Is this how we save the world’s oceans from plastic?
The numbers, as with any large-scale crisis, begin to lose meaning after a while. This year we're set to produce over 350 billion kilograms of plastic globally.
Between 8 and 12 billion kilos of plastic will end its brief life of usefulness this year in the ocean, joining the 150 billion kilograms of its kind already there.
Specific events have accelerated the plastic catastrophe; China shutting shop on importing other countries' plastic waste - Australia and Britain being the main culprits - for processing last year due to the local devastation it was causing, for instance.
Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia quickly followed suit banning waste imports, leading to an evaluation of the impact by the University of Georgia in the US calculating "by 2030 there would be 111 million tonnes of plastic waste with nowhere to go."
When the mayhem is already so widespread, where do you even begin?
INTRODUCING THE PLASTIC BANK
The elevator-pitch for The Plastic Bank runs something like this: in locations set up throughout Haiti, Brazil, Philippines, South Africa and Indonesia local collectors can bring discarded plastic in to be traded for cash or goods and services, such as sustainable cooking fuels, access to wi-fi, or solar power to charge mobile devices. This 'Social Plastic' can even be used to pay for access to 3D printers to help create useful products such as water filters.
"We've created the largest chain of stores in the world for the ultra-poor, where everything in the store is available to be purchased using plastic garbage," says The Plastic Bank's founder, David Katz.
Multiple processing partners in each operating country means the former-rubbish is processed in those countries to ensure that as much value as possible is kept in the local community. The impact on the collectors is immediate and significant. "We only recruit locally. I'm hyper focused on finding powerful women in those communities who want to serve the community, who want to serve the family unit. All of our management are women, guys do some of the labour and stuff like that, we hire men there. But everyone else ultimately is female," says Katz.
Once exchanged, the plastic is cleaned and crushed into pellets before going to multinational corporations, including Shell, IBM and Marks & Spencer, to be used directly in manufacturing.
Ultimately, says Katz, "the Plastic Bank's aim is to recycle and reuse the trillions of kilograms of plastic already existing on earth, rather than continue to create even more waste."
He puts the complex and brilliant concept simply, "social Plastic is money - a globally recognised currency that when used, alleviates poverty and cleans the environment at the same time. It's turning waste, or what people viewed as waste, into money for those who need it most."
Katz - in Sydney for IBM's innovation version of Coachella the THINK summit - also praised Aussie companies like SC Johnson, which produce household staples like Mr Muscle, Raid and Toilet Duck, as huge supporters, "making giant commitments to buy big volumes of material from us, and they continue to feed ecosystems and grow us. The owner is an ocean advocate. He's a diver, and he's committed to making change in the world. They're just a family business that has been around for 100 and some odd years."
Incredibly candid and immediately likable, Katz continues, "... the tagline of the company is "Making the world a better place." It's not "SC Johnson, buy more sh*t."
When asked about the process of getting these titanic brands involved he says, "aside from all the social change work, we also have to be a sales organisation. We have to lead them into it, and I communicate. It's a long process with a public company. Which may be why our best customers are privately owned."
HOW BLOCKCHAIN IS PROTECTING THE PROCESS
With so many stakeholders involved, Katz and his team knew they had to have a water-tight ledger system in place. The process uses IBM Blockchain technology to track the entire cycle of social plastic, from collection, credit and compensation through delivery to companies for re-use.
IBM blockchain means Plastic Bank can demonstrate full transparency to the end buyers about where the plastic has come from.
"The great thing about our partnership with IBM is that they're so future-focused. And so certainly they steward us. They guide us in our use of blockchain, but also in how we can distribute information globally, quickly, authentically."
But the technology is also useful in protecting the collectors too by allowing the safe transfer of the goods, the collected plastic, into value. "When we transfer money into the account of a collector, it's safe against robbery. We pay in US dollars to counter their home country's currency fluctuations. They can then use the blockchain to pay school fees or buy insurance or health care, directly transferring from our account to those institutions in currency."
The brilliance of the project means these areas of extreme poverty have a tangible incentive to help with a global crisis. He explains recycling is less of a consideration in these areas than even our own, "If you live in abject poverty as much of the world does, existing for under $2 a day ... what possible consideration could you give to recycling? If you've got no door, no floor, your children are dying from a preventable disease, and you have no idea where your next meal is coming from?"
Back here in the antipodes, there's a sense of chickens coming home to roost. As Australians, one of our defining national characteristics is a deep connection to the sea. We openly trade on our beautiful beaches and spectacular ocean life - but how long can we keep partying on the verandah while the house is burning down behind us?