The Plastic Bank: turning waste into a new world economy

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1995

Plastic bank is a social enterprise with a big vision – to turn waste plastic into an international currency that will help fight poverty and clean up our oceans. Lee Williams spoke to its founder David Katz.

Practically every piece of plastic that’s ever been made still exists here on earth today. That’s almost two trillion kilos of plastic. But despite this huge amount of existing material, over 300 billion kilos of new, virgin plastic is created each year, and only around 10 per cent of the existing material is recycled. Most waste plastic ends up in landfills where the average plastic bottle will take 450 years to decompose. Much of the rest – more than seven billion kilos a year – makes its way into the world’s oceans.

So why is all this harmful waste just thrown away? This could be, literally, the billion-dollar question, and entrepreneur David Katz thinks he has the answer – that we have yet to realise the value in waste plastic. Plastic, says Katz “was first marketed as being disposable, as throwaway. I think  it’s just been viewed as being worthless around much of the world, and it’s not.” Katz plans to put the value back into plastic by turning it into the very thing that measures value in the modern world – a currency. His organisation Plastic Bank, a social enterprise co-founded with partner Shaun Frankson, seeks to transform waste plastic into a valuable commodity with a consistent price. This, Katz believes, will alleviate the flow of waste plastic into the oceans while, at the same time, fighting poverty by turning rubbish collection into the new entrepreneurialism. “I want to unleash an army of entrepreneurs to save the world,” confirms Katz with typical enthusiasm.

 SOCIAL PLASTIC

Plastic Bank and its currency, Social Plastic, is already in operation in Haiti where solar-powered plastic collection points are helping to transform the lives of the poverty stricken by exchanging waste plastic for phone charging, internet use and even hard cash. And Katz doesn’t want to stop there. This, he avers, is a lifetime’s journey and the ultimate goal is the world. Like many big ideas this one began with a revelation. It was 9 May 2013. Katz was attending a programme at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley where some of the greatest minds convene to find solutions to the world’s big problems. He was listening to a talk on 3D printing when he had an epiphany about plastic. “There was the revelation that it’s not just about the material but about the way we view it,” says Katz. “We’ve come to equate a value to the shape of the plastic. When people look at empty bottles they think it’s just worthless but the same amount of plastic transformed into a different shape could be worth a hundred dollars.” Katz realised that by revealing this potential value in waste plastic,he could create value all along the supply chain from impoverished waste collectors to big name brands and ultimately consumers. He also realized he might have stumbled upon a solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem. Katz called his friend Frankson and they decided to do something about it.

INNER STRUGGLES

But before he could realise the idea, he had to overcome the fear of taking on the responsibility of such a big solution, a process which involved “disbelief, denial, terror” according to Katz. “I had to grieve the loss of the life I was owed and I had to commit myself fully to the knowing that there was a solution. It was no longer possible for me to live a life knowing there was a possible solution and not executing it. I would have been a fraud for the rest of my life.”

Inner struggles completed, Plastic Bank rolled out its first pilot project in 2014 in Peru, a process that Katz describes as one of learning from successive failures and, above all, understanding what not to do. One of those things was not to try to go it alone but to partner with organisations already on the ground. Another valuable lesson was realising that even the most impoverished people would rather go without than pick rubbish and be identified as one of the most marginalised sections of society – the waste pickers. This led to the idea of markets where people could exchange waste plastic for charcoal or cell phone minutes or power. “That was no longer waste picking,” explains Katz, “that was being a smart consumer.”

HAITI

In 2015 Plastic Bank took all these lessons and transferred them to Haiti, the poverty- stricken and disaster-torn nation where waste plastic clogs the streets and waterways and where 75 per cent of the population earns less than two dollars a day. Plastic Bank opened a number of solar-powered markets exchanging waste plastic at first for phone charging then other rewards, and finally hard cash – 15 US cents for one pound of waste plastic. This proved to be a tipping point, both for poor Haitians, who could quadruple their daily income by collecting 30 pounds of plastic per day, but also for the global potential of Social Plastic. “The critical element to the programme is that it’s price consistency that builds recycling rates around the world,” says Katz. “That’s where we’ve created that new category, Social Plastic, where we bring price consistency, where we price it to the US dollar so we take it out of the regional fluctuation of the country and then the people can rely on it.” Social Plastic had taken its first step to becoming a currency.

SOCIAL CURRENCY

At the same time Katz and Frankson were working hard on creating not just a physical currency but, as the name implies, a social one. Social Plastic could be used as a social currency for consumers to leverage big corporations and which those same corporations could use to market their brand, create customer loyalty and do highly visible – and marketable – Corporate Social Responsibility. “The gift in the timing is that we’re encountering the most brand-loyal generation in history,” explains Katz. “People are most loyal to those organisations who exhibit corporate responsibility. We’re really about brand engagement – we just make it easy for people to talk about it and exhibit it.” One brand that has already bought into this message is UK firm LUSH cosmetics. It became the first official buyer of Social Plastic in 2014 using all the collected plastic from a shoreline clean up project to make its Charity Pots. In 2015 it went on to use Social Plastic commercially in its Sea Spray bottle line.

Katz is currently in talks with Unilever and Proctor & Gamble, both of whom he describes as “committed to making it work”. And it doesn’t stop there. “I firmly believe that we’re building an organisation where brands like Coca-Cola will have the ability to run or exhibit the ownership of Plastic Bank,” says Katz.

DREAMING BIG

Going global isn’t just about getting global brands on board. It’s about creating a worldwide grassroots movement. In 2016 Plastic Bank hopes to extend its operation to Indonesia and The Philippines, two island nations which suffer from extreme poverty and are amongst the greatest global contributors to ocean plastic. In 2017 Katz wants to move into Africa and after that, the world. There is also the expansion of the tech side of the operation. Katz’s original vision was of using Social Plastic alongside 3D printers to give entrepreneurs in poverty- stricken nations the opportunity not just to exchange plastic for money, but to use the recycled plastic to create solutions to local problems, building their own enterprises in the process. This too is slowly becoming a reality. Plastic Bank, working with a team of engineers from the University of British Colombia, has created a 3D printing ‘extruder’, which turns recycled plastic into 3D filament – the raw material for 3D printing. This would bring a greater price for the recycled plastic. But Katz wants to go further and offer entrepreneurs time on 3D printers to realise their own solutions. “We’re gamifying it,” says Katz. “The more you collect, the more time you can have on a 3D printer so the more you collect, the more you can print to sell.” If Katz’s vision seems big it’s because it is. As he constantly reiterates, he’s on a lifetime’s journey. And the ultimate goal of that journey is about as big as it gets – the total elimination of global virgin plastic production. In case you forgot, that’s over 300 billion kilos or 90 per cent of all the plastic produced each year. “It’s ambitious,” says Katz, “but it has to be ambitious. We won’t get there if we don’t believe it”.

Katz is, above all, someone who believes. Perhaps it goes back to that epiphany he had in Silicon Valley – if you find the solution to a problem, it’s your responsibility to take it on and not to leave it to someone else. “Knowing and not doing is as not knowing,” Katz affirms. “You can’t know there’s a solution and do nothing about it, it’s treason.”

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Photo Credit: Michael Coté from Flickr

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