like a docuseries. And it was about environmental entrepreneurs. Basically it was a travel show that where you'd go around the world and see a particular geographic region through the lens of a successful environmental entrepreneur in that at region. And so we were shooting a pilot episode for this show, and I was introduced to this person in Costa Rica who had developed this incredible technology for converting non-recyclable plastic waste into a building material for concrete.
Ross: So I went to Costa Rica, I spent a week shooting this person, and I became obsessed with the process itself. I saw the potential, I was so excited at what it could do for the environment, how it could address this massive issue that we're all currently facing. And so I ended up tapping into that industrial manufacturing network that I had back in the U.S., and I very quickly put together an investment group. And we set up a pilot production facility in New Jersey about three or four months later.
Ross: So I took the technology from Costa Rica, brought it to the United States, and once it got to the United States, it started to get all sorts of attention from a lot of big players. A lot of the people in the plastics and petrochemical industries, Dow, Chevron, Phillips, Brasco, Georgia Pacific, the American Chemistry Council, all wanted to come see what we were doing at this little pilot facility. And then a result, I kind of became the liaison to all these new connections for the company, CRDC. And ultimately that ended up evolving into more of a global role and ended up growing into where I am now, which is chief operating officer.
Beth: See, you never know. This is the kind of thing that I tell my students all the time. You never know what those connections are going to be, but you need to be willing to ask or else you don't get in this world, right? So you were able to say I'm obsessed with this idea and this process, let me learn more about it. Let me see where I can be involved and then bring it back. That kind of hustle is really important in terms of making a difference and impact in this world, but also finding those opportunities that are really unique to your skillsets and interests. So that's an incredible, that's such an interesting way to come... From an outsider's perspective, I was like, oh, he probably was an environmental studies major, something like that. And this was something he was always interested in. And so cool to see that, no. Film, television, docuseries kind of brought this all about. So can you tell us a little bit about the mission of CRDC or how is it growing? What's the impact at this point?
Ross: Yeah, so the official mission of CRDC is to create appreciating value from the world's plastic waste. You may not be fully aware of the statistics, but literally less than 10% of plastic waste or of plastic worldwide is actually being recycled. Remaining 90 plus percent of that either goes into landfill, it gets incinerated, or it ends up in the oceans. All three are really, really bad options. And that happens for a number reasons. One may be that particular material doesn't have an end market. One might be that the infrastructure isn't there to actually recycle it. Another might be that the infrastructure isn't there to recover it. So there are a plethora of reasons why there's such a huge percentage that does not get recycled, but what we can do is we can take all plastic resin. So resins one through seven, our material is called Resin8.
Ross: So what makes us unique is that we can take the full spectrum of plastic types and we can mix it. There are plenty of products out there that are different resin types that are multi-layer, they can't be recycled because they need to be uniform in order for them to be recycled. We can take all of that. We can take every type of plastic, mixed plastic. And what's really important, is we can all to take dirty plastic. Oh, so we can take plastic that has been collected out of the ocean. Plastic that has been collected out of rivers. Plastic that has been mixed with food waste in a municipal waste stream. That's really what differentiates us. And then we give that plastic an end of life, but an end of life that actually provides value to the concrete and the construction industry.
Ross: In other words, we convert it into a material that enhances the performance of concrete. It lowers the weight, it lowers the water absorption. It adds thermal properties. So the insulative quality is better. And then that goes into buildings. And buildings, generally our appreciating assets. You put it into a home, that home will appreciate in value. Put it into a commercial building that will appreciate in value. So really that's kind of it in a nutshell. Because we've kind of cracked the code a little bit in being able to take that wide spectrum of plastic waste and we've figured out how to convert it into a value stream for the construction industry.
Beth: That is so interesting. I now understand Megan a few months ago when she had you on SLU Connect, she came back and she said, "I never thought I'd be so interested in concrete." And now I get it.
Megan: Number one fan of CRDC. And they make fun of me in the office because I've been obsessed for the past year about this. But I feel like I have to ask. Right? It sounds almost too good to be true. Is there a downside to this process? What kind of challenges are you facing with taking this waste and converting it into products for concrete?
Ross: Yeah, I should really qualify and just say that it's not that we're converting plastic into concrete. Right? We're converting it into a material that becomes an additive in concrete and adds value. So it's actually a relatively small percentage that goes into a concrete product. So let's just say, what we all think of as a cinder block, right? That's a building block, it's technically called a CMU, concrete masonry units. We will only put about 3% to 8% of Resin8 into that product.
Ross: So it's not like we're completely disrupting the concrete industry again, we're adding value. And the concrete industry is so massive. Concrete is actually the second largest commodity used after water. It's so, so huge. Another statistic that a I'll throw out there is if we were able to convert all plastic waste annually, that's about 380 million tons of plastic waste per year that gets produced. If in some sort of hypothetical world, we were able to convert all of that to Resin8, it would account for less than 3% of the material that gets used in concrete called aggregate. Less than 3%. So it's actually the concrete, the construction industry is the perfect place for this material, as long as it can add value. Right?
Beth: So you talk a little bit about this idea of if there's an additive value with a circular economy and such. Can you tell us a little bit about what a circular economy is?
Ross: I was afraid you're going to ask that question. So there are plenty of people that would do a better job of explaining what a circular economy is. But I think in a simple sense ism in a linear economy, we extract natural resources, right? We convert it into a product, we use the product and then we throw the product away. In a circular economy, those natural resources that get extracted, they stay in a circular loop and they get either converted so that they can go back into reuse in additional products, but they never leave that loop.
Ross: So we basically, we see ourselves as a circular company, but we also have higher aspirations. The name of our company, CRDC actually stands for Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration. So regenerative is actually kind of one step up from circularity. Our definition of regeneration is when the output is greater than the sum of all the inputs. When something is regenerative, it's not just keeping something in the recycling loop. It's actually keeping it in the recycling loop, but then adding additional value.
Beth: And when you say adding additional value, do you mean purely capital or do you mean the value in the sense of you're improving something that maybe would've deteriorated quicker or doing something that's going to help the longevity in some capacity?
Ross: Yeah. Good question. So here's a good example. We're working on a second version of our product, which actually absorbs and sequesters CO2. And so we're actually using plastic waste to almost as a filter to absorb and sequester CO2 forever. So that's something where you're taking the plastic and you are using that in a circular way, but you're actually adding value by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Beth: So that would be helpful. So this is where I'm just generally trying to learn here a little bit. Is that a helpful balance for deforestation efforts? Where some of this plant life that is taking CO2 and converting back into oxygen and that kind of thing so that we can breathe, it's that not a substitute, I'm not saying that, but is that helping in a little bit of the off balance?
Ross: Well, it's definitely not a substitute.
Beth: Definitely not.
Ross: At this point, it's all hands on deck. I mean, the carbon issue is worse than the plastic issue. The two are very, very closely connected. But no, we need every possible solution we can have to reduce carbon at this stage. And so there's a lot of technology that is working with direct air capture. So it's literally just taking carbon out of the air, capturing that, and then putting it deep into the earth where it can hopefully stay forever. So this is just a version of that. What we do is use our particle in a reactor that then connects to some sort of emission source.
Ross: So let's just use a cement truck as an example. We would have our reactor connected to the tailpipe of the cement truck, would pull the CO2 from the truck. It would use that CO2 to create a calcium carbonate shell around our original Resin8 particle. And then that calcium carbonate particle then has that CO2 in it. We put that into ready mix concrete and it adds value, it adds workability, it increases strength, it accelerates curing, et cetera. So that's a really exciting technology. Right now, we've done sort of the technical proof of concept on that. And if we can commercialize that, that's going to be monstrous because not only will it to help address the plastic issue, but it'll help address the carbon issue as well.
Beth: It's so interesting.
Ross: It's pretty cool.
Beth: Yeah, it is.
Megan: I feel vindicated. [crosstalk 00: 23: 00]
Beth: I'm sitting here, Megan's of course is just like, "See, I've been talking about this for a year now."
Megan: It really is. And I'm biased. My family is in the industrial machinery and warehousing business. So I come from it from that angle a little bit too. I've blown concrete boogers out of my nose on a job site. So I'm also a little more personally attached than some folks might be.
Megan: What haven't we asked you about this work that maybe we should have? What don't we know enough to ask that you'd like to share with our audience?
Ross: Well before I touch on that, so I think I didn't necessarily answer your question about what challenges we have. I clarified a little bit about how Resin8 is used, but the challenges that we face. I think there are a few. One of them is primarily around plastic recovery. That's the biggest issue. I mean, we have no problem getting plastic waste from the industrial community, from the manufacturing community. They create a lot of plastic waste and there's no problem getting it from them because they're now shifting their priorities and they're really focused on landfill diversion, incineration diversion, they're really focused on their ESG commitments. So that's not a problem, but the household is one of the biggest challenges I think there is.
Ross: And here I am, two weeks ago I was at the Plastic Recycling Conference and I'm now at the World Petrochemical Conference. Everyone is talking about the same thing, which is how do you improve the recycling and recovery rates? Right now it's dismal. And we've just as a community, as a world, we really have not done a good job of taking responsibility for, hey, if I use this plastic water bottle, I need to make sure it goes into the right place so that it can stay in that recycling loop or ultimately get into a product like Resin8. And it's not just individuals and households that are to blame. It's the industry itself it's broken right now. And so I think that's really the biggest challenge because yes, we want to run a business, but more than anything, we want to solve this problem. And that's one of the biggest challenges to solving the problem.
Beth: I think a lot of Laurentians, especially being from a university that is so in touch with nature, we're so close to the Adirondacks with people who like to go hiking. We have a really fantastic environmental studies and environmental science program and conservation biology. We have alums who are very passionate about the sustainability of the university, but also the sustainability effects that the university has on the world at this point, too. How can Laurentians support this type of work? How can we support what you're doing, but even beyond CRDC?
Ross: I think what we're doing, it becomes a little bit challenging until we actually have a location that is close enough to St. Lawrence or close enough to anyone's particular community. And we're in the process right now of scaling globally and we will definitely be scaling considerably across the United States. So hopefully the Resin8 resonates and our recovery program, which we call the Bag that Builds will be available to everyone in the U.S. within the next few years.
Ross: But I think from a broader perspective, I think it's important for people to educate themselves on plastics. In other words, understand what the difference is between a number one and a number seven. And understand whether their municipality can accept a particular material or can't accept a particular material. And then if they can't accept it, understand what alternative solutions there are. Really education is at the core of everything. And I think our program, our recovery program, the Bag that Builds is actually starting in the schools. So we have an education program associated with it. It's starting in the elementary schools and we figure if we can teach the younger generation to be more responsible, they're the ones that are going to solve this problem, because it's going to be second nature for them. Ultimately, I would just say, be as informed as possible about what you can do with your plastic waste and what options are available to you in your particular area.
Beth: I was just reflecting while you were talking about how I'm a millennial, we kind of grew up with the idea of recycling. Like you recycle, but we never were told the very specific things about the differences between plastics and thinking about all the Nickelodeon cartoons in the nineties, they had a recycling episode to it or something. Right? So our generation definitely grew up with this idea that recycling was important, but we haven't really necessarily explored why and how, and those kind of things. So I think that your exact point makes a lot of sense that hopefully with continued education starting at a younger age, that'll be helpful.
Beth: My final question for you, the pandemic had a lot of people at home and we started to see some really positive things, signs of the environment, improving in very small ways, things like, oh, wow, Venice has clearer water than it did because there's not a whole bunch of tourists there. And how much though, do you feel like the plastic industry, is it fair to say maybe it was worsened while people were home and maybe there was more takeout and people weren't recycling correctly? Or do you feel like there has been maybe a shift since the pandemic and how people are addressing plastic?
Ross: Yeah, a hundred percent. COVID definitely impacted the plastic industry a lot. I don't necessarily want to say worsened it because I'm hopeful that it made people more aware that we need to do something about it. In other words, the pandemic made people more aware of the CO2 issue. Because suddenly the sky's cleared up when everyone stopped driving in their cars. So it raised awareness on one hand.
Ross: But on the other hand, yes, you're a hundred percent correct. We used more plastic. There is a reason for plastic, and I don't want to come across as being a plastic advocate whatsoever. But at most of those reasons are for sanitary purposes. And once we started to become more aware of pathogens, everyone started to focus more on being more sanitary. Right? And so plastic actually helps us do that. Plastic packaging for food preserves that food and protects that food.
Ross: So yes, the takeout containers, et cetera, that's definitely one thing. But we started to use more and more plastic for sanitary reasons. And that will continue. I mean, that the numbers demonstrate that plastic use will increase over the next 20 years pretty considerably. And that's are all for safety reasons. If we can reduce plastic, we will, if we can reuse plastic, we will, if we can recycle plastic, we will. But what becomes the biggest challenge is how to manage the waste and how to effectively make sure it doesn't end up in the environment.
Beth: I think that makes a lot of sense. And it's also, it's of very positive call to mission. We all have to kind of play this part too when it comes to the plastic industry.
Ross: Yeah, no doubt.
Megan: And the fact that the two don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Ross: Yeah. I mean, one thing I'll say about CRDC is we're kind of agnostic as far as our partners. In other words, we work with nonprofits, people that are doing beach cleanups and river cleanups. We work with the United Nations. We work with Habitat For Humanity. I mean, we've already built 700 homes with Habitat For Humanity in Costa Rica. But we also, I'm here at the World Petrochemical Conference. We also work with the petrochemical companies. We work with the plastic producers. We work with the packaging producer. They are finally starting to realize they have to take responsibility for the end of life of their products. And so we'll work with the gamut. The environmentalists, the producers themselves, and then the construction companies. Again, CRDC stands for the Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration. Collaboration is very important to us and we're kind of drawing all these different partners from all these different industries into a big collaboration together.
Beth: It's just so interesting. We have a young alum named Mark Jannini who works at a startup called RTS. And I know that they're not necessarily working with the plastics industry, but they kind of are. But basically their whole point is that they act as middle man between large corporations like Google or Equinox and make sure that their waste doesn't end up in landfills. And so it's just really inspiring to see alums who are really taking an active part in saving our planet. A lot of people talk the talk, but it's fun to see people who are walking the walk as well.
Megan: That's awesome. Well, I know we're coming up on our time here and we really do appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today. Before we close, is there anything else that you would like to share with our audience and our listeners?
Ross: I think what I'd just like to say is thank you very much. I appreciate you listening. I appreciate your interest. And hopefully your interest is not just into St. Lawrence alums but in this environmental mission that we all really need to be on. Because as I said, it's all hands on deck at this point, we really don't have a lot of time to waste. And so the more people can be informed, the more people can be impassioned and engaged in this effort, the better off we'll be. So thank you all.
Beth: Thank you so much, Ross. I look forward to following up in various different ways to hear all about the good work in the future that your company's doing.
Ross: Well, thank you all. It was my pleasure.
Megan: Thank you so much.
Beth: Well, there you have it. Another amazing interview with just another amazing Laurentian. Megan, your passion for this subject really came out. And I know that you've had such a wonderful interaction before with Ross, with SLU Connects, one of the programs that you help to organize and run. And it was obvious that we found this really fascinating as well. What was something that you thought was a really great takeaway from today's conversation?
Megan: Yeah. One of the things that amazes me every time I talk to Ross is how interesting concrete is. It's something that we take for granted. We are surrounded by it in our homes. We drive on it, we walk all over it. The second most consumed product after water.
Megan: Never would've thought. And the fact that we have this company that's taking another hugely consumed product, plastic, and transforming it into an ingredient that not only makes the concrete better, but also helps take care of this problem of plastic waste that is in our water systems, is filling up our landfills. I just love to see that circle of innovation. And I'm excited to see what that's going to look like in five, 10, 15 years.
Beth: Absolutely. What I love the most about Ross's story is I think a lot of people, when they graduate, they think they have to have this linear path of what their career is going to be. I love that he's really had almost like this liberal arts approach to his career and his path. He started in entertainment with this very performative background and then was able to translate that into something that he feels very passionately about with saving our earth. And I think a lot of Laurentians can really speak to to the sustainability portion of his work and what his organization is doing. So another just really great Laurentian story this month.
Megan: Absolutely. Well, thank you everyone for joining us. And we look forward to seeing you next episode.
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Beth: Scarlet & Brown Stories is edited and produced by Amanda Brewer, Megan Fry Dozier, Dennis Morreale, Beth Dixon and Amelia Jantzi.
Amelia: Our music was written by Christopher Watts, inspired by Eugene Wright, class of '49.
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