Feature

David Katz, the Plastic Bank and battling poverty with blockchain

The Drum talks trash with Plastic Bank founder and chief executive David Katz, finding out how the entrepreneur and inspirational speaker has been blending blockchain technology with efforts to fight ocean plastic and poverty.

David Katz likes to talk in parables. It’s a useful habit, since the organization he leads aims for little less than miracle-making at scale. “Let’s say you were to walk over a field of diamonds,” he begins. “You’re struck by the wealth in them, all these beautiful diamonds glimmering in the sun. You want to pick them up, but realize there’s no bank you can deposit them in. There’s no store to spend them with and no one would barter for them. Would you pick them up? Probably not.”

The ‘diamonds’ Katz mentions are one of the least valuable commodities on the planet – plastic waste. Katz is the co-founder of the Plastic Bank, a Vancouver-based social enterprise that aims to help those in the developing world convert plastic waste into cash and goods, providing an additional source of income for those in the poorer parts of the world while preventing more plastic from entering the world’s oceans.

“It’s plastic as money,” he explains. “We’re a chain of bank branches. When you deposit plastic garbage by mass, you can withdraw cash or use a digital wallet to pay for the things you and your children need, like dental care, education, books, nutrition, cooking fuel, cell phone minutes… Everything you need and couldn’t previously afford can now be bought using the garbage beneath your feet.”

Katz claims the company’s system means the world’s poor can be incentivized to recycle, “so that every single home – especially in the developing world – looks at packaging as a secondary income. Then, it’s never burned or put into the river or dumped in the streets to begin with.” Meanwhile, the blockchain technology underpinning its digital wallets provides an “authentic platform for the value of plastic to be revealed, so there’s no opportunities for that value to be degraded by middlemen and mafia”.

Once the Plastic Bank’s customers have deposited a load of plastic at their local branch, the company sells it to manufacturers across the world as ‘social plastic’, to be recycled into new products. The company is already working with chemicals-maker Henkel AG, CPG conglomerate SC Johnson and retailer Marks & Spencer. Katz says the bank’s B2B side makes it simple for brands to contribute to “the repair of the Earth”.

After seven years in business, the bank has helped collect over 8,000 tonnes of plastic waste, which is the equivalent to about 400m plastic bottles, or about a billion coffee cup lids, or 500bn plastic straws. It’s now active across the globe, from Indonesia to Egypt to Brazil to the Philippines – territories home to stark economic inequality, but also responsible for a disproportionate amount of the world’s plastic waste according to a 2015 report by McKinsey.

Katz tells us that the original inspiration for the Plastic Bank came from his childhood on the western coast of Canada, where he’d walk along the beach to school collecting debris brought in by the tide. “Over the course of time I discovered that what we called beachcombing was just other people’s garbage showing up.”

Later, scuba diving led to a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the oceans. “You truly understand the magnetic existence of the ocean when you are in her. To truly understand how powerful and how significant the ocean is, you need to venture into her depths.”

Despite the idealism that informs the work behind the bank, Katz also holds respect for plastic itself. “Plastic is remarkable. But it has to be stewarded appropriately. We have to get away from single use, from mixed materials in bottles, and we have to make it powerful for people to recycle the material.”

Unusually for the co-founder of a company in the thick of the environmental space, Katz readily criticizes “the thinness of sustainability”. Instead, he argues that brands have business and moral imperatives not only to ameliorate environmental damage but to actively work to reverse it.

“We know that brands that stand for the repair of the Earth compared to those standing for more degradation will win. We’re entering the regeneration economy.”

He predicts that brands will soon be judged on their dedication to environmental repair – and notes how unforgiving the court of public opinion can be. “It’s either going to be Coca-Cola saying it is cleaning the world of Pepsi’s mess or Pepsi saying it is cleaning the world of Coca-Cola’s mess. Someone will have that story.

“This new generation, Generation Z – or as we could call it, the ‘Greta generation’ – went through the Great Recession. They have emerged into adulthood amid insecurity, expecting to see hyperinflation, mass protest and shortages. And they’ve been met with ocean acidification, climate change and marine debris. They’ve been living under the products of degeneration, of taking for the self before giving for others. The companies that will win that generation over are the companies that stand for the Earth’s repair and the benefit of all, not just the rich few.”

The Plastic Bank’s plan to monetize recycling and turn waste products into a proxy currency is the kind of imaginative scheme made for the regeneration economy. “We’re beyond a tipping point,” Katz declares. “There’s about 9bn tonnes of plastic on the Earth and all the plastic we’ve ever made is pretty much still here. If we do something that removes all economic value in the material, it’ll all make its way into the environment.

“This is the very moment that society needs to increase the price of recycled content. This is the very moment that we have to turn it into money for the world. And that’s precisely what we do.”

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