11/20/2014 05:47 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST

The Plastic Bank Fights Pollution and Poverty With Recycling

Plastic bottles await recycling at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset.
Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick
Plastic bottles await recycling at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset.

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

To his fellow citizens, Genaro Contraras is the lowest of the low--a waste picker. He makes his living gathering the plastic waste no one else wants from the plentiful heaps of garbage in Chorillos, a shantytown on the edge of Lima, Peru.

The world produces an estimated 265 million tons of plastic annually--enough plastic to make 13 trillion 500ml water bottles. Much of it ends up as waste. And millions of the world's poor, like Contraras, earn a meagre income gathering that waste. But where others see only garbage and garbage pickers, David Katz--Canadian entrepreneur and co-founder of the Plastic Bank--sees valuable currency and even more valuable budding businessmen. With the Plastic Bank, Katz reinvents plastic recycling in developing communities to tackle pollution and poverty simultaneously.

As a boy, Katz and his father sailed from Victoria, B.C., to Mexico. He still recalls the dismay of seeing beaches and the ocean itself fouled with plastic waste. That dismay came rushing back while visiting the Philippines earlier this year, where Katz saw Manila Bay blighted like the beaches he remembered as a child. "I thought then, there must be a solution to this problem."

What if we changed the way we think about plastic waste, Katz wondered? Instead of garbage, what if it was a valuable currency? When the product becomes valuable, so do the people like Contraras who gather it. They earn a steady income that allows them to create their own small businesses. They rise from waste pickers to recycling entrepreneurs. The idea for the Plastic Bank was born.

Plastic waste for recycling is an internationally-traded commodity, but the price fluctuates constantly. A profitable load of plastic today could be near worthless tomorrow. Waste pickers are the hardest hit by price volatility. "I'm often worried that I won't have enough money for my family when the price drops," Contraras says.

The British Columbia-based Plastic Bank partners with recycling facilities in developing communities like Chorillos. These facilities offer a stable rate of exchange per pound of plastic to people like Contraras. They also serve as combination banks and stores. The plastic becomes a currency the recycler can use to buy goods like food, clothing, or even to get microfinance loans.

"We reveal the value in resources around us, and we reveal the value in people," Katz says.

The Plastic Bank achieves stable prices for its recycling facilities by convincing major brands like Lush Cosmetics to use its recycled plastics in their products, such as clothing or cosmetics packaging. Again, Katz changes the way people think. The Plastic Bank doesn't sell those companies plastic, it sells the story of Contraras, who can send his children to school because of that plastic. For the company, that story is marketing gold.

Of course, every piece of plastic recycled is also one less piece polluting the world's streets and waterways.

The next evolution Katz envisions: installing three-dimensional printers in recycling facilities. Recycled plastic can become stock for these printers. Their plastic currency will buy recyclers time on a 3d printer that they can then use to turn some of their recovered plastics into items like cell phone cases, which they can sell, starting their own small businesses.

And the recyclers are getting paid in another currency: pride. The Plastic Bank changes how waste pickers think of themselves. Contraras is no longer ashamed of the job he does, and a door has opened to a future he could never have dreamed of before. "I don't want to be a recycler forever," he says, "eventually I want to become an entrepreneur and open my own recycling equipment plant."

From pollution to poverty, social enterprises like the Plastic Bank are discovering new solutions to old problems. And Katz shows us the key to successful social enterprises lies in changing the way we think, finding the value in people and things everyone else tosses aside.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.