Port Moody’s Plastic Bank needs volunteers to save world, make money with recycled plastic
David Katz and Shaun Frankson
Since May, 2013
Plastic recycling and repurposing, microloans
Manufacturers using plastic feedstock
For Port Moody, B.C.-based entrepreneur and ocean-lover David Katz, there’s a dichotomy in a pile of used-up plastic — it’s a vile threat to the eco-system, and a potentially lucrative business opportunity.
The company he recently co-founded, The Plastic Bank, is aiming to remove millions of tons of harmful plastic waste from the world’s oceans, beaches and waterways through an innovative recycling program that will give people in developing nations incentives and tools to create their own businesses.
Early next year in Lima, Peru, The Plastic Bank — a triple-bottom-line organization that’s focused on helping people and the planet as well as making a profit — plans to open its first repurposing centre, a collection facility run by local volunteers at which mixed plastics are exchanged for credits to secure debt-free micro-loans for starting businesses, effectively turning waste plastic into a currency
The repurposing centre will also be outfitted with 3D printers, enabling plastic collectors to redeem their credits and turn the raw material into tools, parts and essential business and household items.
“They can take something that’s worth fractions of a penny and with a little bit of technology make it worth $10 to $15,” Katz says.
There’s certainly plenty of plastic waste out there. In 2011 there were 280 million tons of plastic produced worldwide, according to PlasticsEurope, a trade association representing European plastic producers. It’s hard to know exactly how much of this winds up in oceans and riverways, but the U.N. released figures in 2004 showing plastic waste kills more than 1 million birds annually, and great swaths of oceans, seabeds and beaches are covered in plastic bags, styrofoam, and other plastic products.
“You can’t help but think it’s a crisis,” says Katz. “Most plastic sinks. So what you see on the beach or floating is the tip of the iceberg.”
The Plastic Bank will aim to clean up beaches and waterways, and monetize the effort by selling the collected mixed plastic — which goes for 25 cents on the commodities market, “pound for pound more than steel,” according to Katz — to corporations for use as raw material in the manufacturing of products.
But first the company needs buy-in from businesses.
Katz hopes to achieve this by creating a “social plastics,” branding that can be built into a symbol of ethically sourced material, along the lines of Fair Trade-affiliated products. He also has visions of building repurposing centres in other parts of Latin America, plus Africa, Southeast Asia and India.
“Organizations are becoming socially responsible,” explains Shaun Frankson, who co-founded The Plastic Bank with Katz. “We want to show them how their purchase power can help impact the planet.”
But, despite its founders’ passion, the Plastic Bank has little brand recognition, and is having a hard time recruiting volunteers.
“Most people are volunteering for known brands,” Frankson says, “so it’s a bit of a tipping point challenge. You have to be out there enough that people start looking for you; it’s tough to essentially cold call someone to volunteer.”
And, in these early days, the Plastic Bank’s founders are struggling simply to fund operations as they work to raise awareness about the business’ mission.
The company is currently financed through revenues from Nero Global Tracking, a multi-million dollar GPS tracking company that Katz started in 2003. But Katz says he can’t keep pulling money out of this business forever.
At the moment Katz and Frankson are the Plastic Bank’s sole Vancouver-based employees, and they’re working virtually with a team of consultants and volunteers around the world to build their vision, part of which is to ultimately succeed as a for-profit company.
“The more revenue we make the more people we impact,” says Katz.
But because the Plastic Bank is a for-profit venture, the company cannot avail itself of any special grants offered to registered charitable organizations.
The company turned to crowdfunding, and as of mid-September had raised more than $12,535 through 218 donors on Indiegogo. That’s not much cash, Frankson admits, but he thinks the exercise has helped to lend legitimacy to the company’s mission.
Still, Plastic Bank’s founders know they won’t start making money until they can convince companies of the virtues of purchasing social plastic as a raw material.
Merril Mascarenhas, a managing partner with Arcus Consulting Group in Toronto, sees potential in the company’s vision. “Plastic is such a ubiquitous material, it’s probably used and discarded in every single country you can think of. They’ve got an advantage there.”
He recommends the Plastic Bank team seek out Canadian companies operating in countries where they want to set up shop, and attempt to establish strategic partnerships that will benefit both parties.
However, first they need to grow the brand, a difficult goal that depends on volunteers both to collect plastic and to raise awareness of the “social plastic” ideal across North America.
“Because it’s a new concept, there aren’t people today saying I want to go for volunteer for The Plastic Bank,” Frankson says. “There are a lot of people who would want to help, but they’d have to be educated first.”
The Plastic Bank is educating people through its Facebook page, which has over 25,000 fans, and just launched a Twitter account. And, once the company’s product is available for sale, Frankson says they’ll start targeted marketing campaigns in areas where social plastic products are available, and encourage corporate clients to advertise the fact that they’re using social plastics.
The goal is to get more volunteers on board, and eventually, he says, to become “visible leaders of the social plastic movement.”