Plastic Banks: Why the West Should Look to Island Economies to Solve Our Recycling Crisis

Let’s talk about trash. 

Unless you’ve been living under a very tidy rock for the past two decades, you probably know that trash—whether it’s plastic bottles, straws, fishing lines, or hidden-yet-terrifying microplastics—are a huge problem for our planet. This trash (read: mostly plastic) pollutes our rivers, chokes marine life, and creates huge infrastructure challenges for developing economies that quite simply cannot handle all that waste. Every year, about 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean: the equivalent of 5 grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline.  

For many people in the Western world, the expectation is that when plastic is placed in a recycling bin, it gets carted off and reused in some process down the line. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet in March of this year, a new headline was making waves: China is no longer accepting our “recycled goods.” This prompted many people to ask, “Wait. My trash was getting shipped to China?” 

While China was once an ideal market to remake trash into goods such as shoes or new plastic materials, the government says it can no longer process the waste. Other favored plastic-dumping grounds such as Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia have since followed suit by introducing their own waste import restrictions. With Americans and other industrialized economies consuming more than any time in history, this presents cities with two choices: pay significantly more for recycling services, or send the items to the landfill. Very few cities are choosing the former. 

This brings us, somewhat ironically, to the topic of islands. Given that plastic is used in pretty much every society across the globe, island economies have also had to deal with getting rid of plastic waste. Yet unlike the United States and other wealthy countries, these islands never had the luxury of sending their waste elsewhere. The irony now is that, thanks to massive restrictions on exporting plastic waste, neither do Americans. 

So what is the solution? It is time that we look to islands for the answer–in particular Haiti, Indonesia, and the Philippines where a recent innovation is changing the story of waste. Without the convenience of shipping waste elsewhere, islands among the most innovative at handling this challenge. While burning plastic or tossing it in the sea is still common, island communities not only have their own plastic to contend with: ocean currents wash ashore millions of pieces of plastic from all over the world, compounding this waste conundrum and forcing people to seek solutions. 

The solution? A Plastic Bank: a social enterprise that empowers disenfranchised communities to exchange any type of plastic for currency. Collectors take plastic to a collection and sorting site-—a Plastic Bank Branch—and exchange it for hard cash, cooking fuel, or other valuable items. By incentivizing plastic collection, not only are more items recycled, but people also gain access to a source of stable income they didn’t have previously. Members can also redeem their plastic for health insurance and first aid kits at some Plastic Bank locations.

With over 10,000 members globally, Plastic Bank proves that this model not only makes sense environmentally but economically as well. The recycled and re-processed waste turns into new raw material feedstock, called Social Plastic, that companies can purchase to make more environmentally sustainable products. When the company started nearly 7 years ago, it was a challenge to find companies interested in purchasing Social Plastic. Today, however, more companies are building their foundations on the notion of a circular economy, targeting a rising generation that is more interested than ever before in a company’s sustainability model. 

While Plastic Bank is revolutionizing island economies, this model still takes time. For many islands without this infrastructure, plastic waste often looks like the photo below: collecting gradually in mini-landfills, to be burned or buried at a rate that cannot keep up with its accumulation, for all passing by to observe and wonder at our impact on the planet. With nowhere left to send our plastic, will this be the future for developed and industrialized countries as well?

In many ways, this could be the start of a new consumer revolution. When—like small islands—trash is no longer out of sight, out of mind, we as consumers are forced to come to terms with the amount of waste we truly produce. We can no longer pretend that when waste is placed in the recycling bin and carted off, it magically disappears or transforms into a shiny new product. These countries, like the thousands of island communities before them, must now decide: do we come up with a solution we can employ on our own soil, or do we accept trash piling up around us as the new norm? Let us hope, with leaders like Plastic Bank pioneering the way, we choose the former.

Read more about this innovation as well as others working towards sustainable change here.

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