Recycling Plastic and Reducing Poverty: The Plastic Bank
A Serious Environmental Problem
Plastic waste is a very serious and rapidly growing environmental problem. Our love of plastic items and our careless disposal of these items when they're no longer useful is polluting land and water, endangering wildlife and creating eyesores that are changing the face of the Earth.
Another tragic situation on Earth is the widespread existence of poverty. Some people have inadequate shelter or no shelter at all, a lack of safe or sufficient drinking water or insufficient food. In some cases people experience all three of these problems. Another frequent symptom of poverty is lack of education.
What if the dual problems of plastic pollution and poverty could be dealt with at the same time? This is the aim of an organization called the Plastic Bank. The organization's goal is for people to "harvest" plastic waste and deliver it to plastic repurposing centres. In exchange for the plastic waste, the bank will provide the harvesters with services, such as education and micro-credit loans, or give them goods, such as tools, household items and parts. The harvesters can use the goods that they receive or sell them. The bank hopes to encourage entrepreneurship in the local people.
The Plastic Bank will recycle the harvested plastic into pellets, which can be reused by companies and people who make plastic items. The bank is calling this material "social" plastic.
The Plastic Bank was created by David Katz, a technology entrepreneur from Vancouver, British Columbia. The bank's repurposing centres are being established in areas which have both a plastic pollution problem and a poverty problem. The first centre is set to open in Lima, Peru.
The Founders of the Plastic Bank
David Katz is both a businessman who travels extensively and a scuba diver. In his travels he's been struck by the amount of plastic waste around the world. He says that he decided to create the Plastic Bank after he visited Malaysia and found a beach which appeared to have more plastic than sand.
Katz has formed a partnership with Shaun Frankson, another businessman and the co-founder of the Plastic Bank. The pair want to "monetize" waste plastic, enabling the plastic to become a currency. In their view, plastic waste is a valuable commodity that is being wasted. In addition, they want their business to be philanthropic.
A Plastic Bank repurposing centre will accept any type of plastic. The collectors don't have to classify what they find, beyond identifying that it's a plastic. The centre will give the harvester credits in return for the plastic, which can be used to obtain goods or services. The nature of these goods and services will depend on the needs of the people in the area.
The repurposing centre will house 3D printers and will offer people a recycled plastic medium for the printers so that they can order printed objects in exchange for the plastic that they collect. The medium will probably be plastic filament, which is used by most consumer-level 3D printers at the moment.
Shaun Frankson says that the Plastic Bank doesn't intend to pay the harvesters cash for their efforts because - in his view - cash becomes "very corrupt very quickly".
Although the Plastic Bank is a social enterprise that has been established to help people and the environment, it will be run as a for-profit business. Katz says that this is necessary because the project must be self-sustaining.
Katz and Frankson have a plastics recycling expert, business people, philanthropists and environmentalists on their team. They also have people who will explore local needs and recycling opportunities, publicize the bank's efforts and perform impact studies after a repurposing centre has been established.
David Katz Describes the Plastic Bank
Mike Biddle Describes How His Company Recycles Plastic
Recycling Plastic Waste
Nearly 300 million tons of plastic are manufactured each year. Most of this plastic stays in existence once it's made. Recycling is certainly very necessary. One problem with processing plastics is that there are many different kinds that each require a different treatment, however. Sorting plastics by type is vital before any recycling can be done.
One of Katz's team is Mike Biddle, a co-founder of MBA Polymers. This company carries out the automated sorting of plastic and claims that they are the "world leader at producing post-consumer recycled plastics". The company's recycling centres process one million pounds of plastic a day, which is apparently only a fraction of the waste plastic that collects on a daily basis. Biddle estimates that only about ten percent of our daily buildup of plastic waste is recycled. According to him, recycled plastic is pound-for-pound more valuable than steel.
Biddle would like the word "consumer" to be eliminated in relation to plastic. He believes that all plastic products should have once existed as a different plastic product. One of his goals, which is also a goal of the Plastic Bank, is to change people's attitudes towards plastic. People need to think that plastic is too valuable to leave on the ground or in the water.
The plan is for the Plastic Bank's repurposing centres to recycle some of the collected plastic locally if this is possible and send the rest to one of Biddle's facilities, which are located in several countries. The recycled plastic will be called social plastic because its collection and recycling will (hopefully) help people.
The Plastic Bank wants companies that manufacture plastic items to make their products from social plastic and to advertise this fact. They also want to persuade the public to buy only social plastic if they need a plastic product.
An Interview with Shaun Frankson, Co-founder of the Plastic Bank
Plastic Repurposing Centres
The founder of PeruRail is providing land and financial support for the first Plastic Bank repurposing centre. Peru is an appropriate place for the project to begin. Only 2% of that country's waste stream is recycled, and much of the discarded plastic and other waste enters the waterways.
The degree of reliance on 3D printers at the processing centres remains to be seen, as well as their effectiveness at creating a large number of useful objects. 3D pinters are certainly becoming very capable and their cost is decreasing rapidly. Many of them use plastic as a printing medium, so the printers would seem to be well suited for the repurposing of plastic.
There is also the question of whether repurposing plastic from one use to another will actually reduce the amount of plastic waste or simply maintain it at the current level. This is something that needs to be closely monitored in any recycling effort.
Goals of the Plastic Bank
Plastic and Poverty
The Plastic Bank has recently created the world's first 3D printer filament from plastic waste collected from shorelines, as shown in the video on the right. This demonstrates that the waste can be repurposed and can potentially help people as well as the environment.
The Plastic Bank sounds like an excellent plan in principle, but time will tell whether it works in practice. I very much hope that the bank is successful and that if there are any problems the system is modified to solve them.
The serious global problems of plastic pollution and poverty each need an effective solution (or more likely, many different solutions). Hopefully the Plastic Bank will help to reduce plastic waste and decrease the incidence of poverty, as it is intended to do.
3D Printing From Recycled Ocean Plastic
More Information about the Plastic Bank
The Plastic Bank has a website as well as a Facebook page, a Google+ page and a twitter account. It also has an information and fundraising page at the Indiegogo crowd funding website.
© 2013 Linda Crampton