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This Strategy Tackles Ocean Plastic, Poverty at the Same Time

When it comes to tackling plastic pollution, cleaning up the ocean is the last thing we need to do, insists environmentalist and entrepreneur David Katz.

“If you were to walk into a kitchen, sink overflowing, water spilling all over the floor, soaking into the walls, you had to think fast, you’re going to panic. You’ve got a bucket, a mop or a plunger. What do you do first?” asked Katz last week on an episode of “TED Radio Hour” on National Public Radio. “Why don’t we turn off the tap? It would be pointless to mop or plunge or scoop up the water if we don’t turn off the tap first. Why aren’t we doing the same for the ocean?

Even if ocean cleanup efforts were 100 percent successful, it would be “too little, too late,” he said.

“We’re trending to produce over 300 million tons of plastic this year,” Katz added. “Reportedly 80 percent of ocean plastic is coming from those countries that have extreme poverty.”

Katz is the founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, an organization he says is the first—and so far only—to monetize the collection of recycled waste for the benefit of the world’s disadvantaged.

Plastic Bank operates a chain of stores for the “ultra-ultra-poor” in countries like Haiti, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines, where people can purchase just about everything—school tuition, access to medical care, groceries, fuel, Wi-Fi, cell-phone minutes—using plastic garbage by weight.

Sellers can also receive cash, which Plastic Bank transfers into a digital wallet using a blockchain banking application that “removes the middlemen and the corruption.” All the recovered plastic is cleaned, sorted, crushed, baled up and delivered to companies like Henkel and S.C. Johnson to turn into new packaging.

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Katz calls this renewed plastic “social plastic.” Not only does the commodity generate social good but it helps create a circular economy, too.

“Now [when you] buy shampoo or laundry detergent that has social plastic packaging, and you are indirectly contributing to the extraction of plastic from ocean-bound waterways and alleviating poverty at the same time,” he said.

Katz wants to create a new paradigm that turns resources, like plastic, into a form of currency that is never thrown away.

“We take a material value, exhibit the value of it, allow people to benefit from that value,” he said. “It goes back into packaging, it comes back into society. The value is revealed again. It’s collected, put back into packaging, and on and on. And I think, importantly, as well, when we equate it to, like, a dollar bill—if you’ve got a dollar bill or a $5 bill, you go to the store. You pay for something with the $5. The $5 is not destroyed. It’s circulated.”

And Plastic Bank’s model, Katz said, is completely replicable.

“In São Paulo, a church sermon encourages parishioners to not just bring offering on Sunday, but their recycling, too. We then match the church with the poor,” he said.” Or, like in Vancouver, any individual can now return their deposit refundable recyclables, and instead of taking back the cash, they have the opportunity to deposit that value into the account of the poor around the world.”