The nonprofit group Plastic Bank has been meeting with materials companies, recycling groups and processors to build the circular economy globally. Founder David Katz spoke with Sustainable Plastics Editor Karen Laird about the group.
Q: What does Plastic Bank do?
David Katz: Plastic Bank is a social enterprise that helps the world stop plastic from entering the ocean, while improving the lives of collection communities. We empower ethical recycling in vulnerable coastal areas and reprocess plastic waste for reintroduction into the global manufacturing supply chain. We establish collection branches in countries that lack adequate waste management infrastructures. The members receive a premium for the collected materials they exchange, which helps them with life-improving benefits. The general idea is to reveal value in plastic, turning waste to worth and using it to help end poverty.
Q: How do you finance your company?
Katz: We are a self-financed organization. We get the collected material reprocessed into Social Plastic feedstock by partner processors and sell it to global companies. Our recycling model enables circularity for materials and social impact for collection communities. We have already sold over 23 million kilograms and have several hundred employees working at our headquarters in Vancouver, and within our communities in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and Egypt.
Q: The EU will introduce quotas for recyclates. Currently, however, these are only small quantities. Can Plastic Bank help here?
Katz: We can take the material from places where it is collected into Europe, as it is urgently needed there to substitute virgin plastic. But there’s more to it than just the economics of supply and demand. Freight costs and carbon footprints resulting from long-haul transportation remain a challenge for the recycling industry. In a perfect world, every country should be able to manage the circularity of its waste — collection, reprocessing and reintegration. Until humanity is able to achieve it, we continue to strive in making recycled materials available where they are needed. Compared to the footprint of a new plastic product made from petroleum, the carbon footprint resulting from transportation is very small. What's more, the containers we use have previously carried goods somewhere else, and return empty, so we take advantage of that.
Q: The plastics industry has recently developed many new technologies and processes that enable circularity. Is this the right way to go?
Katz: This path is the right one; you can see a change in mindset here, but many large corporations and industries that use plastic are still holding back, and realistically, we need to accelerate development. We also have to do more to convince people that the Circular Economy is not a burden, but an opportunity. You can't force people; they will stick to their opinion regardless. We have to show that circularity works and, above all, that it benefits everyone; that is the only way to change behavior in the long run. I am convinced that in the future, the companies that are the most successful among their competitors, will be those that act in the most sustainable way.
Q: When we consider the cycle, the beginning is critical, namely developing products that are truly recyclable, isn’t it?
Katz: Product design for recyclability is of course very important, but what is also considered non-recyclable is material for which there is no recycling option in its local environment. You can have a high-quality PET bottle, but if there is no infrastructure to collect and return it, that bottle is not recyclable. Not only should the material be recyclable, but there should also be an infrastructure worldwide enabling opportunities for all to return it for reuse, recycling, and reintegration.
Q: In October, Plastic Bank was at the industry's leading trade fair K for the first time. Were you satisfied with the response?
Katz: Yes, we were thrilled with the response at our booth. We had nine people there but were not able to talk to everyone who wanted to engage. We also had representatives from some of the world's biggest brands come to our booth. In addition to brands that are aspiring to become sustainable, we are also looking for partners on the processor side who we can collaborate with to build an ethical supply chain for recycled plastic. Our PlasticBank app is powered by a blockchain-secured platform that enables traceable collection and verified reporting. An increasing number of companies are becoming aware of the advantages of traceability and social impact in recycling. I've been doing this for almost a decade now, and I've never been more encouraged than I have been this year.
Q: Does Plastic Bank have competitors?
Katz: Shared purpose knows no competition. Anyone genuinely working to stop ocean plastic and revealing value in waste to end poverty is an ally of Plastic Bank, working towards the same goal. We need more entrepreneurs, more communities, more collection systems. There could be many Plastic Banks in the world, and there still wouldn't be enough. There are no competitors when it comes to saving humanity. There is so much to do.