The shape-shifting miracle product. It can take the form of nearly anything from a bag to a blow-up castle to a microchip implanted in a puppy. More than eight million tons of it are dumped into our oceans as a yearly regimen, and it is notoriously responsible for the one hundred thousand animals deaths year-round. Boasting a biodegradation period of four hundred years, it’s expected that it we start seeing plastic spurting out of gutters and washing up onto our beaches—tenfold. It’s something that can’t disappear overnight, or over centuries, for that matter.
So the question looms.
What do we do with it?
Plastic debris is seen as waste. Recycling certain plastics is one method to keep it from heading straight into the landfill. But the Plastic Bank, an environmental and people-oriented organization, takes the recycling one step further.
The Plastic Bank, founded by David Katz and Shaun Frankson, strengthens recycling, halts the flow of plastic into marine ecosystems, and provides aid to people who live in poverty. Their organization revolves around the idea of Social Plastic, which means giving plastic so much value that it is no longer considered waste—and monetizing it.
Converting plastic into a currency is an idea that has been toyed with, even before the emergence of the Plastic Bank. TerraCycle, an organization founded in 2001, collects plastic from individuals in exchange for ‘points,’ which are then put towards the individual’s charity of choice. There are also many recycling centers that pay individuals for the materials they bring (in Michigan, for example, a plastic bottle is worth ten cents).
The Plastic Bank’s aim is to make a direct impact on impoverished people through their recycling. Their system begins by encouraging locals to collect plastic debris and bring it to a Bank center nearby, where it is then exchanged for goods, or money. The Bank then sells the collected plastic to companies who want to use it. The money received from these companies is, in turn, the currency that is distributed to the people.
The Plastic Bank does not get rid of plastic. But by adding value to it, it acts as the moderator of a healthy recycling movement that connects both the community and outer enterprises.
But there’s a catch. As the Plastic Bank developed, they turned to something called Blockchain to keep track of their financial transactions, as well as a new method of paying their plastic collectors.
Blockchain is currently the most secure form of digital financial recording, and storage, available. Since many of the communities the Plastic Bank works with have access to mobile devices that are able to handle transactions, Blockchain became the safer option of exchange. Those who hold physical cash are likely to become targets. Blockchain currency is not physical, and so the money received is more secure, as is the recyclers’ safety. Blockchain is the irony of the Plastic Bank.
The combination of progressive technology with the venerable action of recycling is what makes the Bank’s approach to the plastic problem so unique. In caring for the environment, it is essential to empower people on an individual level, as well. Focusing on a balance is what makes the Bank’s process a true solution.
While the Plastic Bank has been a success for some communities, their process has not been expanded throughout any nationwide economy. No matter how much our financial systems progress, the plastic problem will remain. Recycling is the best solution we possess, and since it is already in practice, the future of world depends on its growth.
If the issue is to be solved, plastic production will have to come to an end. For Social Plastic to be expanded globally, it will be up to governments, if not individuals, to advocate for recycled plastic while discouraging further production. The Plastic Pollution Coalition states that every piece of plastic ever made exists today, and will be in existence for at least five hundred years, whether it’s in the form of toxins in the soil to being burned into the clouds. Ending plastic production does not mean the end of plastic. Rather, recycling offers plastic the opportunity to continue to be in existence, and to do so with meaning, and good use.
Plastic will never disappear. But its use is a double-edged sword, providing much good in our way of life while degrading life itself—and never something to take for granted. Before communities, or even nations, take the first step in establishing more plastic banks, individuals as well as corporations must learn to see, and experience, the great value that plastic has to offer. Purchasing recycled materials, recycling plastic, or repurposing it oneself are all impactful ways of breaking the notion that plastic is a one-time use, futile material.
Returning to the original question, what is the solution to the plastic problem? What do we do with it?
The Plastic Bank has taught us a few things. One is that recycling is the answer.
How communities choose to recycle will be determined with time. But it is certain that the more recycling occurs, the better for the environment. Better for the environment means better for communities. Two is that all plastic, whether in use or as debris, must be given value. Without it being in demand, recycling becomes a fruitless endeavor. Three is that corporations and individuals must work together at ground level to ensure that recycling uplifts both ends, in mutual means. This may occur through systems like Blockchain, where individuals would be securely paid specifically for the recycling they do. Solving the plastic problem is about helping all, including our own species, from the individual level, to the state, to the corporate. While we created the problem, we are the only ones who can solve it. Saving the oceans saves us.
Fourth is that through working together—communities with companies, people with the planet—there is hope.