David Katz was first awakened to the horrors of ocean plastic while on holiday in Manila, where the sight of high volumes of plastic waste was striking in the otherwise clear water of Manila Bay.
Travels around the world opened his eyes to the extent and gravity of the problem: beaches with more plastic than sand, seabirds and marine animals injured and dying because of plastic trash, and the adverse health and socio-economic impact on local communities.
Roughly 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year—that’s a garbage truck of plastic entering into our waters every minute. Five countries in Asia alone—Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and China —account for more plastic leakage into our oceans than the rest of the world combined.
“If you were to walk into a kitchen, sink overflowing, water spilling all over the floor, soaking into the walls, what do you do first? Why don’t we turn off the tap? It would be pointless to mop or plunge or scoop up the water if we don’t turn off the tap first. Why aren’t we doing the same for the ocean?” Katz thought there had to be a business solution to ocean plastic, and called his partner, Shaun Frankson, to suggest an idea for their next venture: the Plastic Bank.
The social enterprise, established in 2013 in post-earthquake Haiti, incentivises people to collect and return plastic waste in exchange for money or credit towards life essentials such as cooking fuel, medical insurance, electricity, mobile phone subscriptions or school tuition. Collectors are often homeless, and a phone number is their sole means of identification or communication, while the vouchers received is their only way to send their children to school.
The Plastic Bank helps build recycling infrastructure in the world’s poorest countries, such as Haiti, and addresses the inefficiencies of existing informal systems in highly urbanised areas such as Sao Paulo in Brazil or Manila in the Philippines. Collection centers are run by local entrepreneurs to ensure that the operations are self-sufficient—people living below the poverty line are offered a stable source of employment, often earning twice their regular income as a result. The collected plastic is transported to an independent local partner for processing into bales, flakes, or pellets, and that new feedstock is delivered to corporate clients to be manufactured into new products.
Corporates pay a premium on the market price, which allows the social enterprise to provide greater financial returns to its collectors. Providing a fair price to the plastic scavengers and maintaining that price stability is what sets the Plastic Bank apart from existing intermediaries—the social venture reinvests all of its profits to inject as much wealth as possible into the local economies. Social Plastic®, a term coined by the Plastic Bank, “is a globally recognisable and tradable currency that, when used, alleviates poverty and cleans the environment. It’s a material whose value is transferred through the lives of the people who encounter it, rich and poor.”