Vancouver-based plastic recycling initiative wins sustainability award in Paris

The Plastic Bank, a Vancouver-based social enterprise that encourages people living in poverty to collect and exchange waste plastic for goods, services and cash, has won the Sustainia Community Award at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris.

The international award, given to a solution, technology or initiative with significant potential to build a more sustainable future, recognized the Plastic Bank’s solution to alleviate extreme poverty while cleaning up ocean plastic and reducing new plastic production. The award was founded by sustainability think-tank Sustainia in collaboration with Regions20, a non-profit environmental coalition of regional governments (including B.C.), and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This year, two-year-old Plastics Bank concluded pilot programs in Peru and began full operations in Haiti with 32 “Social Plastic Recycling Markets” where recycled plastic can now be exchanged for such things as cash, solar powered phone charging, Wi-Fi, sustainable cooking fuels, water purification, fortified rice, toys and soap.

The organization is using a franchise model to partner with existing local recycling facilities and organizations.

In Haiti, Plastics Bank founder David Katz and co-founder Shaun Frankson found an existing business in bankruptcy, took over the infrastructure and overlaid their model.

The beauty in the system lies in its simplicity, Katz said. “If every bottle you came across in the streets of Vancouver was worth $5, how many would you see in the garbage? None.”

The model alters the perception of garbage pickers, he said. A student bringing in waste plastic in exchange for Internet access is no longer viewed as a “waste picker,” but a smart student. “If you’re getting cooking fuel, now you’re just a smart homeower.

The Plastic Bank pays above global pricing for returned plastics, which it then resells to manufacturers as Social Plastic branded pellets at about double the normal cost of recycled material, but the same price as virgin plastic. Manufacturers “get the entire social story with it and that’s how we can pay more,” Katz said.

Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Seventh Generation “have begun a relationship with us,” Katz said.

The Plastic Bank has also created a heavy-use plastic extruder that makes 3D printing filament from waste plastic and has made the plans publicly available. The intent is to enable communities to print useful products they can sell as entrepreneurs.

To date more than 400 people representing 70 countries have applied to operate a Social Plastic Recycling Market in their region, the company said.

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