By now, everyone has surely heard of the amount of plastic waste that we have generated from using one-use plastics, the pollution that collects in our oceans as the Great Pacific garbage patch, and the consequences to our marine life in nature documentaries like Blue Planet. Most of us would also have heard of the ‘Stop Using Plastic Straws’ campaign, which various multinational companies such as Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken have pledged to. But have you heard of the currency that is plastic waste?
In Haiti, Philippines and Brazil, those living below the poverty line can use plastic waste as a currency to purchase necessities such as food, water, electricity, and even send their children to school.
The rationale behind what Plastic Bank, a Vancouver-based start-up, does is simple - plastic waste is generated by consumers and in impoverished communities, recycling options are not available. This leads to plastic waste being collected along roads or in rivers, which then subsequently gets washed out by the rain into the ocean. The idea of plastic waste collection is birthed when Plastic Bank realised that a faster way to reduce the pollution of our waters is to stop plastic waste from getting out in the ocean in the first place.
Though waste collection is not a new concept, the earnings that a collector makes from collecting plastic waste or aluminium cans are, to put it loosely, peanuts. Plastic Bank pays collectors an above market rate for the plastic waste that they collect (data not available, though the Plastic Bank website stated that for an individual to be plastic neutral, the offset price is USD0.36$ per kg).
The plastic waste collected is then recycled and sold to manufacturing companies such as Shell and Marks and Spencer's as what Plastic Bank terms, Social Plastic - that is, not your normal recycled plastic, but recycled plastic that had a positive social impact on the collector’s community. Through this closed-loop recycling, Social Plastic is sold at a premium to manufacturers and the raw material is reused in the manufacturing process. As companies rebrand their products as being made of Social Plastic (with twin positive benefits of cleaning up the environment and reducing global poverty), they gain a competitive edge over their competitors, being better catered to tap on today’s growing market of environmentally-conscious consumers.
However, to not lose consumers, companies will definitely jump on the Social Plastic bandwagon. It then remains to be seen whether this will end up being a situation of ‘greenwashing’, with companies claiming that their products are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are. If consumers do not do their own research about the products and instead, blindly believe the advertising claims that companies are putting out, more harm than good might be done as social and environmental impact gets lost in the sea of false advertising claims.
Furthermore, though many of us speak about wanting to reduce our use of plastics, how many actually do? How many of us say that we support the plastic straw ban and resolve to carry around a metal straw as a replacement but end up not doing so because of the mild inconvenience of carrying the metal straw around, or washing the metal straw? As consumers, we need to put our money where our mouths are as money is the only thing that motivates for-profit companies. Without us voting for change with our dollar, we will not see the changes that we want for our world.
The plastic waste collectors that Plastic Bank aims to help out of poverty are often homeless, with only a phone number as their sole means of identification. With a digital phone application, Plastic Bank uses blockchain technology to convert the plastic waste collected into a digital currency which can be stored in a secure, theft-proof digital wallet. Transparent recordings of waste-to-currency transactions on the blockchain ledger also allows corporate clients to track their social impact, aiding in corporate social responsibility (CSR) tracking and reporting.
In the midst of the blockchain technology and crypto-currency hype, it is not hard to see the appeal that this form of new currency offers in terms of transparency and digital security. In the communities that Plastic Bank has rolled out their waste collecting initiative, where banks are few are far between and cash puts individuals at risk of robbery, it is not surprising that this form of currency was chosen as the payout method.
Nonetheless, one concern which I have towards the use of such currencies is its inflexibility. As opposed to cash, such digital tokens are created specially for use on one platform - plastic waste collectors are therefore limited to purchasing items from partnering stores which accepts these tokens. Furthermore, it is unlikely that consumers are able to spend the tokens on big ticket purchases like buying a house for instance. The geographical constraints imposed by the operation of the plastic waste programme in specific communities also confines the beneficiaries of the programme as they do not have the finances to leave their community in search of better working or living conditions.
That being said, these are issues which are not as significant in the current context of the beneficiaries communities - what these people need are the essentials food, water, some form of financial security and a way to break out of the poverty cycle, all of which the digital currency could be used for currently. Perhaps, these issues might prove to be worth worrying about but that is a happy problem, as that means that more people are looking to achieve a better standard of living, rather than struggling to get by day-to-day.
Plastic Bank aims to expand into Indonesia, followed by Ethiopia, India and South Africa, before looking into scaling up operations globally.
Technology-wise, Plastic Bank aims to add a 3-D printing programme which will use the recycled Social Plastic as input to create solutions to solve existing problems, for instance printing a replacement part to replace a broken bicycle.
In an interview with United Nations Environment Programme, David Katz, founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, says that their end goal is to ‘monetise waste’. Through changing the lens through which we view waste, from a useless end product to one of monetary value, not only will those in impoverished communities benefit, companies and manufacturers will also take a more conscious step towards redesigning their current usage of materials or manufacturing process to reduce this wastage of materials. This seems to pave the way towards an environmentally-conscious and sustainable future.
But can people be said to be truly environmentally-conscious if they only take action when what used to be viewed as waste is now assigned a monetary value? Must everything be monetised before we can make an impact? As an idealist, I would very much like to say ‘no’ and hold on to the perception that people truly and genuinely care for the environment, the other species which live on Earth with us. Realistically, I know that people are self-interested and many times, we only do what is beneficial to us.
While the monetisation of waste is a step towards reducing poverty and reducing pollution of our environment, I hope that we can eventually shift towards genuine care and concern for our environment. We can all learn from the residents in India, where volunteers took to the trash-filled Versova beach and after 2 years of cleanup effort, a clean and trash-free beach was seen again.