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Can Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution Be A Path Out Of Poverty?

Can Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution Be A Path Out Of Poverty?

Plastic pollution is killing our planet. Walk down just about any urban street, visit any public beach or sit on the banks of any river, and you’ll see it: floating plastic junk. It’s in our sewers and our soil. When it rains, it flows out to sea and becomes the Great Pacific Garbage patch (or one of the handful of similar floating trash islands spread around the world).

A few facts to put the plastic pollution problem into perspective:

  • Just over 40% of all the plastic created in the world becomes packaging (Plastics Europe).
  • Americans throw away 25,000,000 plastic beverage bottles every hour  – that’s bottles only!
  • Each year, the world uses about 500 billion plastic bags. Each one has an average lifespan of 15 minutes (Plastic Oceans).
  • It takes a plastic milk jug takes 1 million years to decompose and a plastic cup can take 50 to 80 years to decompose.
  • Nearly every piece of plastic EVER made still exists today (

Horrified by this dangerous effect of our rampant consumption, we’ve tried a variety of tactics to stop the creation of plastic waste, even turning the trash into works of art, but still it flows. Perhaps we’ve failed because we’ve been going about it all wrong. Maybe the key to getting cleaning up these mountains of plastic litter is to prove that it’s too valuable to leave lying on the ground.

The Plastic Bank is an organization working to promote the concept of “social plastic.” They came up with this term when noticing that some of the most severe plastic pollution exists in poverty-stricken countries where environmental regulations are rarely enforced, if they even exist.

“Social Plastic is any plastic harvested by the poor and/or removed from an ocean, beach, or waterways,” explain the founders. “Social Plastic has the power to change the world.”

Confused as to how all these issues overlap and how we can address them simultaneously? Here’s how it will work: The Plastic Bank wants to turn plastic litter into a form of currency for those struggling with poverty. The idea is that those without work or in need of supplemental income would be responsible for gathering up plastic litter. The plastic waste could then be “deposited” at a central recycling plant. There it could be exchanged for various things including tools, household items, parts and 3D printed goods.

The idea is to put new value on waste plastic and facilitate its conversion into raw material while fostering a demand for “social plastic” that will help reduce waste around the world.

“People will harvest waste plastic and exchange it at The Plastic Bank for micro-credit loans to build their own businesses or to get access to 3D print shops where they can print out tools, household items or anything else they need – even from designs they create themselves,” explain the Plastic Bank founders. “Imagine the creative energy that is unleashed when people are empowered to earn credit and create what they need to improve their businesses, homes and communities.”

Currently, the organization is working to establish plastic repurposing centers around the world. The first is slated to open in Peru next year. You can learn more by checking out their current crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo.

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Image via Thinkstock

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3:38PM PDT on Oct 6, 2013

Great! Lets hope it is a big success.

4:01AM PDT on Aug 16, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

1:04AM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Plastic that decomposes quickly would be much better

1:30AM PDT on Aug 7, 2013


4:48AM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

All it takes is the one right idea...and this sounds like it. What a wonderful solution to a horrible problem.

7:40AM PDT on Aug 4, 2013

Any and all ways to clean up and recycle plastics is a good thing...and if it can help bring more affluence to the poor then all the better :-)

4:05PM PDT on Aug 1, 2013

Hopeful idea. Thank you for sharing.

7:38AM PDT on Aug 1, 2013

In 2011 i saw a programme on NHK about a recycling bank set up in Indonesia. It was started by a young lady sick and tired of seeing rubbish thrown in heaps on village outskirts.
Sometimes people would burn such rubbish and create toxic fumes, so health concerns also existed. As more people learned about earning credit from recyclables, taboos against being seen carrying rubbish start to be ovecome. Mothers supplement family income by creating tote bags out of snack wrappers. for example. Students buy these and learn about how they are made. Small children are taught recycling songs in pre-school, even. It was inspiring to hear.

7:17PM PDT on Jul 31, 2013

PLASTICIZED is an eye-opening story about the institute's global mission to study the effects, reality, and scale of plastic pollution around the world.

4:18PM PDT on Jul 30, 2013

Thank you for the wonderful news!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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