The plastic revolution: Monetizing plastic wasteSustainability
Plastics – A flood of harm to our environment
Water, like many other basic necessities, has exploded as a commodity that companies feel should be bought and sold to us in plastic containers.
According to data released by Beverage Marketing Inc., the world spends over $100 billion on bottled water every year. That’s about 50 billion bottles, 30 billion of which are consumed in the US.
And worse still, more than 80% of those bottles end up in our waterways, landfills, and on the side of the road, contributing to the massive accumulation of plastic wastage in our environment.
So besides the usual education on reusing, reducing, and recycling plastic items, perhaps we can take on a different approach to tackle this plastic pollution issue.
A new way of minimizing plastic waste – Monetize it
By looking at plastic waste through a creative and innovative lens, we might be able to turn things around.
At The Plastic Bank, they have developed a pragmatic, scalable solution that cleans the environment of plastic waste while reducing poverty in underprivileged communities.
Starting with Haiti as the first project location, The Plastic Bank has have managed to educate the locals and help them view plastic as a valuable resource – a currency that can be gathered and traded in recycling centers.
The Plastic Bank then acts as a broker and make money by encouraging big brands to buy and use this ‘Social Plastic®’ (an ethically sourced plastic) in their manufacturing.
On the other hand, the local waste collectors can choose items at exchange centers such as sustainable cooking fuels, access to WiFi, and solar power to charge their mobile phones, providing them with opportunities to become micro entrepreneurs.
Creating a sustainable win-win solution with plastic waste
The hard truth is that industries will continue to use plastic. So the answer lies in revealing the value in plastic while reducing global poverty at the same time – a win-win situation.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sean Macmillan, Changemaker at The Plastic Bank, and ask him some questions about the impact created, motivations, and their plans for the future.
So what is the main reason behind setting up The Plastic Bank?
Our goal is to gather together 1 billion people to monetize waste.
We want to create a sustainable business model that is important to us, one that can fund its own growth while tackling poverty and minimizing plastic waste. It’s a holistic approach where we are attacking the root of the issue instead of just treating the symptoms.
We are finding a better way for people to earn a sustainable income and buying their own basic necessities in life – akin to teaching a man to fish. The real key is to create sustainable change and find ways to help people find their own livelihood instead of just providing and donating items.
Can you share some projects that your team has done with large corporations?
An example is Marks and Spencer, the UK department store. Even though they don’t make plastic product packaging themselves, they have a supplier policy in place. Manufacturers that use at least 5% of Social Plastic® in their production will be their preferred suppliers.
It’s an easy decision for such brands because consumers want to be engaged with companies which share their values. They are demanding that their favorite brands should be good for both people and the environment.
And generally, 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.
As more and more social enterprises appear around the world, how has The Plastic Bank managed to stand out so far?
Well, honestly..I don’t know! I’m not sure what is it that we’re doing but we seem to be getting a lot of traction on different networks, such as Forbes, The Guardian, and we were even featured in the award-winning documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’.
We started off with a very big and successful social media movement by connecting with end users. We had a Facebook page with a banner saying “I demand that brands use Social Plastic®” and tons of people sent that request to their favorite brands, directly messaging them and asking them to use Social Plastic®.
Our community was also formed organically. People are starting to realise that they cannot get away with the sort of things that they were used to, and that they want a solution that has a sustainable, meaningful impact.
What are some major challenges that The Plastic Bank has faced?
The drop in oil prices has caused recycled plastic to go down in price (since virgin plastic is made from petroleum). So it is even more important now for people to demand the use of Social Plastic® in the products they buy, in order to increase it’s value and make it an easy financial decision for organizations to use this material.
We are also overcoming the challenges of scaling our processes to other countries and regions; we can’t be building every single centre ourselves from the ground up. Our experience in Haiti taught us how to set things up from scratch, work with important communities, and how different stakeholders and locals are lacking the technology and infrastructure that we have taken for granted.
And this is where our technology platform comes in. We are working with IBM to develop a Blockchain implementation to manage financial transactions at each exchange point, for example. By leveraging such technology, we can grow much faster while maintaining the security of transactions.
The Plastic Bank’s projects are mostly carried out in developing countries, are there plans to create the same impact in developed nations?
When it comes to developed countries, we’re taking a different approach. We don’t want to compete in terms of infrastructure, where people are not likely to give up their full-time jobs to pick up plastic.
Instead, we are carrying out bottle deposit programs, setting up partnerships with companies for the Social Plastic® ecosystem, and connecting global efforts to transfer value from wealthier countries to those who need it more. This can also be done through our technology platform that we are planning to roll out next month.
As governments are tightening regulations on plastic usage and production in places like France and California, what sort of effect do you think this will achieve?
Policy is helpful, but it is not going to be a silver bullet. It’s an extra leverage to pull so that the economics of recycling and reusing plastic will make more sense. However, regulations do create more of an easy playing field; they cultivate an environment that is more conducive to recycling and reducing plastic waste.
Lastly, what are some learnings that you’ve had at The Plastic Bank?
We are learning lessons and applying them every single day. One big takeaway I have is to never underestimate the resourcefulness of the people you service in marginalized communities.
They have a lot of ingenuity and skills. With the right incentives, they can develop entrepreneurial abilities to figure things out on their own, lift themselves out of poverty and transition into a self-sustaining life of entrepreneurship.
About The Plastic Bank
The Plastic Bank is focused on revealing value in plastic and people. They reveal value in plastic by creating an opportunity for individuals to exchange plastic for cash and other items and services that help people transcend poverty. By recycling the waste plastic they return, The Plastic Bank aims to reduce the amount of new plastic created globally. For more information, you can visit their website here.
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