The Plastic Bank: Recycling Harmful Waste and Reducing Poverty
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 places, people are experiencing 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 encourages people to "harvest" plastic waste and deliver it to collection or repurposing centres. In exchange for the waste, the bank gives the harvesters money in the form of credit, services that they require, or useful items. The harvesters can either use the items that they receive or sell them. The bank hopes to both help people directly and to encourage entrepreneurship.
The Plastic Bank recycles the harvested material into pellets, which can be used by manufacturing companies. The bank calls their product social plastic. One of its goals is for all plastic items to be made of this material.
The Plastic Bank was created by David Katz, a technology entrepreneur from Vancouver, British Columbia. The bank's collection centres are being established in areas that have a pollution problem as well as a poverty one.
The Founders of the Plastic Bank
David Katz is a businessman and the founder and CEO of the bank. He travels extensively and has won awards for his humanitarian work. He's also 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 that appeared to have more plastic than sand. Unfortunately, beaches covered by materials discarded by humans can be found in other countries besides Malaysia. It's a sad reflection of our habits.
Katz has formed a partnership with Shaun Frankson, another businessman and the co-founder and CTO (chief technical officer) of the bank. Frankson describes himself as a "social entrepreneur". Katz and Frankson want to monetize plastic debris, enabling it to become a currency. In their view, discarded plastic is a valuable commodity that is being wasted. The pair also want their business to be philanthropic. They want the removal of the debris to be beneficial for specific individuals as well as society.
Other people have joined the bank's team. The team as a whole appears to be trying to eliminate plastic waste by recycling it while helping people in need at the same time. I think that's a very worthy goal.
Social Plastic provides a social benefit: impoverished communities gain access to stable income, local economies are boosted, and life necessities like food, water, and electricity become more accessible.— The Plastic Bank website
Using Social Plastic to Help People
A Plastic Bank collection centre accepts any type of plastic. The collectors don't have to classify what they find. The centre gives the collectors credits in return for their harvest. The credits 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. Examples include items such as tools, household items, and parts, and services such as education and micro-credit loans.
Some collection centres are also repurposing centres that use the harvested material to create filament for 3D printers. People can order printed objects in exchange for the material that they collect.
In the interview with Shaun Frankson shown below, Frankson says that the bank avoids paying harvesters cash for their plastic because money becomes "very corrupt very quickly". The organization seems to have changed its opinion since the video was made, however. At one point, it gave some people money for their harvest, at least in Haiti.
Since collecting waste material and/or depositing it in a perhaps small and crowded building might be harmful during the coronavirus pandemic, the bank has made changes to help those who depend on the credits that it provides. Though people concerned about pollution may appreciate the bank for its action in reducing it, its ability to help people in need is important.
Katz and Frankson are helped by recycling experts, business people, philanthropists, and environmentalists. They are also aided by people who explore local needs and recycling opportunities, publicize the bank's efforts, and perform impact studies after a collection centre has been established.
Although the Plastic Bank is a social enterprise that has been established to help people and the environment, it's run as a for-profit business. Katz says that this is necessary because the project must be self-sustaining.
Harmful Waste in the Environment
More than 300 million tons of plastic is said to be manufactured each year. More than eight million tons (or ten to twelve million tons by some estimates) is said to enter the ocean each year. Much of this waste stays in existence for a very long time once it's made. Plastic does degrade in the ocean, but it disintegrates very slowly.
Aquatic animals become entangled in pieces of plastic and sometimes mistake them for food. Another problem is that the degradation of the material produces tiny particles of microplastic, which enter the food chain and are absorbed by living things. Researchers have found that the particles are present in supermarket fish and shellfish, which means that they enter our body when we eat these foods. The particles have also been found in water and even in the air in some locations.
Scientists don't yet know how microplastic is affecting us or even if it is, but the situation is worrying. The particles are known to absorb harmful contaminants such as pesticides, flame retardants, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). If they hurt us, they will likely affect the animals that absorb them as well. Exploring the behaviour and possible effects of the particles is very important.
Recycling Plastic Waste
Recycling of plastic is certainly necessary. One problem with processing the material is that there are many different kinds of plastic that each require a different treatment. Sorting the material by type is vital before any recycling can be done.
At least at one time, one of Katz's team was Mike Biddle, as mentioned in the video above. Biddle is a co-founder of a company called MBA Polymers. This company carries out the automated sorting of plastic. Its recycling centres are located in several countries and process one million pounds of plastic a day. This is apparently only a fraction of the material 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, the recycled material 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 products made of the material should have once existed as a different product. One of his goals, which is also a goal of the Plastic Bank, is to change people's attitudes. People need to think that plastic is too valuable to leave on the ground or in the water.
The bank wants companies that manufacture plastic items to make their products from social plastic and to advertise this fact. They also want consumers to buy items made from this version of the material instead of other ones.
The Collection and Repurposing Centres
The Plastic Bank was founded in 2013. The founder of PeruRail provided land and financial support for the first plastic collection centre in 2014. Peru was an appropriate place for the project to begin. According to David Katz, only 2% of that country's waste stream is recycled. Much of the discarded waste enters the waterways.
The bank also has collection centres in Haiti, which like Peru has a serious problem with plastic in waterways. Here collectors can deliver their collection to solar powered centres in order to receive money, items, or services such as sustainable cooking oil, soap, WiFi access, or a charge for a phone if they have one. In addition, the bank is operating in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Products made from the recycled plastic are sold in multiple European countries and in Australia. The European list currently includes the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
It will be interesting to watch the evolution of 3D printer use in the repurposing centres. The abilities of 3D printers are improving and the cost of some models is decreasing. Many of the devices use plastic as a printing medium, so they would seem to be well suited for the recycling of the material.
One question that needs to be answered is whether repurposing plastic from one use to another will actually reduce the amount of waste or simply maintain it at the current level. This is something that needs to be closely monitored in any recycling effort. In addition, the deposition of plastic waste is increasing, which is an important point to consider with respect to the future actions of the bank.
The Plastic Bank has created the world's first 3D printer filament from waste collected from shorelines, as shown in the video above. This demonstrates that the waste can be repurposed and can potentially help people as well as the environment.
Spreading the Message at Expo 2020
Using the Plastic Bank to remove waste and alleviate poverty 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. So far, the project seems to be progressing well. According to the organization's website, companies are currently using social plastic in their products and new partnerships with significant businesses are being created.
The bank will participate in Expo 2020 in Dubai, which could increase its profile. The theme of the event is "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future". One of the subthemes is "Sustainability", which seems appropriate for the bank.
Expo 2020 was originally scheduled to start in October, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event has been postponed for one year. The "Expo 2020" name has been retained, however. The event will start on October 1st, 2021 and end on March 31st, 2022. It could be a great time to promote social plastic. According to the event's website, Expo 2020 "will welcome 192 countries, plus businesses, multilateral organisations and educational establishments".
The serious global problems of plastic pollution and poverty each need an effective solution (or more likely, many different solutions). Multiple organizations and individuals are working on the problems, but they are difficult to solve. Hopefully, the Plastic Bank will continue to help reduce waste and decrease the incidence of poverty, as it is intended to do. If the organization reaches its goals and is successful on a long-term basis, it could be very helpful.
References and Further Information
- The plastic bank has an informative website at plasticbank.org.
- The organization also operates a website at socialplastic.org. Both sites have social media accounts.
- Scientists were interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) article about microplastics in supermarket fish.
- Microplastic particles have been found in the air and in other parts of the environment, as reported by The Guardian newspaper
- Plastic pollution by 2040 from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
- Information about Expo 2020 is available at the event's website.
© 2013 Linda Crampton