If you thought plastic waste was good for nothing except polluting our oceans and hogging space in landfills, think again. A Canadian social enterprise, the Plastic Bank, has turned it into currency, empowering individuals in impoverished developing countries to combat plastic pollution while earning money or credit.
Based in Vancouver, Canada, and founded in 2013 by David Katz and Shaun Frankson, the Plastic Bank pays people in Haiti, Indonesia, Brazil and the Philippines to collect plastic waste and bring it to collection centers operated by the Plastic Bank. There, the trash is weighed and checked for quality, and collectors receive money for their work, or the value of the plastic can be transferred via a mobile Blockchain app into a digital bank account for each collector.
The collectors can use the credit to pay for school tuition, medical insurance, WiFi, cellphone minutes, Internet access, cooking fuel, electricity and other essentials. They can also borrow against their credit, according to Katz.
The Plastic Bank’s collection centers also offer fresh food—most of it locally sourced and high in nutrition—and clean drinking water in exchange for collected plastic.
The Plastic Bank’s locally operated recycling centers turn the collected plastic into pellets that are resold to companies like the UK’s Marks & Spencers and consumer goods company Henkel in Germany. These companies repurpose the plastic to manufacture products made from what is termed Social Plastic. Social Plastic products include Henkel’s Nature Box Shampoo & Shower Gel and FA Shower Gel, the Spooked Kooks brand of foam surfboards in Australia, and eco-shopping bags produced by Marks & Spencers.
According to Plastic Bank’s website, its collectors have thus far recovered more than 18.7 million pounds of ocean-bound plastic.
“Now we’ve closed the loop in our circular economy,” Katz said in a Ted Talk (see video). “Now, buy shampoo or laundry detergent that has Social Plastic packaging, and you are indirectly contributing to the extraction of plastic from ocean-bound waterways and alleviating poverty at the same time. And that model is completely replicable.”
At the Plastic Bank’s home base in Vancouver, individuals or groups can also bring in deposit-refundable recyclable plastic, Katz says. “And instead of taking back the cash, they have the opportunity to deposit that value into the accounts of the poor around the world. We can now use our recycling to support and create recyclers.”
In addition to providing a fair and steady income for collectors, the social enterprise’s recycling centers provide fulltime jobs, with managers earning up to $3,000 a year after paying their employees and other expenses, according to Global Citizen. That’s a significant income boost in a country like Haiti, where the majority of people live on under $2 a day.
As of November 2019, there were 20 Plastic Bank recycling markets operating in Haiti, where vast quantities of plastic waste litter the streets and shorelines and end up in waterways and, finally, the ocean.
“Millions of people around the world already rely on ‘waste picking’ to sustain their living, and as a result, are marginalized and stigmatized by the rest of society,” Katz says. “By working to formalize their employment and paying premiums far and above their usual market rates, the Plastic Bank aims to reverse this pejorative characterization and acknowledge these citizens for the environmental champions they are.”
Katz also urges consumers to voice their displeasure with single-use plastic to companies that are adding to the plastic waste problem. “Every time you buy something with excessive plastic, every time you buy something with single-use plastic, you are voting for that to continue,” he told Public Radio International. “If you have some ambition about changing what is occurring in the ocean, then participate. There is a complete social media department at every one of those manufacturers and every one of those brands. They’re listening. So, reach out to them, tweet to them, email them. Let them know that you won’t stand for it and let them know that you want alternative packaging. They listen, and they will eventually provide what customers want. That’s what they do.”