Plastic Bank: Finally a Solution for Plastic Trash?
by Mitchell Clute
Can one good idea help lift marginalized workers out of poverty, lessen plastic waste in our oceans and waterways, turn trash into currency, make corporations more responsible, and aid poor communities around the world? That’s what Plastic Bank founder and CEO David Katz envisions—and based on media and public response so far, he just might be right.
Birth of an Idea
“Plastic pollution is a problem I’ve been troubled by for many years,” says Katz, a values-based entrepreneur who co-founded The Plastic Bank. “The space where I’m most whole is at the water’s edge—it’s where I’m inspired; but over the years I’ve seen the degradation of this place I find to be holy. After a trip to the Philippines and Malaysia, where I saw the worst examples of plastic pollution, I embarked on a journey to find an answer.”
In February of 2013, the answer came in the form of a new business. He knew that millions worldwide made their living through recycling plastic and other refuse. And he knew that consumers are looking for businesses that support environmental and social justice causes. Why not set up plastic repositories (Plastic Banks) around the world, cutting out the middlemen and paying a premium—up to twice the amount per kilo that collectors would otherwise make—for plastic refuse? Why not sell that plastic to manufacturers, allowing them to use the Social Plastic trademark on their packaging? And finally, why not assist the world’s poor to turn that recycled plastic into entrepreneurial opportunities to help raise their standard of living?
Many of the people The Plastic Bank hopes to help are already collecting refuse.
“By using plastic that was harvested from ocean-bound waterways by the world’s poor, everyone wins,” Katz tells Organic Connections. “The poor get a better wage, consumers get a better product, manufacturers get value, and the earth gets less polluted.”
From Idea to Implementation
Within five months of his aha moment, The Plastic Bank was launched and media outlets—including Forbes, Fast Company and Time magazine—jumped on the bandwagon, offering positive coverage. Within a week, the company had crowd-sourced capital and twenty thousand Facebook likes.
Katz began working with NGOs, foundations and governmental organizations throughout the world to make their dream a reality. “There’s a huge infrastructure in place already around the world to support the waste-picking community, whom I think of as self-employed micro-recycling resource entrepreneurs,” Katz continues. “There are already plastic recycling plants in place. We just needed to implement a process to collect all this plastic and get it to the companies that want it—and there are a lot.”
Working with local organizations in Peru, The Plastic Bank is launching its first location in Lima, with a second to open in Colombia later this year. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. “We’ve had forty-three countries reach out to us, with more contacting us every day,” says Katz.
The Plastic Bank hopes to open locations in Africa, India and Indonesia in the not-so-distant future.
Life in 3D
But the most unique and impactful part of the whole Plastic Bank idea may be 3D printing. Starting in Lima, each Plastic Bank center will contain 3D printing technology useful items from the plastic gathered by that community. What will be printed? “It could be an educational toy, or an item that locals can resell. It could be a connector that allows people to use bamboo for structures. It could be a device that enables people to collect plastic more efficiently,” Katz explains. In each Plastic Bank location, communities will be asked what problems they might be able to solve with devices made of plastic. Then ideas will be posted to the company’s website, and people around the world will be invited to offer their crowd-sourced engineering solutions.
The right item could prove to be incredibly valuable. “Think of a cell phone case,” Katz poses. “That contains less plastic than a bottle, but I paid thirty dollars for it. That’s the value of thoughts, of creativity.
The notion that the world’s dispossessed may come up with a best-selling product idea may seem far-fetched, but Katz is convinced it can work. “One of the benefits of disadvantaged people is that they’re incredibly smart and resourceful,” he says.
The Plastic Bank’s business model is to function as a for-profit corporation with multiple bottom lines, not just a charity. If this model is as successful as early response suggests, The Plastic Bank will have plenty of work ahead. “There are trillions of pounds of plastics out there,” Katz points out. “All the plastic ever manufactured is still on the earth. We don’t need to manufacture more; we just need to repurpose it.”
To learn more about The Plastic Bank and Social Plastic gathered from oceans and waterways, visit www.plasticbank.org.