Imagine a store where you could buy what you need using your plastic garbage. Not just food or household items like detergent but valuable goods such as minutes for your cell phone, WiFI, school tuition, even health insurance.
This isn’t some far-fetched concept for retail in the future, or a vision of an alien society that uses trash for cash. It’s the idea behind Plastic Bank, a social enterprise cofounded in 2015 by David Katz (TED@IBM Talk: The surprising solution to ocean plastic) and Shaun Frankson (TEDxStanleyPark Talk: How to save Earth with 5 minutes a day of responsible consumerism). An avid scuba diver, Katz was disgusted — and inspired to act — after he saw the shocking amount of plastic trash in the ocean when he traveled to other countries to dive.
Although important, simply cleaning up the oceans wasn’t enough, he decided. To understand why, picture walking into a kitchen to find the sink overflowing and water gushing onto the floor. What would you do first? Turn off the tap, says Katz. And he believes we need to turn off the tap for plastic junk and stop it from getting into the sea in the first place.
With Plastic Bank, people in parts of Haiti, the Philippines and Brazil can transform plastic trash into cash, goods or services. Collectors gather the plastic (the types accepted vary by region) and bring it to a collection center to be weighed. In exchange, they’re paid in the form of cash, items from the store, or digital tokens that can be redeemed at any store or recycling center that uses the Plastic Bank app; in some locations, the tokens can also be exchanged for mobile money through a telecom or cash from a cash-exchange partner. “School tuition, medical insurance, Wi-Fi, cell phone minutes, power, sustainable cooking fuel, high-efficiency stoves,” says Katz, listing some of the items available for sale. Plastic Bank continues to add other items that people need.
A collector can earn up to the equivalent of $5 US a day, according to Plastic Bank. This can double or triple people’s real incomes. In Haiti, for example, the majority of the population earns below $2.41 US a day.
After the collectors turn in their plastic, it is sent to a recycling center, where it’s sold to companies that use it in their products. Many businesses pay a premium for reclaimed plastic, in part to meet their corporate social responsibility goals. But it can also benefit their bottom line — they’re able to tell consumers that by buying goods made with what Katz calls “social plastic,” their purchases benefit both the environment and people’s livelihoods. Haiti, where the social enterprise first launched, now has 30 collection centers and 2,000 collectors, who have gathered nearly 10 million pounds of plastic so far. Plastic Bank has plans to expand to Indonesia, South Africa, Vatican City (it would be a “different model” than the standard Plastic Bank program), Ethiopia, India and Panama.
Lize Nise, a Port-au-Prince resident, has rebuilt her life thanks to Plastic Bank. In the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that struck her country, she lost her husband, home and employment. By gathering plastic, she is now able to cover school tuition for her two daughters and school uniforms. “Preventing ocean plastic could be humanity’s richest opportunity,” says Katz.
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