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Waste Not
The Plastic Bank:
How 'Social Plastic' Is Giving Value to Waste, Improving Lives Around the World

At SB ’14 San Diego, the Plastic Disclosure Project, the UN Environment Program and Trucost unveiled the fist-ever assessment of plastic use in business, along with the business case for dealing with its global impacts: Among the sobering figures, the report calculated the total natural capital cost of pl

At SB ’14 San Diego, the Plastic Disclosure Project, the UN Environment Program and Trucost unveiled the fist-ever assessment of plastic use in business, along with the business case for dealing with its global impacts: Among the sobering figures, the report calculated the total natural capital cost of plastic in the consumer goods industry to be more than $75B per year, while the most significant downstream impact of plastic use by the consumer goods sector is marine pollution, which has an estimated natural capital cost of at least $13B. With the oceans constituting a roughly $24T economy, as estimated earlier this year by WWF, the cost comes from a range of environmental impacts including the harm done by plastic litter to ocean wildlife and the loss of valuable resources when plastic waste is sent to landfill rather than being recycled.

As initiatives aiming to tackle this issue continue to arise from organizations large and small across the world, a domestic social enterprise called Plastic Bank — a non-profit broker for recycling companies that receive discarded plastic bottles collected in underprivileged communities where resources and employment are scarce — is also determined to make a dent in the environmental damage accruing around the world.

As founder and CEO David Katz explained in his main-stage presentation at SB ’15 San Diego: “I started to look at the opportunity in that plastic, and that obstacle. And I knew that if I looked at plastic as a means to transcend poverty, then perhaps that was the beginning of the solution.”

Connecting the dots between recycling, pollution and global poverty placed Katz on Salt magazine’s recent list of the world’s 100 most compassionate business leaders.

Plastic Bank was piloted in 2013 in Lima, Peru and is now rolling out on a larger scale in Haiti in collaboration with 26 ramase lajan (Haitian Creole for “picking up money”) collection centers. Collectors turn in bottles that are crushed into pellets, or what the founders have dubbed “social plastic”:

I talked with Sean Macmillan, “Changemaker” at The Plastic Bank, about how giving value to plastic waste is helping the organization improve lives in affected communities across the globe.

Plastic pollution has come to the fore as one of our most persistent environmental issues, globally. What have you found to be the biggest barrier to entry? What have been your biggest challenges in scaling your idea?

We found that the big challenge is the scale of the problem. There are a lot of great organizations doing beach clean-ups and educating people on recycling, but it falls short of addressing the trillions of pounds of plastic littering the planet. In order to make a dent in this plastic problem, we needed to build a global movement and a global organization.

If you look at most great ideas, they are solutions to big problems that already exist in the world. The issue with scaling a lot of these solutions usually comes down to profitability. In the past, big environmental and social challenges have been the domain of NGOs and non-profits. The issue they often run into is that their organizations are small in the face of huge challenges, and rely on grants and donation in order to scale. It's really important to us that we show others that finding solutions to humanity's biggest challenges can be profitable.

Have we reached a tipping point in consumer sensitivity to brands with a social premium attached?

We think so — and the movement on Facebook demanding that companies use Social Plastic certainly attests to that. The tides are definitely changing; whether it's a new demographic or a better understanding of our limited resources, we don't know &mdash' but we are excited to see the change that this brings about.

How does the term “social plastic” resonate as a marketing message to reframe recycling?

The idea is that it's clear from the name that our plastic is not simply recycled but offers a social impact. We feel that it helps customers make the association between brands that use Social Plastic and authentic stor[ies] of social good. So as a marketing tool it's not so much the name but the meaning behind it. We see Social Plastic as recycled plastic whose value has been transferred into the hands of those who collected it.

What’s the breakdown of waste collectors’ reimbursement choices of cash, access to Wi-Fi or access to power to charge their mobile phones?

The non-monetary items offered at Social Plastic Recycling Markets are still relatively new so we don't yet know where that breakdown will settle. One interesting thing we have found is that the non-monetary items are enrolling a larger section of the community in our recycling program. Certain cultures have negative connotations associated with picking up waste to earn a living, even for recycling. However, there is a much larger group of people who are happy to pick up a few bottles to exchange for charcoal cooking briquettes or to charge a phone.

We had a milestone a few weeks ago when the very first charcoal-cooking stove was exchanged for plastic collected from the streets and waterways of Port-au-Prince. It really validated the need for our recycling centers to offer not only cash but a menu of items that help move people beyond poverty. The collectors are able to open an account and save for a stove for their household. We're really happy with the feedback we've received from the communities and see these items being a big part of our business moving forward.

On the participating brand front, LUSH Cosmetics has funded some of the recycling centers in Haiti and uses the product in its packaging (as seen here). [Also,] Seventh Generation is testing [our] plastic to see if it meets [its] stringent durability standards.

Are other companies jumping on this bandwagon?

Yes — we're getting a lot of momentum with some of the world's largest brands. [Katz] and Shaun Frankson are in Europe right now talking with companies like Unilever, among others, about using social plastic in their products. For the great brands, it's an easy decision — they can see consumers demanding that their favorite brands be good for both people and the environment. The best brands already know that the businesses of the future will all have social and environmental impact at their core. I imagine that ten years down the road we won't need the term ‘sustainable brands’; they will just be brands.