Much more than recycled, it is social plastic!

Rather than a trend, circular economy is becoming a fashion. It is very much the subject of discussions that often lacks substance. This is not the case for Plastic Bank

by Nicoletta Boniardi

«A huge quantity of plastic waste is ending up in the sea every day, every minute. Animals are dying, suffocating on plastic fragments, bags and netting. However, the last thing we need to do is clean the oceans». Is this going against the grain? No, it is an ingenious idea, that like all simple solutions is so obvious, it passes unnoticed. «If we go into the kitchen and see the sink overflowing, water is flooding the floor, it’s slopping up against the walls, what is the first thing we think of? We don’t think twice, we turn off the tap. It would be useless to wash the floor, pull the plug out of the sink, and mop up the water unless we had a way to stop the flow. And so why not do the same with the ocean? » explains David Katz, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, the only organization in the world that has managed to monetize waste to the benefit of the neediest populations.

«Even hypothesizing that programmes to clean up the sea and beaches – from the Ocean Cleanup project to virtuous initiatives by environmental associations around the globe – were successful, they still wouldn’t be enough» Katz claims. Since the 1950s, production of plastic items and their abandonment in the environment at end of life has grown at a vertiginous rate. Quantifying the extent of the phenomenon is anything but a simple undertaking, but environmental science experts are working on it. In the study, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”, Roland Geyer and other US researchers claim that the entire global production of virgin polymers amounts to 8 billion 300 million tons, and that it has risen at a rate of 8.4 per cent each year. The cumulative effect of this growth, however, soars to 19,000 per cent: from 2 million tons in 1950, we in fact exceeded 380 million in 2015. But the most alarming figure is that of these 380 million tons – Katz points out – approximately 8 million ends up in the sea, joining the approximate 150 million tons already there. But where is this waste coming from?

«It appears that 80 per cent comes from the most economically disadvantaged countries» the CEO of Plastic Bank points out. «Recycling is certainly not one of the priority concerns of people living in misery, who are more concerned about food, their family’s safety or finding shelter». Waste and poverty are two of the problems that often exist side by side and that Katz, along with his partner Shaun Frankson, have been able to address by establishing Plastic Bank, a chain of shops for the ultra poor, where everything can be bought using plastic waste as currency.

«Each day, the collectors – essentially women who lost everything during the earthquake – bring the waste they find on the streets or that they collect by going door to door to our shops in Haiti» Katz continues. «The materials are weighed and their value – 25 US cents per pound (40 cents per kilogram) – is deposited into an on-line account, and becomes a nest egg they can dip into. This way the people who have been the hardest hit can recover their dignity». And there’s more. In this virtuous process, even waste finds a new dignified purpose: sorted, shredded and packaged, it is sold to big brands who use “social plastic” in their products. These include Marks & Spencer, Henkel and Shell.

Katz and Frankson are, however, moving forward and developing the project even further. About six months ago, in collaboration with IBM, they launched a safe bank application, that not only tracks what is collected, but also provides a digital portfolio that protects earnings without the earners running the risk of being robbed. Frankson says the tool is accessible to everyone, or almost everyone, considering that about 50 per cent of people in Haiti have a smartphone where they can download the app.

But still there’s more. Having a digital system means being able to deposit the material in any shop around the world, and that a family can withdraw earnings in bricks, pay for school and healthcare, or purchase energy or data for their cell phones in the slums of Manila. Today Plastic Bank operates in Haiti and the Philippines, it has selected staff and partners for Brazil and is heading for India and Ethiopia. Nothing is stopping people in richer countries from making donations with this new currency. Because, in this beautiful example of a circular economy, «Plastic is not just plastic or recycled plastic, but it is social plastic, a material that acquires value through the lives of the people involved, whether rich or poor» Katz says.