With a plan to clean up litter, reduce marine debris, and help poor people, David Katz, co-founder of the Plastic Bank, is monetizing plastic waste in Haiti and looking for the next locale for his social enterprise.
The Vancouver, British Columbia-based organization has a business model that starts with turning discarded plastic into currency — cash, goods or services — for those who pick it up from beaches, canals or streets and take it to a collection center for recycling.
The Plastic Bank then pays the center above-market rates for the recyclables — some of which are being ground into flake and injection molded into containers.
Lush Cosmetics, also based in Vancouver, was the first to use the recycled feedstock called “Social Plastic” in their Sea Spray bottle line. The company has a green policy to protect people, animals and the planet in the production of its makeup and toiletries.
After a 2014 pilot program, the Plastic Bank's first real, wide-encompassing loop has come full circle. Businesses can get ethically sourced plastic. The recycling center in Haiti gets “price buoyancy” and an increased plastics volume. The Haitian who collected the items gets cooking fuel, Internet access or cell phone minutes. And, a poverty-stricken pocket of the world upcycles plastic that could make its way to the ocean.
Katz, 46, and co-founder Shaun Frankson, 32, are using social media to create demand for the feedstock. The Facebook page Social Plastic has more than 1 million followers and Twitter users publicly ask major corporations to buy it and to do their part to reduce poverty and plastic waste.
“The millennials and next generation are looking to be associated with corporations that make positive change and it's very simple for the manufacturers and the packaging producers to do,” Katz said in a telephone interview. “They just have to use a material that can help people transcend poverty, send their children to school, and stem the flow of plastics into the ocean. When they have that opportunity to do it, why wouldn't they?”
A couple big companies are pondering that question right now. Katz said he and Frankson are in talks with companies like Unilever that are interested in being part of a social plastics movement.
A beach bum at his core — “even the flip-flops are optional” — Katz said growing up near the coast of western Canada instilled in him a desire to protect the environment. He also is a fan of plastic and how it can go from a PET bottle to a T-shirt to a car component. He raves about its versatility and durability. He sees solutions in its ability to change form and be used over and over — if properly handled.
“I love plastic,” Katz said. “I'm an absolute advocate for plastic, but I'm not an advocate for the creation of virgin plastic when we already have 4 trillion pounds of plastic sitting on the face of the earth. There are certainly people who are motivated to create new resins but I think there are far more people who don't want that to happen.”
Katz contends that plastic is such an amazing material, people have lost sight of how valuable it is.
“That's indicative of the way we dispose of it and don't care for it,” Katz said. “We endeavor to show people its real value so it isn't wasted.”
To spur change, the Plastic Bank is creating an incentive for people to share in that value by recycling plastic in exchange for money or something else to make their lives better. So far, the Haitians seem to prefer charging their cell phones and getting charcoal briquettes to cook.
“The population feels like they're getting a tremendous value,” Katz said, explaining that the country doesn't have consistent power so charging batteries is important to them.
As for cooking fuel, that can eat up 30 percent of the household budget, Katz said, and some parents have to choose between feeding their children and paying the $50-a-month tuition cost for their education.
“If we can eliminate that pressure for cooking fuel, and then they can afford to send their children to school, that's a profound impact,” Katz said. “That's social plastic.