Earlier this year, Vancouver-based Plastic Bank announced that it had stopped 1 billion plastic bottles totaling more than 44 million pounds from entering the world’s oceans. To reach this milestone, Plastic Bank worked in partnership with more than 17,000 individual collectors across Haiti, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and Egypt. In exchange for the plastic they collect, these individuals receive premiums that help provide basic necessities, such as groceries, cooking fuel, school tuition and health insurance. Plastic Bank calls the recycled plastic it helps to produce Social Plastic, which it describes as “ethical plastic materials that empower disenfranchised people around the world through recycling.”
To achieve its mission, Plastic Bank partners with companies including SC Johnson, Henkel, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Coty, HelloFresh, Lombard Odier, Advansa, Carton Pack, Grove Collaborative, Ocean Bottle, Cognition Foundry, IBM, Gojek and PayMaya, which help to support collection efforts and/or purchase Social Plastic. By championing the integration of Social Plastic back into the supply chain, Plastic Bank’s partners are supporting a regenerative plastics economy that is stopping ocean-bound plastic while improving the lives of collector communities, the company says.
CREATING SUPPLY CHAINS
David Katz and Shaun Frankson founded Plastic Bank in 2013. Katz, who serves as CEO of the company, previously owned a GPS tracking and telematics business, Nero Global Tracking. He says his sale of that company helped in part to fund Plastic Bank’s start.
Plastic Bank founded its first Social Plastic “ecosystem” in Haiti in 2015. The company’s ecosystems are in coastal communities in developing countries and are funded in part by brand owners and retailers that want to use the Social Plastic produced through the ecosystem as feedstock in their products, displacing the use of virgin plastics.
According to Plastic Bank’s website, “Our goal is to override the market’s need for virgin plastic materials by providing ethically recovered material that also transfers its value to communities in need.”
Katz says, “Our customer wants to be able to have the impact of having an ecosystem built in the country that they get to support and sponsor.”
With the help of brand owners and retailers, Plastic Bank is expanding to Thailand, Cameroon and Tanzania this year.
Plastic Bank offers a variety of impact partnerships with different budgets. According to its website, partners can set a budget based on the amount of plastic they want to remove from the environment; can neutralize their staff’s plastic footprint by offsetting the amount of plastic pollution they create each year; or can create an impact system built into their products with the cost based on a percentage of their sales.
Once it has the commitment from a company that wants to consume the recycled plastic and help fund the development of the supply chain, Plastic Bank works to establish its collector network and partners with one or more companies in the area to process the collected material.
Katz says that as the volume of material collected and recycled in these countries grows, the companies that helped to develop the ecosystems get the right of first refusal for the recycled resins produced. “So, ultimately what happens is that our customers buy a supply chain.”
Plastic Bank’s partners include Germany-based grocery retailer Aldi, which helped to fund the ecosystem Plastic Bank established in Egypt, Katz says. Carton Pack, an Italian fruit and vegetable packaging converter and logistics company, uses the Social Plastic created through the ecosystem to manufacture fruit and vegetable packaging for Aldi.
German company Henkel launched its partnership with Plastic Bank in 2017 by establishing an ecosystem in Haiti. The company has since gone on to support ecosystems in the Philippines and Indonesia as well as helping to develop more than 400 Plastic Bank collection points in Egypt.
In 2020, Henkel says it used more than 600 tons of Social Plastic in its product packaging.
SC Johnson sponsors multiple ecosystems, including one in Indonesia, Katz says.
An SC Johnson spokesperson says the company's partnership with Plastic Bank has more than 300 collection points in three countries (the Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil) as of August, with a goal of 500 points across five countries once sites in Vietnam and Thailand are added in 2022.*
The company is using Social Plastic to produce Windex Vinegar and Windex Original bottles in North America and Mr. Muscle Platinum Window and Glass Cleaner in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
SC Johnson and Plastic Bank also are working together to establish new ecosystems in Tanzania and Kenya, Katz adds.
Alan VanderMolen, chief communications officer of Racine, Wisconsin-based SC Johnson (who also happens to be president of SCJ Giving), says the company sees partnerships as key to helping SC Johnson achieve its goal of having 100 percent of its plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. “Today, we sit at 62 percent,” he says.
All of the ocean-bound plastic that goes into the company’s packaging is sourced through Plastic Bank, VanderMolen says, adding that the companies are working to expand collection points in numerous Southeast Asian countries.
“We help [Plastic Bank] with their capital investments and help to fund collectors in these markets,” he says, noting that the economic incentives Plastic Bank provides collectors help to lift them out of poverty.
“We love the Plastic Bank model of going to the major sources of ocean-bound plastics and providing economic opportunity in underserved communities. I encourage more businesses to get involved with them,” VanderMolen says.
Since the company started its partnership with Plastic Bank, it has purchased about 10,500 tons of ocean-bound plastic, he says, adding that SC Johnson expects to grow that to 30,000 tons by 2022.
Any material that its partners do not consume is available for sale to other consumers through Plastic Bank.
The company does not operate any recycling facilities but instead partners with existing companies that are interested in creating a greater impact in their communities, Katz says. Plastic Bank works with these recyclers and reprocessors in the communities where it operates “to ensure that they’re creating a high-quality work environment.” He says Plastic Bank also provides consistent markets for the reprocessed plastics that are produced through its ecosystem.
In addition to plastics, Plastic Bank is delivering data to its processing partners. “They get an application that gives them clarity into what volumes of material are already in the community,” Katz says. “We know how many collectors [there are], and then we know the collection locations from the hubs, and we know what material has been returned to those hubs, so that the processor has insight into those hubs, like how much material is out in the community. So, that becomes very powerful.
“It also keeps them from having to use cash as much because the recycling industry, especially in the developing world, is very cash-based,” he continues. Working with Plastic Bank instead gives these processors the ability to transact digitally.
With its collectors, Plastic Bank uses an app it developed in partnership with IBM in 2016 to help track digital tokens that they receive in exchange for the material collected. These tokens can be exchanged via the app for necessities, such as groceries, cooking fuel, school tuition, health insurance and more.
“In partnership with IBM, Plastic Bank has created an ethical, auditable and fully traceable network. This ensures your impact as a partner is always 100 percent guaranteed and traceable to the kilo and location,” Plastic Bank says.
Katz says the app also offers a blockchain-based banking application, improving its collectors’ financial literacy and giving them access to savings accounts. This opens up access to loans as they develop creditworthiness over time.
“They can be more powerfully mastering their own lives,” Katz says.
*The online version of this article was edited to add the information from the SC Johnson spokesperson on the extent of that company's ecosystems with Plastic Bank.