The Plastic Bank.
It may be waste around the world, but in Haiti, it can be traded for goods and services. Sarah Gibbons discovers how a Canadian firm has made recycling plastic profitable for the poor and the planet.
If you saw a plastic bottle lying on the street and someone told you it was worth a few dollars, would you pick it up?
Of course, you would.
What if you discovered that you could spend that money on buying heat and light, tools you can use to make and sell other items, and even education? All this and save the planet too?
A keen diver and marine life lover, David was inspired to act after visiting the Manila Ocean Park during a business conference in the Philippines four years ago. The water theme park had a window overlooking the sea, but what he saw shocked him.
‘It was the worst I had ever seen in any ocean,’ he recalls. ‘Because the water was so clear, you could see how much trash had accumulated over time – bottles, straws and bits from about every plastic product used locally. I realised then that I needed to find a way to clean up the environment.’
But it wasn’t until he visited California’s Singularity University (part university, part think-tank, part business-incubator, whose aim is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply technologies to address humanity’s challenges) in 2013 that he began to really develop the concept.
‘I went into the 10-day course hoping for a new business idea,’ says David. ‘I wanted to build a social enterprise with a triple-bottom line: people, planet and profit.
‘I wanted something that could impact a billion people or more. And on the second day, I had a life-changing epiphany.’
He picked up the phone and rang his business partner, Shaun Frankson, to talk about his simple yet inspirational idea. ‘It’s called The Plastic Bank,’ he told Shaun. ‘We make plastic waste a currency to help the world’s most disadvantaged people.
‘I’ve come to realise that the problem with plastic waste is that people see it as waste. But if we can reveal its value, we can make it too valuable to throw away.
‘We can then develop the potential of disadvantaged people and give them a platform to improve their lives. We can empower them to collect the raw material to set up their own micro-manufacturing businesses. What do you think?’
‘Love it,’ said Shaun. ‘Let’s make it happen.’ And they have.
An estimated 3.62 trillion kilogrammes of plastic exists on the planet, worth in the region of $4 trillion (around Dh14.69 trillion), because it takes between 500 and 1,000 years to decompose.
Plastic is one of the least recycled product on Earth and experts believe almost every piece of plastic ever manufactured is still in existence – much of it littering our oceans and, in turn, harming wildlife in its natural habitat.
But where others see trash, David saw great opportunity.
‘There is no need to make any plastic again – ever,’ he says.
Most consumers throw away plastic once it has been used, but David is at pains to point out that ‘there is no such thing as away’. Plus, the durable commodity has high value, which can become life-changing currency for people.
‘We are a discard society, we dispose of our bottles and containers, [but don’t think that] they go somewhere. That somewhere right now is the ocean.
‘Roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally every year, and only about 10 per cent is recycled. Of the plastic that is trashed, an estimated seven million tonnes end up in the ocean each year.
‘You only have to see images of albatross rookeries with thousands of dead chicks, all of whom died from plastic poisoning, or the whales being washed up on shores around the world, their bellies full of old plastic, to understand how harmful they are.
‘To me, it’s an ongoing catastrophe but we have an opportunity to change that. All we have to do is change our perspective of the value of plastic waste. Everyone sits back and says we should do something about it, but I couldn’t wait for someone to do it. I had to do something, give something back to society.’
David and Shaun have partnered with Executives Without Borders, an American charity working in Haiti, ravaged by the earthquake of 2010, to put their ideas into practice. They created a recycling programme called Ramase Lajan, which means picking up money in Creole.
‘Everything is thrown on the ground there,’ says David. ‘There is no concept of recycling. It’s an island and everything goes into the sea eventually.’
The 12 million residents of this impoverished nation are learning that everything they need now has a bottle value. So they can take old plastic items – mainly drinks containers – to one of the 30 Plastic Bank centres and exchange their waste for goods and services.
A single charcoal briquette, for example, costs two bottles, while more buy them Wi-Fi or power to charge mobile phones and minutes for calls, water purification products, or lights for students to continue studying after dark.
Each centre is located in a seven-metre container, painted green, with educational material about the initiative and how both locals and the planet benefit.
‘When you see something as waste, you treat it as waste,’ says David. ‘We treat it as a currency.
‘The best form of advertising is Radio WIIFM – what’s in it for me,’ explains David. ‘They don’t have to take cash out of their own pocket. They look for plastic and spend it on these valuable resources.’
In Haiti, an average of 30 per cent of households’ income is spent on charcoal. Huge swathes of forests have been chopped down in the quest for charcoal – made from the residue of burnt vegetation – so the Plastic Bank sells briquettes made from a sugar cane product, making it sustainable.
The initiative has also provided the impoverished with jobs, such as waste-picking, beach clearing and street cleaning to find discarded bottles and bags. The people are able to earn a fair salary exchanging bottles for cash.
The aim is to give Haitians access to additional resources including 3D printers (running on recycled plastic) to build their own products, which they can use at home or sell within the community or further afield for commercial purposes.
David, hoping to create more entrepreneurs to follow in his footsteps, says, ‘People are inspired when they see their neighbour with a new TV. They could aspire as collectors to earn $400-$500 a month. The average salary in Haiti is $800 a year so they could be lifted right out of poverty, and also play their part in protecting our precious oceans and marine life.
‘But we know not everybody wants to become a waste picker, which is why we also offered the idea of plastic as currency for certain goods and services.’
The centre sells the waste material to the island’s recycling centre, which crushes the plastic into small pellets. Then, the Vancouver-based Plastic Bank buys them to sell to corporations as ethically sourced Social Plastic.
Household names such as cosmetic giant Lush and Method, which sells non-toxic cleaning products, have already signed up to purchase plastic from the bank instead of investing in yet more newly manufactured plastic to add to the world’s waste bin.
‘They buy our plastic and manufacture their items using it,’ says David. ‘They now have the opportunity to say that their products helped change someone’s life.
‘It is sold on parity with virgin plastic so why not go for the recycled version? It’s the right thing to do. We endeavour to be cheaper and believe there will be strong global demand. Today’s consumer demands should be addressed through corporate social responsibility.’
Now, Social Plastic is starting to engage big corporations and other big brands, including major car manufacturers, about switching from virgin plastic to their recycled product.
Haiti’s 30 centres are on course to generate three million pounds of plastic each year. David plans to expand the initiative to a further 70 sites across the island. Ramase Lajan has already helped collect millions of kilos of plastic and provide income to thousands of collectors. And through The Plastic Bank’s Social Plastic model, David and his team anticipate increasing the total volume of plastic recycling in Haiti by 50 times over the next two years.
‘Our goal is to lead the movement towards Social Plastic usage in everyday products, resulting in the reduction of plastic waste and poverty,’ says David.
‘Through demand, we can eliminate the need for virgin plastic to be produced. The higher the demand becomes, the higher the reward will be for harvesting Social Plastic and reducing global poverty by empowering the disadvantaged.
‘There is no better way to solve the problems of a community than using the community itself.’
Following its successful launch in Haiti after a pilot study in Peru, the Plastic Bank is now considering where to expand next.
Potential target countries include the Philippines, with a population of 100 million, and Indonesia, which is home to about 30 million people; ‘wherever there’s poverty and waste, which is most of the world’, says David. By virtue of his travels, he adds, he has seen that waste regulation is at its most lax in poverty-stricken areas.
There is even demand to foray into some of the central US states like Kentucky as well as mountain states to boost recycling and living standards in isolated communities.
David lives in Vancouver in western Canada, a very green city where household rubbish is kept to a minimum due to strict recycling rules.
‘That’s how it should be,’ he says, acknowledging that in countries like Haiti, which don’t have properly constructed roads or water systems, recycling has never been a priority and probably wouldn’t have been for decades without the intervention of his team.
The father of three says his children, aged 16, 14 and nine, are proud and inspired by his life-changing work.
He made it happen after he sold his technology company, which offered tracking devices for mobile workforces.
‘I always take inspiration from the ocean – that’s my meditative place, it’s where I feel free,’ he says.
‘My 25 years as an entrepreneur was all a prelude to this. It’s my life’s calling.
‘There is a lot of hope on my shoulders. It’s terrifying to take on that responsibility, to have that many people have hope in you. But I’m confident about my message and I have good people around me.
‘There’s only opportunity, and no such thing as problems. And I’m always looking for solutions.’
He hopes that in the next phase of his programme, he will work with schools and launch a project that encourages schoolchildren to join the waste gathering movement and sell the materials they collect for further education.
‘Half of the world is in poverty, with far too many people making little over a dollar a day,’ says David.
‘Our end objective in mind is to go beyond just providing an income and allow people to exchange plastic waste for health care, education and even 3D printing services for financial gain.
‘This will further empower the poor to earn more money for their families and communities, as well as create the items they need to live or start a business of their own.
Furthermore, global social and environmental crises are linked, and so are the solutions,‘ he explains.
‘The crisis of waste plastic is an industrial problem that demands a transformative solution, like taking ocean-bound plastic waste and assigning it value.
‘Essentially, by creating value in plastic, we’re reducing global poverty, giving people new hope and stopping plastic from entering the ocean.’
Visit plasticbank.org to learn more.
The above article by Sarah Gibbons first published on fridaymagazine.ae in Apr, 2016.