It's beyond sobering and bordering on infuriating: Almost every piece of plastic ever made still exists today — and plenty of those bottle caps, lighters, pen casings, and plastic bottles have ended up in the ocean, where their accumulated debris have formed giant bits-of-plastic gyres in every major ocean on Earth. Gyres that will continue spinning until the plastic within them breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but will never really disappear.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Plastics do not biodegrade, although, under the influence of solar UV radiations, plastics do degrade and fragment into small particles, termed microplastics." Most of these microplastics (about 70 percent of them sink) make their way into the seabed, where they will likely form a layer of plastic for future geologists to stumble upon. Other plastics end up turning islands into Superfund sites or becoming dinner for bees.
The scale of our plastic addiction — a terribly useful substance, and so cheap that it's (too) easily disposable — is huge and growing, despite plastic bag bans and beach cleanup organizations. It seems like an intractable problem, especially since the vast majority of polluting plastic makes it into the ocean from storm-water runoff and from blowing off landfills, and neither problem is going to be addressed anytime soon. Plastics pollution can be particularly acute in countries where basic sanitation (forget about recycling) is barely existent and where people are more worried about day-to-day living than recycling (and understandably so).
Fortunately, the startup company Plastic Bank has come up with a super-smart system that solves both of the above problems: getting people to care about the plastic and potentially lifting them out of poverty because they do. The basic premise is that the company pays people — in kind, with items like food or clothing they can then sell, funding microfinance loans, by turning them into entrepreneurs, or even letting them manufacture what they need with 3-D printers. In a scheme that will surprise nobody who has seen the can-collection documentary, "Redemption," once you assign a value to something that was previously thought of as trash, people organize themselves in ways that make a system for collecting, sorting, and getting compensated for that former trash. See Plastic Bank's co-founders explain this revolutionary concept in their own words in the video below.
Co-founder Shaun Frankson explains, "Almost half the planet lives in poverty. We have over 300 million tons of new plastic created every year, and of that, about 7 million tons ends up in the ocean. How does that happen? What is the root cause? We found that a lot of places in the world, people are dumping plastic waste into the streets and then pushing it into the waterways. Plastic is not waste, plastic can be recycled. We partnered with companies to allow us to recycle every type of plastic. The Plastic Bank is a collection, exchange and 3-D printing exchange."
Because it turns out that, pound for pound, plastic is more valuable than steel — who knew?
The problem lies in the fact that to recycle it, the various types of plastic need to be sorted, which is the opposite of what happens once they make their way into the ocean ecosystem; as Plastic Bank's David Katz points out in the video below, there are places in the world where beaches are covered with more plastic than sand — to deal with it requires humans to sort it again. That organizing will happen at Plastic Bank sorting and recycling facilities in the countries where the project will be based, the first of which is Peru.
Why not just pay people cash directly for collecting plastic? Frankson says there are concerns with corruption. But it's likely also because of an idea the company calls "social plastic," which sounds like it will have an edge over other types of recycled plastic — at least from a marketing perspective for the companies that buy it.
"It's not just plastic they are collecting. It's....social plastic. Social plastic is any plastic harvested by the poor for reward, or taken from the ocean, beaches and waterways," Frakson says. "So companies can have not just recycled plastic, but social plastic, which also helps lift someone out of poverty."
And what happens to all that plastic? Useful items are made from them, leading to a cycle that connects real economic value to plastics, instead of the valueless state most of them live in now. Plastic Bank wants to make plastics "too valuable to throw away," and suggest that this is the only sustainable (not to mention cost-effective and empowering) way to keep plastic out of the ocean. According to their site, "As consumers begin to demand the use of recycled ocean plastics in the products they buy, the value of ocean plastics will increase. The more we can increase the value of ocean plastics world-wide, the less plastic will be discarded."