I love stories about enterprising individuals making a difference in the world. That’s why David Katz’s story in a recent edition of Future Thinkers Podcast had my creative brain firing on all cylinders. Katz’s company, The Plastic Bank, rethinks plastic as currency instead of waste.

Image of plastic water bottles courtesy of Pixelbay.com

By creating an infrastructure that increases the value of used plastic items, people can use waste plastic as a medium of exchange, using plastic bags and bottles to purchase everyday goods and services like food, medicine, and electric utilities or to build wealth through cash or digital currency. 

I believe that to stop the plastic pollution problem, we have to stop the production of plastic waste. The Plastic Bank does this through a regenerative, circular economy approach to industrial production. Some circular economy supporters argue for a corporate responsibility model of the future that calls for “renting” items that people have historically owned and for making companies responsible for taking back used and discarded products. This approach requires rethinking government and corporate policies, changing existing market and incentive structures — an approach that would require decades of policy reform and political debate. The Plastic Bank provides a solution that rests on existing economic and market structures, changing the value of an existing waste product using a reclamation process that can be implemented without extensive policy changes.

Another advantage: The Plastic Bank expands the market and compensation options for informal waste pickers around the world, developing critical infrastructure to diffuse the unequal power balance in the waste management systems in so many developing countries.

However, will this for-profit solution undermine the hard work that organizations like WIEGO have done to obtain rights for informal workers in countries like India and Peru? These groups have organized informal women waste pickers, providing them with the power resources to access social and workplace protections like disability insurance and protective gear. Katz's model increases their competition: anyone can use The Plastic Bank. 

This opportunity doesn’t just exist in the Global South. During my recent research stay in Germany, I observed how people left glass bottles on sidewalks for informal workers to collect and redeem for cash, and most plastic bottles required a deposit and could be returned to a local grocery store for currency during checkout. As Katz mentioned, reconceptualizing plastic as currency makes this reclamation possible for people in all countries. 

In the podcast, Katz calls for focusing on stopping the flow of plastics into the ocean before worrying about cleaning up the ocean. Though I applaud the innovation that Katz has created, the cleanup effort is not a zero-sum game. The globe has sufficient human and other resources to both clean up our past sins and stop the flow of new waste.

I also appreciate that The Plastic Bank expands the financial time horizon of the world’s poor. By providing a new source of income and opportunity for wealth accumulation, people can worry less about everyday expenses and think about saving for the future. However, the assumption that the social justice movement “is all about victimhood” belittles the courage it takes to speak up for those who have endured injustice through marginalization, violence, and exploitation. Social justice is about acknowledging and taking responsibility for inequities, a simple act that many status quo institutions and social orders have refused to do. Extremely high interest rates for low-income borrowers is one injustice in financial and economic inclusion that Katz mentions in the discussion. 

I agree that staying stuck in victimhood robs people of their agency: some social justice advocates and organizations aggressively pursue publicizing violations and punishing the violators. Just as social justice movements should celebrate the success stories and their allies, so, too, should social enterprise advocates acknowledge that 1) not all problems can be solved with market solutions, and 2) not all who fail to thrive do so due solely to their individual efforts. Structure (like existing institutions, policies, cultural norms) work together with agency (personal efforts) and varies among jurisdictions. Not all places will be able to embrace The Plastic Bank without changes to existing institutions, policies, and norms that define the scope of an individual's ability to participate in this innovative market. 

As a clean tech advocate, I have seen technologies like jet fuel made from organic waste falter due to the inability to scale and multi-billion-dollar contracts for algae-based energy production backlogged due to slow patent licensing processes. Therefore, the current STEM-based policy priorities for creating a new generation of engineers and scientists and incentivizing technology-based solutions for our waste management and other utility crises ignore the need for better policies and practices to bring existing technologies to markets and people. When Katz stated that they have the technology to take all forms of plastic products (polymers) back to their raw state (monomers), I nearly squealed with joy. He described how a significant barrier to cleaning up our oceans lies in incentivizing people to collect old bottles, bags, and products instead of just tossing them into the trash or a nearby waterway.

By allowing people to exchange plastic refuse for other goods and services with monetary value, Katz provides the raw materials and production chain to eliminate oil and other raw inputs while also churning outputs back into the production cycle. With millions of tons of plastic waste in landfills and a garbage patch the size of France lurking in the Pacific Ocean (one of many), we have much (if not all) of the stock needed to meet consumer and commercial demand. Katz may have just turned your next water bottle or broken children's toy into gold.