The relatively new concept of “social plastic” shows promising signs of diminishing the crisis of ocean plastic pollution—while also improving income and services in some of the world’s poorest communities.
Canadian entrepreneur David Katz coined the term, which links the problem of low or non-existent funding for waste disposal in the world’s least-developed countries, to the massive growth in plastic use and disposal worldwide.
In countries lacking the budget or public service capacity to collect trash regularly, thrown-out plastic can accumulate in landfills, rivers and canals. From these inland areas and waterways, it eventually travels to the ocean. Of the approximately 300 million tons of plastic produced each year worldwide, 15 to 30 million tons end up in the oceans. There, it can directly injure and kill marine life, and also enters the marine food chain—which includes us.
When people are struggling to feed their families on a daily basis, it is logical that they are not very bothered with environmental degradation. Katz co-founded a social enterprise to create global value chain that addresses both: Since 2013 the Plastic Bank has worked to set up collection points where local residents exchange plastic waste for cash, products, or needed services such as charging mobile phones. Plastic Bank then recycles and sells the plastic to large companies, which can manufacture and sell products with the official “Social Plastic” mark.
Using social plastic can lead to slightly higher retail prices. But companies can use it to build positive feelings among their customers, because these purchases contribute to alleviating two pressing global issues: extreme poverty and ocean plastic pollution.
Sean Macmillan, who holds the title of “changemaker” at the Plastic Bank, told me that the initiative ran its initial pilot projects in Peru and Colombia in 2014. One year later, Plastic Bank opened a commercial-scale operation in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2017 expanded its operations to the Philippines. The enterprise hopes to move into Indonesia and Brazil next year, Macmillan said.
Macmillan explained the three different indicators Plastic Bank looks at before choosing to operate in a particular country:
One of the biggest aims of the Plastic Bank is to alleviate global inequality, so the local people have to be able to benefit from the Plastic Bank’s operations.
Abundance of plastic waste
Probably the most obvious indicator, as there needs to be plastic waste for the concept to work. Plastic Bank’s analysis includes examining data on population density and plastic use per capita.
Since the Plastic Bank operates in countries that often lack good infrastructure for waste and transportation, Macmillan said, the enterprise looks for established persons and groups to partner with, often non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that know how things work locally. These partners can also help the Plastic Bank navigate the often-complex, overarching systems of networks, laws and regulations. Once the concept is implemented, these local partners can take it upon themselves to expand the operations.
In Haiti, the Plastic Bank has partnered with World Vision, while in the Philippines it collaborates with Linis Ganda, a cooperative of local women waste-pickers, along with small thrift stores that locals call “junk shops.”
Macmillan noted the big differences in making the Plastic Bank operational in the two countries. Haiti lacked any existing infrastructure, he said, so the Plastic Bank had to build it from scratch; while in the Philippines, the enterprise works directly with the small and numerous junk shops, which serve as excellent hubs to collect plastic and offer money, products or services in return. Using such existing networks Plastic Bank greatly shortened the implementation process.
Editor’s note 22 July 2017: This article was amended on 20 July 2017 to reflect new information regarding the term “social plastic”, which is a trademark of the Plastic Bank.