Go to many beaches in the developing world and you'll see the same thing: piles of plastic garbage on the sand or in the water. Plastic pollution is a global problem, and an intractable one. People rely on plastic because it's cheap. But none of it decomposes, and, often there's no formal recycling service.
Vancouver entrepreneur David Katz's solution: Give people incentives to collect garbage by creating value from the waste. In other words, make plastic pollution a "currency." Katz's organization, Plastic Bank, has a plan to set up recycling facilities in poorer countries, where locals can exchange plastic for a range of useful items and services.
"If we can reveal the value in the things around us, then we can give people the opportunity to make a better life with that," he says.
Katz runs a successful GPS tracking business, but he's long been horrified by plastic pollution and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the Plastic Bank after attending a meeting at the Singularity University in California, where he met Lorenzo Sousa, the founder of the railway company PeruRail. The businessmen plan to open the first Plastic Bank facility in Peru next April.
Pickers will be able to exchange mixed plastics for shoes, food, and other basic goods, and even use 3-D printing facilities to make their own items or parts. "Perhaps they're working with waste from a gas station and the mechanics need components they can print on site. It gives them an opportunity to take the waste out of the environment and make something worth $5, $10, or $20," Katz says.
The center will also offer training, so waste collectors can scale up their entrepreneurship and maybe create their own recycling facilities.
Katz says that a "major corporation" has agreed to take the plastic and create new products from it. He won't reveal the name of the company, but says it can see marketing value in the concept. "Knowing that the plastic came from a waterway and that it helps people out of poverty through its collection and reuse—that's a strong story."
After Peru, Katz wants to go other countries like Colombia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. He's looking for local partners now. "I don't have every answer yet. But I know it's something that has to be begun at least," he says. "If I begin it, I'll find the answers, and, most importantly, I'll reveal the questions I need to answer."