In South America, Plastic Trash Will Be as Good as Money

To reduce poverty and save wildlife, the Plastic Bank offers goods and services in exchange for collected litter.

(Photo: lberto L Pomares G/Getty Images)

Apr 29, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Self-proclaimed beach bum and business exec David Katz has visited many coasts, including those in poorer parts of the world where shores have “more plastic visible than sand.” Moved by disadvantaged locals and wildlife glutted by trash, Katz put on his entrepreneurial thinking cap. Why not turn all the junk into something valuable?

Katz’s idea, which became the Plastic Bank, is ambitious but simple: People collect plastic waste in exchange for basic goods such as food and shoes. The accrued mixed plastic material can then be sent to manufacturers, who instead of producing more synthetics can reuse the eco-friendly (and marketable) “social plastic.”

The project aims to make an impact by decreasing poverty by 2035 and cleaning up plastic waste from the world’s oceans—a worthy but tough goal. Centuries-old plastic litters the planet. By 2025, the World Bank estimates, 2.42 billion tons of plastic will be dumped every year.

Discarded by big corporations, most trash travels to faraway beachside communities in developing countries. “In a lot of places in the world, people are actually dumping plastic waste into the streets and pushing it into the waterways,” Plastic Bank cofounder Shaun Frankson explained to CBC. “If we can just reveal value in plastic, it becomes too valuable to let it sit there. It’s not just plastic they’re collecting.”

A viable supply of “social plastic” from impoverished regions will let companies up their sustainability while reducing global poverty. Plastic collectors can become their own bosses too. The banks will be equipped with 3-D printers made available to locals who bring in plastic waste, so they can print out items like water pumps and filters. Through the training offered on-site, they can start businesses and sell the products themselves.

“The more plastic that is collected, the more will be removed from our waterways. And the more plastic they collect, the more they can lift themselves out of poverty,” Katz told Forbes.

Wouldn’t giving people cash be a better motivator for collecting plastic?

“Often, as well-intentioned as cash can be, it goes very corrupt very quickly,” Frankson said. An exchange basis system prevents this while encouraging entrepreneurship. The Plastic Bank’s site calls it “a ‘teach a man to fish’ model.”

Following a successful crowdfunding campaign last year and with support from corporate backers, the Plastic Bank will launch in May in Colombia and Peru.