SEATTLE — The Ocean Cleanup recently compiled the most thorough body of research to date on a particularly frightening sea monster lurking in the waters between Hawaii and California. That monster, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is the largest aggregation of ocean plastic in the world. Spanning twice the size of Texas, this gargantuan garbage mass is comprised of more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, and it is just one of five growing garbage patches in the world.
The theme for Earth Day 2018 is “End Plastic Pollution”. Plastic pollution harms wildlife, contaminates food sources and compromises the environment. But despite these detrimental effects, plastic consumption is growing exponentially. Developing nations tend to increase their demand for plastic products as they progress economically, but they usually do not yet have structures in place to manage plastic waste properly. Nevertheless, plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050, and if trends continue, only a small portion of it will be recycled.
Cognizant of the mounting threat plastic pollution poses globally, two innovative entrepreneurs decided to address the problem at its root. In 2013, David Katz and Shaun Frankson launched Plastic Bank, a Vancouver-based social enterprise that is reducing pollution and poverty around the globe by changing the perception on plastic waste and incentivizing conscientious business practices among large-scale corporations. People may assume that developed nations are largely responsible for plastic pollution around the globe, but research refutes that. “We found that 80 percent of ocean plastic was coming from . . . developing countries that have no efficient waste management systems for plastic,” Frankson told The Borgen Project.
In many nations, pollution and poverty go hand-in-hand. Plastic waste piles up on the streets, and oftentimes residents push plastics into local waterways to dispose of it because there is simply no alternative. Plastic Bank works to provide a better alternative by providing monetary incentives to collect and recycle plastics, addressing plastic pollution and poverty at once. “When someone is just trying to survive for the day, it’s impossible . . . to care [much]about the environment because they’re really trying to feed themselves [and]their families. But when we can make recycling that income opportunity . . . so that people can actually ascend from poverty through collecting plastic, then it stops looking like garbage and starts becoming opportunity,” Frankson explained.
While conducting market research, the pair realized a strange truth about plastic. Plastic fashioned into a milk jug is not worth much, but plastic in the shape of a stylish patio chair is worth more. “It’s really the shape of the plastic that defines the value. . . We can stop ocean plastic by making plastic too valuable to enter the ocean,” explained Frankson. Plastic Bank is currently operating in Haiti, the Philippines and Brazil and is in the process of expanding to Indonesia. Since 2013, the enterprise has collected and recycled more than 10 million pounds of plastic, and they are on track to recycle even more in the next year.
The process starts with a person in a community Plastic Bank serves collecting plastic from individual homes, local businesses and on the streets. The collector brings it to a collection site where the plastic is weighed and sorted by type and color. Plastic Bank assigns a value to plastics on market indicators, and collectors can then exchange the plastic for cash, various items and services or blockchain-secured digital currencies.
Once the sorted plastics reach a certain volume, they are transported to a partner plastic recycling facility, where the plastics are transformed into bales of plastic pellets called Social Plastic. The Social Plastic is then shipped to clients who will use it in their manufacturing in lieu of new plastic. Upon completion, the clients’ products go to market, and consumers can purchase products that contain Social Plastic.
Plastic Bank is engaging big brands across the globe in the effort to eradicate plastic pollution and poverty. German consumer company Henkel, multinational retailer Marks & Spencer and Shell Energy are three of Plastic Bank’s biggest clients, with more exciting client acquisitions underway. Plastic Bank believes that large-scale corporations have the greatest power to drive sustainable initiatives around the world, and they should be responsible for the development and manufacturing of products. Frankson said, “If someone has to use plastic, the expectation is that it should be an ethical, transparent plastic that’s helping to both stop ocean plastic and [improve]people’s lives.”
The organization works to convince companies that committing to social good is good for business by demonstrating the demand for responsibly-produced, sustainable products. More than one million people have shown their support for Social Plastic through social media engagement. But the ultimate goal is to get one billion people. “We need to enroll the world to start a Social Plastic revolution,” Frankson added.
Combating global plastic pollution and poverty is a challenging feat, but Plastic Bank is committed to improving the lives of impoverished people around the world. The enterprise sees Social Plastic as a viable solution for the eradication of poverty that is applicable in essentially every country around the world. Frankson explained, “We’re really trying to provide a universal basic income that’s earned through recycling and scale to the point when that becomes a globally available option for anyone.”
– Chantel Baul