If you’ve ever wondered where petroleum comes from in the first place, how plastics could ever be made to biodegrade, and how science might be answering the call for better sustainability practices in the future, this is the episode you’ve been waiting for. Dr. Stephen Mayfield of UC San Diego and his team, have developed algae-based flip flops which are not only coming to market next spring, but are harbingers of wonderful, much-needed change to come.
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Dr. Stephen Mayfield (0s):
All petroleum comes from algae. When you go to the gas station and you get a gallon of gasoline, what you are buying is refined algae oil. So it took between 200 and 300 million years to accumulate the algae in ancient seabeds that became the petroleum that we are burning now. And we are going to burn through 300 million years of accumulated algae energy in eight generations. That is less than 200 years. All of it. Gone.
Welcome back to “Responsible Impact,” a production of MagicLinks. We connect influencers and brands, and so this is the show where we discuss all things sustainability and e-commerce. We are also big believers that progress is what makes perfection. Join us as we cover new topics each episode and journey towards a more sustainable future.
You may not be reading Google alerts on environmental sustainability on the daily, like some podcast hosts you know, and so it’s entirely possible that you did not see something super cool. UC San Diego professor Dr. Stephen Mayfield and his team have invented algae-based flip flops. Yes, you heard that right. It may sound too niche or fringe, but something that you should know is that we’ve actually been using algae to our advantage for quite some time now. Its short life span and its quick reproduction cycle means that by manipulating its DNA, we can ask it to be kind of a scale photocopier for us. We’ve used it to make insulin and very sophisticated cancer-fighting drugs. Now Dr. Mayfield and his team have used algae to recreate the process which created petroleum billions of years ago in the first place, and then to rethink with that could mean for what we use as petroleum-derived plastics today. If you think that sounds crazy cool, which is what I thought, then you’re at the right podcast. On the count of three let’s dive in: one, two, three!
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (2m 5s):
I am Stephen Mayfield, I’m actually a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego. My background is primarily in molecular genetics, I got a PhD 35 years ago from Berkeley and I spent most of my career, I would say, working on sort of the general rules of gene expression in plants and algae Then about just about 20 years ago now, I sort of shifted over and became a biotech guy. And by that, what I mean is I started to think more about, well, not just the basic underlying science, but how do we actually take that science and make a product out of it?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (2m 50s):
Because I firmly believe, and many people now have come to realize, that you don’t change the world with a great invention, you change the world with a great product. It’s got to be something in people’s hands if you really want to change the world.
Natalie (3m 3s):
And so you been working on algae and did you always think that algae was where you want it to end up or was it you just sort of exploring something because it seemed viable?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (3m 14s):
So I started working on it just because it was a good genetic system and for many years I was happy to do that. Just, “Hey, I’m figuring out how cells work and how photosynthesis works and how we make food and fuel out of plants or algae.” And then, then maybe 20 years ago, we began to realize that it’s one thing to describe the machinery and then it’s completely another thing to use that machinery to actually make a product. I would say I certainly didn’t start out in the business thinking that I was going to be a biotech guy making biodegradable flip flops – that was the farthest thing from my mind. I just thought, “Hey, here’s a fun, cool system that I can use to learn the basic rules of life.”
Natalie (4m 8s):
Mm. And then at what point did you kind of say, ‘Now, wait a second. There’s something bigger here?’
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (4m 14s):
Well, I don’t think you really have a specific “aha” moment or like all of a sudden it hits you out of the blue that ‘this is what I should be doing.’ I think most people have a misconception in science that most great discoveries are followed by the exclamation “Eureka!” Right? It’s almost never that way. Almost all great discoveries are followed by the expression. “Huh? That’s funny.” You know what one epiphany we had is like, “Oh, look people can relate to our science much better when we actually make a product than when we just make a fundamental discovery.”
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (4m 57s):
Then the second thing that we realized was “Hey, wait a minute, the economics of this are such that this actually would be very beneficial to people. If we could do this, it’s not just a discovery that kind of helps us, or maybe helps the pharma company. This actually would change the cost in such a significant way that it’s probably worth pursuing.” So it was sort of those kinds of things together. And like I said, it wasn’t like, Oh, just one day, this came to us. It took a while it took maybe a year or to of working on its own when we finally realized, “Oh, this is what we should be doing.” That’s really what sent me down the path of being a biotech guy.
Natalie (5m 42s):
And here you are. The reason that I reached out to you is because I saw this big thing, which made to my mind a huge splash, about using algae to make flip flops. For somebody who has no background in science, is there a very simplistic sort of boiled down way that you would explain that?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (6m 2s):
Yeah, here’s, here’s the way I explain it to people. All petroleum comes from algae when you go to the gas station and you get a gallon of gasoline, what you are buying is refined algae oil. Now that algae oil happens to be an ancient fossilized algae oil, but that’s where it comes from. That’s where Petroleum comes from. So that is kind of general rule number one. General rule number two is: all plastics come from petroleum. So if we take those two things together, well, if all plastics come from petroleum and all petroleum is ancient algae – fossil algae – gee, maybe we could make plastics from modern algae that we’re growing today.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (6m 51s):
Then we wouldn’t have to go and drill holes in the ground, and pull up crude oil, and desequester that carbon to release CO2 in the environment — plus all the other environmental problems that come from mining oil, right? Maybe we could do this in real-time, meaning that we could grow the algae today, extract the oil and turn it into a plastic. So that was kind of the simplistic idea that we started down this route with. And then, oh, there’s all kinds of turns and bends and twists and whatever to get to actually making biodegradable plastics from algae. But lo and behold, we’re there
Natalie (7m 30s):
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (7m 32s):
We looked at what were all the plastics we could make, and there we’re a bunch of them. There are a dozen, very common plastics. We looked at a set of plastics that we could potentially make and we said, “Oh, uniquely, polyurethanes can be designed to be biodegradable. Are there organisms and enzymes that can take some polyurethanes apart? Yeah.” So we simply said, “Well, if you’re going to make a plastic, let’s make a plastic that we know can biodegrade at the end of its life.” So that was easy enough, polyurethane is an enormous market, $20 – $30 billion a year. These are enormous market products, everything from car tires and foam mattresses and pillows and you know, synthetic leather.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (8m 23s):
I mean, there’s everything you touch every day. You touch a dozen polyurethane products. So they were an enormous market. They could be biodegradable. Then the trick became, okay, given those two things, can we now use our algae oil to make polyurethanes that meet commercial specifications and are still biodegradable. That that sentence is actually incredibly painful to pull off! Easy to say, but very, very difficult to do right.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (9m 3s):
The plastic industry had 50 years to get the performance specification they’re at today. When you go buy a pair of sneakers, you just expect that you are going to put those sneakers on that they are going to be light, that they are going to absorb shock. When you run down the street, that they’re going to last at least two or three years without compressing or falling apart, that they’ll have good tear strength and, and elongation, you expect all of those things. Well, okay. The petroleum industry has spent 50 years to meet those specifications. Unfortunately, they did it with chemicals that came from petroleum and weren’t biodegradable at the end of their life. Now we had to meet those same performance specifications, but with chemicals that came from algae and were biodegradable at the end of their life, that was not an easy task, but we did it.
Natalie (9m 53s):
Yeah. And you did it in sounds like significantly less than 50 years, right?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (9m 57s):
Yeah! It took us about five years and about 15 million bucks. So it is expensive and painful, but doable. And I think there’s a super important lesson there: When there is the right motivation, science can come up with a solution.
Natalie (10m 13s):
You know, you mentioned that $15 million is a lot of money and it is a lot of money. I certainly don’t want to downplay that. But let’s be honest, $15 million is a fraction of the sneaker sales for maybe one of the brands I could label off in the middle of my sleep, right? So…
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (10m 26s):
This $15 million isn’t 1% of what a top designer makes for designing the sneakers, forget about what the companies make selling them! That’s $20 billion a year, or $30 billion a year, for number one and number two sneaker company.
Natalie (10m 45s):
What would it take? Let’s say I’m John Q. Public and I’m listening to you. You say that for really a fraction of the cost, and all that’s missing is sort of the social pressure or will, what do I need to do in my everyday life to side with you and advocate for you in a way that helps encourage more of the kind of work that you are doing? Because I mean, listen, I’m recording this from Los Angeles right now. The last week of my life, it’s smelled like I’m inside a barbecue smoker because of the fires nearby. I can’t even tell you what’s going on up North and the in Oregon, I mean we’re overdue, right? So what can I do basically to help encourage your work and others, like you, given that it is so reasonable to execute, right?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (11m 26s):
Yeah. So, so there are several things. Number one is you have to buy products that you believe in: full stop. Meaning that you don’t get to hedge your bets on these things anymore. You don’t get to say, “Well, I really like these sneakers and they’re sustainably sourced and they’re biodegradable, but they cost $5 more than these other ones. So I’m just going to wait until that price comes down, right?” Because that price will never come down if you don’t buy ’em and support those goods, right? That’s the number one. Number two: We, you, you and all of us together have to say, “We need to put the price of disposal into the cost of the product.”
Natalie (12m 15s):
That was my next question so keep going.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (12m 18s):
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say ‘I want super cheap packaging from Amazon when I order something online. And then I’m just going to throw it in the trash. Oh, but I want to do something good for the environment.’ Well, you didn’t.
So it is an individual’s responsibility only in the sense that it’s collectively all have our responsibility to say, we have to put the price of disposal in to that product. How do we do that? You can only do that through legislation. If you think you’re going to leave it up to a company, you’re wrong: they won’t do it.
Natalie (12m 57s):
Well because it goes against profit motive, right? As a company, you have a responsibility to your stakeholders and to your shareholders to return a profit. To say that you gave that away….yeah, you’d have some accounting to do before you could even go any farther, right?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (13m 13s):
And you’ll go out of business because if your competitors aren’t doing it and you ARE doing it, then you’re paying more than your competitors. The problem isn’t solved because if your competitors are still throwing out plastic, that just ends up in the landfills, in the ocean and whatnot.
But you’re paying for that, that premium that you have to pay to dispose of it, then you’re paying more than your competitor and you haven’t solved the problem. So we all have to collectively do this together. And unfortunately, the only way you collectively do this together in a capitalistic system is you pass a law that says you have to do it full stop.
Natalie (13m 51s):
You know, paying for disposal cost -and this is actually something that in our very first episode of the show we spoke with an environmental economist about and he was talking about externalities. Surely someone somewhere ends up trying to pay for it in cleaning up the mess. Do you know who, who pays for that now?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (14m 8s):
Well, it depends where you’re talking about cleaning up the mess. So if cleaning up the mess means what happens with all the plastic that ends up in the ocean that all gets paid for on a decrease of productivity of fishing, in an increased amount of microplastics and in that we are all slowly poisoning ourselves. And we will all pay for that in deteriorating health, personal health, which means increased cost of our health maintenance over time. So we’re going to pay for this as individuals one way or the other. If you’re talking about landfills, then this generally falls upon local taxpayers, right?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (14m 50s):
So let’s take some giant store or some giant online retailer that sends out a huge amount of packaging with single-use plastic that comes to me here in the city of Encinitas, because I buy something and they ship it to me. I throw that packaging in the recycling. Most of it, however, cannnot be recycled. That means the city ends up putting it into a landfill. The city has to pay for the landfill. And then what is the city do? Well, they charge me, right? They just tax me as a city resident. OK: so who made the money on that? The giant corporation that was shipping it out. Who paid for that? Me as an individual.
Natalie (15m 30s):
Most of the companies who display this kind of behavior generally are tax-exempt or have stationed themselves in places where they pay significantly lower taxes, or in other countries altogether. They’re not pitching into the general pool of money that now only taxpayers as citizens put into it.
You know, we started with algae, we were already on a much bigger, bigger things! You mentioned something called desequestering carbon. And I just thought that listeners might like a quick sort of definition on that.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (15m 59s):
What does that mean? That means millions of years ago (and it’s literally millions to hundreds of million years ago) there were oceans all over this planet full of algae that were pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis. They were using that CO2 to make copies of themselves. Part of what an algae is composed of are lipids fats, oils. They also have proteins and carbohydrates, but that is sort of the big three: proteins, carbohydrates, and oils. They’re all of those are food, but as those algae died and sank to the bottom of those oceans, other organisms, bacteria, other animals kind of ate the protein and carbohydrate portion of them.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (16m 42s):
They needed those things but didn’t need so much the lipids. They left those and over hundreds of millions of years, those lipids built up and that became crude oil. So what is that crude oil? That crude oil is sequestered CO2. This is the CO2 that was pulled out of the atmosphere by algae, sank to the bottom of the oceans, was covered over by dirt, and billions and billions and billions of tons of CO2 are sequestered in crude oil, tar sands, coal, you name it. All of these things are simply photosynthetic organisms, plants, and algae sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (17m 22s):
And now it’s underground and it will perfectly happily stay there for another billion years had we just left it alone. But when people figured out only a couple of hundred years ago that “Oh, I can pull this sequestered CO2 out of the, out of the ground in the form of crude oil or coal. And I can burn that. And when I burned it, it releases energy and I can use that energy to do stuff. And that do stuff might be, make electricity, might be heat house might be drive my car around.” But while I’m doing that, while I’m releasing the energy from that stored hydrocarbon underground that I’ve pulled out, I am also releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (18m 2s):
And when I release CO2, that is desequestering it. It was sequestered underground. I pulled it out from underground. I burned in my car. I put it back into the atmosphere, as far as the plants and algae are concerned they’re like “Whatever, I’ll eat it tomorrow. Don’t worry about it”
The problem is that we are burning so much fossil fuel and so much coal and desequestering CO2 at such a rate that we’re putting it back into the atmosphere much faster than plants and algae can reabsorb. So we have this enormous spike in CO2. And as an enormous spike in CO2 rises, the temperature of the planet rises.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (18m 43s):
That’s where climate change is, right? It’s increased temperature of the globe of the planet. And that has consequences. As we’re seeing now with the forest fires out in California and the hurricanes on the East coast.
Natalie (18m 56s):
When we want to biodegrade, for instance, these algae, are they able to be biodegraded now in a landfill or do they need to go into a special setting?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (19m 8s):
They do not need to go into a special setting, but we hope people don’t put them into landsfills. The problem with putting things into landfills is a couple fold. Number one, okay. You’ve got a landfill, which means you got to go dig a hole someplace and fill it full of trash and cover it over. And as they biodegrade, all you’re doing is creating methane, which is a bad. You create CO2 and methane, and methane is actually a bad greenhouse gas. Sometimes you can capture it, but a lot of it leaks away. The second thing is you’re wasting all of that wonderful material. So throwing it into a landfill is the worst place you could put it. The best thing you could do with it is recycle it, right?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (19m 50s):
So even though it’s biodegradable, you can also recycle our urethanes. So what we want people to do is bring those shoes back to us. We will do something called depolymerization.
So it’s a polymer. I polymerized monomers. Well, I can take the enzymes that normally biodegraded and I can use those to depolymerize it. And then I could recapture those and recycle them kind of like Legos. I take Legos apart. We have a bunch of monomers and I can go rebuild them into something new. So that’s what we want people to do with them. But if you’re out sailing and your flip flops fall off the boat, don’t cry at tear for those things. They we’ll biodegrade in the ocean less than a year.
Natalie (20m 33s):
The parts of the algae that are left over after you’ve pulled out the lipids to make your urethanes, what happens to those?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (20m 42s):
That is protein and carbohydrates. And we send that out for animal feed. We could use it as food and we’re kind of working on that one too. But right now what we’re thinking is the real big markets for this are gonna be fish or animal feed. We’ll feed it to chickens. We’ll feed it to pigs. We’ll feed it to farmed fish.
Natalie (21m 0s):
When we talk about bio-plastics, I recently interviewed somebody who was advocating for the use of compostable trash bags. And she was frank though, and I’ve experienced the same thing, she said they don’t hold up as well; their quality’s not as good as what you’ve maybe become accustomed to in plastic bags but there are all these health benefits (especially if we were talking about getting rid of the fragranced ones). I think a lot of the market feels like to switch over to environmentally ethical products, particularly with plastics, is to sacrifice a lot of quality and then to pay more for it. Can you speak to that?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (21m 38s):
Yeah. So this was one of the things that we thought a lot about when we started down this path. So some plastics are hard to duplicate with the biodegradable version of them, and plastic bags is one of those. Polyethylene and polypropylene, which are the two things we make plastic bags from, they’re super cheap and they have an unbelievably good tear strength in that they tend to deform rather than split. If you take one of those plastic bags and try to tear it in half you won’t. You’ll stretch it, but you won’t tear it. Well, that’s a great thing for a trash bag, right? Like I want it to be able to distort without coming apart.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (22m 20s):
So [plastic bags are] a tough one to start out with. It doesn’t mean we can’t get there – and we will get there. It just means it was not the one you want to start with.
So we looked around and said, “Okay, let’s not start on the cheapest one with the highest metrics, let’s look around and see what polyurethanes we can make.” People who already knew polyurethanes made wonderful foams for things like seat cushions and midsoles for shoes and tires – they’re the little wheels on your luggage. Those are all polyurethanes and the reason they are is because polyurethanes are very really good at having a good grip so that they tend to be just rubbery enough that they grip surfaces really well, but hard enough that they don’t wear out really quick.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (23m 11s):
Right. And so we looked at that and said, “Oh, those are polyurethanes. We can make polyurethanes. Let’s start with those as our first products. It still took us a while to get them to meet performance specifications, but the polyurethanes we make now, if you were to buy a pair of our flip flops, there is no way you, as a consumer, would be able to tell the difference between algae polyurethanes and petroleum polyurethanes in terms of how comfortable they are on your feet, how well they wear, or how well they rebound. The only difference is ours will biodegrade. And the other ones don’t.”
Natalie (23m 48s):
Oh, it’s so exciting where all of this is going. I mean to your point earlier about how, for a really reasonable investment in science, we have this massive step forward, I think if anybody out there is really itching for a super great bioplastic garbage bag, it’s a very reasonable price tag: go help fund its development.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (24m 9s):
Yeah, exactly. And that is actually one that we can absolutely make. Not every problem that we have is going to be solved by new material science. Some of it is going to be solved by changing our behavior. And both of those things are essential to sort of solving our overall problems, which are: how do we become much more efficient at producing things? How do we become much more efficient at using them and recycling them at the end of their life? And then what things can we just stop doing? Because they were kind of silly to begin with your right. And I could give you hundreds of the examples that I see in these things where we’ve sort of become used to doing something because it’s super convenient, but its like, yeah —
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (24m 58s):
— Ok, for example: My Starbucks single-use cup. That’s really convenient, but you know what, when I went back and got a ceramic one that I’d take to get filled in the morning and then wash it in the afternoon? It wasn’t that big of a burden on me. It works just fine, thank you!
Natalie (25m 19s):
I think that you probably have a very unique perspective on sussing out greenwashing. Help, if you could, give a very condensed masterclass on greenwashing to our listeners, please fire away.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (25m 33s):
Well, so I’m going to say two things on this. One: it’s extremely difficult to tease out and identify sophisticated greenwashing. Like if the companies really just want to go out of their way to mask something and make it look green, it’s extremely hard for consumers to figure that out. Having said that it’s really easy to spot. Most greenwashing, you don’t have to dig very deep before you see, “Oh this is just complete crap.” And I’ll give you two examples of this. So one of these is if you go into a store, you will see big labels on things that say ‘a hundred percent recyclable.’
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (26m 19s):
All right. That means that that product could be recycled, but that’s not really the information as a consumer that you need to know to determine whether that’s a good purchase to make or not for the environment. The information you need to know is how much of that product is recycled. What is the recycled content in that product? So if you go to a grocery store, every water bottle in there is 100% recyclable but very few of them have any recycled PET in them.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (26m 60s):
You can take a water bottle, you can melt it and you can cast a new one with it. Only about 7% of PET is recycled. So the same is true when you go to the store, I won’t name the brand, but you go to a brand store and in big labels it says “Recyclable.”
It’s not what you need to know. You ask the person behind the counter, “What percent have this jacket is recycled? That’s a super easy question to ask. And if they tell you 2% or 5%, then don’t buy it. Then it’s not really a recyclable product because it’s not recycled itself. If it was truly a recyclable product then they would have recycled materials in it as part of the manufacture of this new one.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (27m 40s):
So that’s an easy one to ask. Now, as consumers become more sophisticated, retailers will become more sophisticated, right? But consumers are not very sophisticated. If there’s a picture that has the little recycling triangle on it and says ‘100% recyclable,’ a lot of people are like, ‘Good enough. I’ll take it.’ So we all need to become a little more sophisticated and say, ‘Nope, Nope, Nope, Nope, come on. I can dig a little bit deeper.’ As I said, if the company wants to make up something and lie about say, 40% recycled content, how are you going to know? You’re not. You’re not going to take that product out and measure it to figure out what the recycled content is. But the good news is other people can.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (28m 27s):
I have the ability in my lab to go in and measure products, and tell you exactly what their biological content is. So when I see a pair of shoes that says ‘Made with Algae,’ I can tell you exactly. It’s a very easy assay [test]. It costs me a couple of hundred bucks.
So we’re doing this. Now we going through products that say “Made with Plants,’ ‘Made with Algae,’ ‘Made with High Bio-Content.’ I can measure those materials against the marketing claims and can tell you exactly what those numbers actually are. And there are some shocking numbers, and were going to publish them pretty soon. There are some big brands that are selling products that are less than 1% bio-content. They’re 99% Petroleum and 1% plant-based. And yet they say in big letters on them, ‘Algae Shoes’ or ‘Plant-Based Shoes.’
Now if you’re actually only 1%, that’s greenwashing and we’re going to call them out. And then what I hope consumers do is punished them for that, for lying to us.
And I think that they will [punish them]; there’s already some evidence about this. There are already a few companies that have been called out on this, where they say recyclable, and then actually employees show that those products don’t get recycled, they get thrown into the trash. Those companies took a hit on their sales and now they are now reforming.
So what we want to do is we want to make every improvement we can, whether that’s biofuel, whether that’s renewable energy, whether it’s more efficient, automobiles, more efficient agriculture. We want all of these things to add up. But the main thing we want to do is make sure that we’re giving the incentive, the right incentive, so the things that are an improvement for the environment get rewarded. We have to make certain that we’re not subsidizing oil companies to do things the way they used to do it, but maybe subsidizing them to make biofuels. And maybe that’s not such a bad idea, right? Maybe subsidizing wind farms right now isn’t such a bad idea, right?
Dr. Stephen Mayfield (30m 36s):
It’s pushing us in the right direction. So I think that’s the last message that I would leave with people. You as an individual can do lots of stuff to improve the environment and you should. And every little thing you can do, if we’re all doing that, it adds up. But the most important one you can do is vote. The single most important thing you can do for the environment this year is vote.
Natalie (31m 0s):
Dr. Mayfield was understandably unable to share the name of the major brand who will be selling these new algae-based, biodegradable flip flops. But he assured me that they would come to stores next spring, spring of 2021, and that there would be no confusing them for anything else on the market. Keep an eye out for them, and in the meantime, if you know any kids wondering why studying math and science is important, remind them that the heroes we need in the coming decades are going to be wearing lab coats, not capes.
Credits this episode go to Haesil Shin, as always, and Brian Nickerson, of course. Also to Dr. Stephen Mayfield of UC San Diego. As a matter of housekeeping, please be aware that the institution of UCSD doesn’t endorse or affiliate with anything we’ve discussed here today.
Natalie (31m 45s):
Thank you for listening. Please subscribe and then rate the show so that others can find it. That really helps. As always, share your questions for future shows with firstname.lastname@example.org.
All right, gang, I’m Natalie and I’m out. Take care ’till next time.