Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Plastic Bank is building a community of ocean stewards from some of the most polluted countries in the world to collect ocean-bound plastic. In this fireside chat, Phil Shuttlewood of Plastic Bank discusses how ocean stewardship must be transformed to reduce plastic pollution on our planet.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
As they work to turn plastic waste into worth, Plastic Bank is changing how we participate in a circular economy while saving our oceans.
Why should we care about the plastic pollution problem?
There’s a huge overproduction of plastics on our planet—it’s made from fossil fuels and it’s creating much of our trash. We’re dumping plastics every minute of every day.
Around 12 billion kilos of plastic gets dumped in the ocean and more than 80% of that amount comes from land. In fact, 12 billion kilos is the low end estimate. I’ve even seen estimates go up to around 21 billion kilos.
The current flow of plastic pollution has doubled over the course of the last 50 years. As we consume more goods, we’re consuming and wasting more plastic. For instance, in North America alone, we consume 84 kilos of single-use plastics within an average year. The biggest additives to that problem are consumer packaged goods, fast food products, and anything that is built for convenience.
When handling single-used plastics, we tend to think about the plastic pollution problem less because it’s immediately thrown in the trash. For example, I was at a gas station recently—I took fast food containers out of my car and threw it in the trash. I should’ve taken it home to recycle, but I wasn’t thinking clearly about it. When I was talking to a colleague of mine who is a sustainability director working in Hawaii, she said that even people who know better still throw a ridiculous amount of plastics away.
So, it’s important for us to be aware of the problem and our actions even if we’re not really paying attention. The problem will only become exponentially worse if we don’t intervene.
What are other major concerns of plastic pollution in the ocean?
Many animals are digesting plastics as food. Also, kelp and other forms of sea vegetation are actually the biggest swallowers of carbon. Since plastics float in oceans, it’s preventing these forests from receiving and swallowing carbon.
How is Plastic Bank reducing ocean plastics?
We help build ethical recycling ecosystems in the developing world to help teach people in those areas that the plastics that are burned or discarded into their environments have material value. We want to reduce material in waste streams and repurpose those materials in the circular economy.
When we’re talking about our responsibility to recycle, Plastic Bank is framing this in the context of countries who don’t have a functionally managed recycling ecosystem infrastructure.
We tend to work in areas where there are vulnerable and poor communities. We’re trying to monetize garbage because there are extremely high levels of unemployment in some areas that we’re working in. By highlighting that material value for them, we can show them they can derive an income from harvesting that plastic waste and turning that garbage into an actionable task.
By showing them the reward of collecting plastics, it becomes an activity that they’ll choose to go out and do themselves—even if we’re no longer in the picture.
How is Plastic Bank creating systems of employment for people around the world?
When a collector brings material into one of our collection sensors, they get two stages of payments. They receive the first payment immediately, which is the material value of plastic that is brought in. The material value of plastic is relatively low. It’s around $2,000/ton, so the raw material value of a single bottle is relatively low.
However, Plastic Bank ties this value to an additional bonus payment. On top of the first payment, collectors are given credit for every kilo of plastic that comes into our banks. They can use that credit for all sorts of items in our program—it could be additional cash or items they may need for the future. For example, they can trade credit in for fresh food, clean water, toiletries, sanitary items, medicine stationary, etc. Every credit is equivalent to 50 individual plastic bottles, so 1 kilo is 1,000 individual credits.
As the program is expanding, we’re doing more to look at higher ticket items to give collectors the ability to save up for items that can improve their livelihoods such as a cell phone, bicycles, or health insurance.
How do you define ocean plastics vs. ocean-found plastics? How are these plastics managed by Plastic Bank?
The definition varies for different people because it depends on what you do with the plastic afterward (ocean-bound vs. contained),
Ocean-bound plastic is plastic waste at risk of ending up in the ocean. Ocean plastic is a plastic material that ends up being any material within 50km of the ocean, which is normally mismanaged.
For us, as soon as collectors gather the plastic, it’s no longer ocean bound because it’s been contained. At that stage, it’s still plastic trash. We’re trying to bring all that plastic back into the circular economy.
We work with processes in the country to turn that into a feedstock. Then, we work with companies that are able to use that plastic in a meaningful way. Companies such as S.C. Johnson and Henkel are major partners. Fun fact—everyone who has a bottle of Windex in their homes has a product that’s made from our material. You’ll see an ocean bound plastic sticker on it and a Plastic Bank logo.
Do all plastics get recycled?
We educate our collectors on which plastics have the highest value because it’s a value proposition for them. Collecting plastic trash is a job for them.
The global poverty line is $70/day, so we need to understand the best way they can make a return on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. We teach them about the different types of plastics such as PET and PP plastic.
Rigid plastics are the most recyclable, so they have the highest value. Flexible plastics like bubble wrap are the hardest to recycle. We will sometimes find some material that is too destroyed to be recycled. They can’t be recycled in a meaningful way, but we still have streams where we handle this in the most responsible way possible.
Even if you recycle your plastics, it isn’t necessarily being efficiently recycled. I live in Vancouver and 80% of materials are accepted for recycling. However, there’s a lot of other materials that could be recycled but still aren’t officially recycled today.
What are some challenges that impacted the adoption of Plastic Bank programs?
One challenge is finding collectors. Plastic Bank is currently in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Egypt, Cameroon, and Brazil. Collectors in these areas live in a survival mindset instead of a thrive mindset. They’re more focused on putting food on the table or their child’s safety than the plastics in their environment. It’s important to educate communities on the harms of plastic pollution and provide a plastic-based economy to support their livelihoods. In our case, we’re engaging them in a revenue stream.
Another challenge is obtaining sponsors or getting companies to purchase the plastic we’re providing because cost becomes an obstacle. For example, if you look at Coca Cola and Pepsi, the cost of the bottle is the most expensive part of the process. If we tell them that our services are going to increase that cost, it damages their bottom line. Cost is a reason why companies tend to accept the plastic pollution problem and move on, even though they understand the nature of the issue.
What is the impact of Plastic Bank so far?
So much exciting news! We received the Social Impact Award from Reuters at the Responsible Business Awards in 2022. We’ve also stopped 3 billion individual plastic bottles from reaching the ocean. We’re very happy with the impact, but we need more ocean stewards to come on board, whether they’re individuals or companies that want to scale their impact.
How can we take action moving forward?
We must continue being conscious of how we handle our waste and how we consume. Remember that every dollar you spend is a vote for that company to continue operating, even if they’re contributing to the plastic problem. Also, don’t get discouraged by your own recycling networks—do the best you can to recycle what you have.
Get our free bite-sized climate action plans before you go!