SEATTLE — In 2015, the Worldwatch Institute reported that the average American or European throws away 100 kilograms of plastic per year. Unfortunately, as much as 43 percent of used plastic ends up in oceans or landfills. Social plastic, a term coined by two entrepreneurs, allows people to collect discarded plastic in developing countries and trade it in for needed items, money or even access to electricity.
Plastic waste is detrimental to struggling communities because it threatens fishermen, agriculture and potential tourism, making poor countries poorer. But what if all the discarded plastic currently strewn across developing countries could help reduce global poverty?
David Katz founded The Plastic Bank in May 2013 after attending a 10-day conference at Singularity University in the hopes of conceiving a new business idea. His goal was to design a business with a triple bottom line, which is centered on people, planet and profit.
“I’ve come to realize that the problem with plastic waste is that people see it as waste,” Katz told his future partner Shaun Frankson after the meeting. “But if we can reveal the value in plastic, we can make it too valuable to throw away.” Frankson came up with the term “social plastic” to help potential clients identify with the project and its social impact.
The project encourages individuals to trade in plastic waste to recycling centers in exchange for currency or items of necessity. The company is exploring the possibility of using the recycled plastic in 3D printers to make items that would benefit the local community such as sprockets and water filters.
The Plastic Bank sells the recovered plastic to philanthropic companies to create new products, thus reducing global pollution. LUSH Cosmetics began a partnership with The Plastic Bank to use Social Plastic in its 2015 Sea Spray bottle line.
For countries with poor access to electricity, The Plastic Bank developed Solar Powered Recycling Markets. Solar panels allow citizens to trade plastic in for electricity or wifi. In Haiti, 87 percent of the population lacks electricity, but The Plastic Bank now allows citizens to trade recovered plastic in for access to electricity to charge cell phones.
Katz and Frankson started their social plastic project in Lima in 2014, where less than two percent of consumable plastic is recycled. Today, The Plastic Bank has partnership offers in 75 different countries and over a million supporters on Facebook.
In less than two years, benefactors of The Plastic Bank have witnessed a real change in their environments and economies. According to a report from Sustainable Brands, residents of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, recently acquired a charcoal-powered cook stove from the plastic waste they brought into recycling centers.
The Plastic Bank’s efforts in global poverty and plastic waste solutions put Katz on Salt magazine’s list of 100 most compassionate business leaders.