After backpacking through Southeast Asia, Andrew Almack became fascinated with the relationship between plastic and poverty. Seeing people constantly “surrounded by plastic” inspired him to start Plastics for Change (PFC), a multinational fair-trade organization, which is bringing a standardized recycling system to India’s 1.5 million informal scrap pickers who sort more than 6,000 tons of plastic per day.
“I chose to move to India because it has the greatest number of people living in poverty and the most amount of uncollected plastic,” says Almack, who moved to Bangalore in 2016.
India operates under an informal recycling and scrap picking economy, Almack explains. “Ninety percent is informal. They’re generally not registered companies. There’s a lot of varying forms of exploitation that happens in the informal, unregulated sector,” including child labor.
He adds, “Almost everything is downcycled into lower value products. There’s no quality control.”
PFC operates under a franchise model with one large franchise to each geographical zone in India. Each zone has about 15 active scrap shops, which accept plastics from the nearly 300 scrap pickers on the growing platform.
Pickers that collect plastics for a living connect with scrap shops and plastic traders through an app or text message system developed by PFC. The scrap shops issue a buy-sell transaction, which notifies the franchise partner that then picks up the plastics.
"We have a full-time quality control person, who certifies the plastic. It’s all standardized through the different franchises," Almack explains. "We verify it and sell it to our registered partners."
Through the system, scrap pickers “get paid on time, which is another big thing,” Almack adds. “If the scrap shop waits two weeks for an invoice, that means the picker has to wait. That’s really hard because they get caught in the cycle of poverty.”
After graduating with a marketing and entrepreneurship degree, Almack, who was born and raised in Canada, was working at the Ocean Conservancy to support PFC. He pitched his idea of a fair-trade plastics initiative to United Kingdom-based The Body Shop, which launched its Community Trade program in 1987. In exchange for valuable materials from emerging countries, the program ensures income for women among other benefits. The Body Shop was the first to back Almack’s plastics idea.
PFC recently received its first investment from World Vision Canada, which supports Canadian entrepreneurs working in developing countries. The backing has allowed PFC to expand to coastal communities in India.
“It’s pretty dire,” says Almack recalling his first time arriving in Cambodia. “You see people living in poverty, yet they’re living among this petroleum resource. There’s plastic everywhere. They’re surrounded.”
When Almack moved to India, the first thing he did was become a scrap picker for a day.
“It’s hard work. They bend over a couple thousand times. They walk 5 or 6 kilometers picking up trash,” he says.
PFC has not only helped build a more consistent and efficient supply chain of recycled plastics from emerging countries, but has inspired young men and women in India to start their own recycling ventures, including 33-year-old Mansoor, the oldest of eight siblings who became an informal scrap picker with his mother to support their family. He now owns a dry scrap collection area and employs local pickers.
“I hear incredible stories from all types of different struggles,” Almack says. “They want a better future for their kids. They want to go and be entrepreneurs in other forms. We just try to give them the tools to get there.”
After observing the plastic problem globally, Almack says the problems with sourcing plastics are quality, consistency and price.
“Consumer goods companies have a really hard time,” he says. “They can’t get the quality standards they need. If they do get the quality, they can’t get the consistency. They finally solve those two things, but then the price is too high and they won’t buy it. We try to solve all of those problems by being able to ensure the quality is all standardized from the franchises.”
By hedging the prizes over a three-year cycle, “we were able to stabilize the price,” Almack adds. “That gave us the foundation we needed to engage all these scrap shops and plastic traders on the app. We’ve developed this trading platform.”
While the plastic consumption rate is growing in emerging economies, the recycling infrastructure has not kept pace, Almack says.
“Consumption rate is growing in the double digits and you also have rapid urbanization. Cities like Bangalore have doubled in size in the last decade, so you can imagine the total size of the plastic problem in these countries doubles every five years,” he says. “The problem is getting a lot worse very quickly.”
At PFC, “we’re trying to bring the recycling system to these communities that are really struggling” and at the same time help global brands and manufacturers meet recycling goals.
Currently, the plastic is being used to make The Body Shop products, including 100 percent recycled plastic shampoo bottles.
“In India, only 40 percent is collected,” Almack says. “We need to act now. I think industry leaders that take action today will have a massive business advantage in the years to come as regulation steps in.”