business poverty sustainability waste

Making plastic too valuable to throw away

As we saw a few weeks ago, world plastic usage has soared in the last couple of decades, but only 14% of plastic is recycled. 40% of it goes to landfill, and a depressing 32% leaks into the natural environment.

The solutions to this include reducing plastic use, finding biodegradeable alternatives, and of course increasing recycling rates. That’s relatively easy in developed countries that have formal collection and processing systems. It’s a different challenge in developing countries.

One business that’s out to make a difference in this department is Social Plastic. Their big idea is to reveal the value in plastic, turning it into a currency and making it worth collecting. Starting with pilots in Haiti and Peru, they set up ‘plastic banks’ where people can bring in plastic that they’ve collected and exchange it for goods and services. Bring in 40 bottles and you can charge your phone from their solar panels, that sort of thing.

plastic bank

This gives plastic a value and incentivises people to collect it, cleaning up plastic pollution. It also creates opportunities for disadvantaged people. The plastic that is collected is then recycled and sold as ‘social plastic‘, a kind of ethical or fairly traded option for manufacturers to buy. Lush have used it in their packaging.

It’s a smart idea, as the website is at pains to point out. The site is far more interested in how the entrepreneurs came up with the idea than in explaining how it actually works, or even in what it is achieving. There is talk of the Singularity University, 10x business, triple bottom lines, and footage of the CEOs receiving awards – it’s all a bit Silicon Valley, cult of the entrepreneur.

For all the self-congratulation, I wonder if the innovation isn’t quite what the entrepreneurs think it is. The developing world already has well-established informal recycling, often referred to disparagingly as ‘trash-pickers’. Watch the fantastic documentary Wasteland if you want to see what it looks like. It’s not pretty or particularly efficient, but it works. People with no other employment prospects pick through the landfill of developing world cities, recover the plastic and sell it by weight for recycling. That already exists. What Plastic Bank appear to have done is brand that process, and turn the recycled plastic that it produces into something that consumers can feel good about.

Fair enough, especially if it means lower fossil fuel use making virgin plastic, and less plastic in the seas and in landfill. If they can bring Plastic Banks where those networks don’t already exist, they’ll certainly make a big difference. But since it depends on poor people picking up litter, it’s not a long term option. Ultimately it’s going to be better to formalise rubbish collection in developing countries so that plastic doesn’t get thrown away in the first place. And ideally nobody should be reduced to scavenging for rubbish to pay for the things they need.

So I suspect that Social Plastic has its limits as a long term solution, but more organised markets for recycled plastic certainly have a key role in the meantime. It’s got people talking and it’s raising the profile of recycling. If they get their way, we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the next few years as Social Plastic becomes more common.

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