David Katz: How Can We Address Ocean Plastic Pollution And Poverty At The Same Time?

Dec 7, 2018
Originally published on December 7, 2018 10:49 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Circular.

About David Katz's TED Talk

Millions of tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year. David Katz's Plastic Bank helps turn off the tap — and gives the poor an income source — creating a circular economy around plastic waste.

About David Katz

David Katz is the CEO of Plastic Bank, one of the world's first organizations to create a monetary system around recycled plastic waste. At its collection centers, people can trade in plastic trash for things like cell phone minutes, fuel, or even school tuition.

He has appeared in publications like Forbes, TIME Magazine, Fast Company, and National Geographic.

He is the winner of the United Nations Lighthouse award for Planetary Health and the Paris Climate Sustainia community award.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about building a more circular world.

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RAZ: How does most plastic end up in the ocean? Like, how does it get there?

DAVID KATZ: Well, my experiences traveling around the world continue to exhibit that in those areas with extreme poverty, those communities, those governments that may not even have food for their population certainly have no consideration of garbage collection or recycling.

RAZ: This is David Katz. He's an environmentalist and entrepreneur.

KATZ: And what occurs is that the population has to do something with it. Now, they either put it into big piles and they burn it, or they throw it into the canal or into the streets or the riverbed. Typically, around the world, there are two seasons. There's the great collection, and then the purge. The dry season, when the riverbed is filled. And then in a monsoon, or in the rainy season, it all flows out.

RAZ: It all flows out, and a lot of it ends up in the ocean - 8 million metric tons of plastic every year. And, yeah, it rips and tears and gets smaller. But unlike organic trash, plastic doesn't go away.

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MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: It's being called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: It's twice as big as Texas.

MARTIN: It's made up of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Trash gets sucked in, and it doesn't get out.

MCCAMMON: And most of it is plastic.

RAZ: So you might think David Katz is on some kind of mission to clean the ocean, but actually, his goal is to create a circular system - a system that stops the plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. David explains his idea from the TED stage.

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KATZ: If you were to walk into a kitchen, sink overflowing, water spilling all over the floor, soaking into the walls, you had to think fast, you're going to panic. You've got a bucket, a mop or a plunger. What do you do first? Why don't we turn off the tap? It would be pointless to mop or plunge or scoop up the water if we don't turn off the tap first. Why aren't we doing the same for the ocean?

Even if The Ocean Cleanup project, beach plastic recycling programs or any well-meaning ocean plastic company was 100 percent successful, it would still be too little, too late. We're trending to produce over 300 million ton of plastic this year. Reportedly 80 percent of ocean plastic is coming from those countries that have extreme poverty. And that is exactly why I created The Plastic Bank.

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RAZ: Describe what The Plastic Bank is. What does it do?

KATZ: We're the world's largest chain of stores for the ultra-ultrapoor, where everything can be purchased using plastic garbage by weight. And when I say everything, I mean those things that are the most important, like school tuition or access to medical care, sustainable cooking, fuel, Wi-Fi, cellphone minutes. Everything that the world's poor need and, quite often, can't afford, available now using plastic garbage.

RAZ: So with The Plastic Bank, I guess you saw a way to kill two birds with one stone, right? You stop more plastic from getting into the ocean, and then helping people in need at the same time.

KATZ: Correct.

RAZ: So how many countries do you operate in right now?

KATZ: Well, we're in Haiti. We're in Brazil, the Philippines and now Indonesia.

RAZ: So in any of those countries where people have access to the store, they can go in with, like, old plastic stuff, and just - it gets weighed, and they get paid an amount of money. And that plastic, then, is recycled.

KATZ: Correct.

RAZ: Wow.

KATZ: It's simple.

RAZ: And they get cash?

KATZ: And they get cash. And we transfer it into a digital wallet. There's a blockchain banking application as well so that we can remove the middlemen and the corruption, so we can ensure that the greatest reward is provided for the mass of material.

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KATZ: Our chain of stores in Haiti are more like community centers, where one of our collectors, Lise Nasis, has the opportunity to earn a living by collecting material from door to door, from the streets, from business to business. And at the end of her day, she gets to bring the material back to us, where we weigh it, we check it for quality and we transfer the value into her account.

Lise now has a reliable source of income. And that value we transfer into an online account for her. And because it's a savings account, it becomes an asset that she can borrow against. And because it's online, she has security against robbery. And I think more importantly, she has a new sense of worth. And even the plastic has a new sense of value.

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RAZ: So when people bring their plastic into a store, and then it's sorted, and then is it shipped off like that, or is it processed into material in the countries and then shipped off?

KATZ: When we receive the material, and we'll talk about Lise Nasis. When she's out during the day collecting material while her girls are in school, she brings it back to us. When it comes into one of our centers, it's weighed. And then she separates it. And she puts the high-density polyethylene where that goes, or the low-density where that goes, or the PET where that goes. And it's separated by color, as well. And then she takes off all the labels, and then the caps and the rings, if the bottles have those.

And then we transport that to a facility that will crush it. They'll actually put it into a compactor and bale the same type of material, the same color of material together. And that bale can then go onto a shipping container. And then we ship that to our customers' bottling facilities, where they then turn it into a pallet and then that gets turned into a bottle.

RAZ: And, just to be clear, the people who take your plastic pellets and then turn it into bottles, I mean, a lot of these are companies that make cleaning products. Like, companies who actually may have created some of the plastic in the first place.

KATZ: Yeah. Yeah. Like Henkel and SC Johnson and those. Right.

RAZ: Yeah.

KATZ: And they are paying a little bit extra for the material that then goes back into their bottling - shampoo, household cleaners. And then that bottle, we would hope, is recycled again in the communities that their customers bought that product.

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KATZ: And that model is completely replicable. In Sao Paulo, a church sermon encourages parishioners to not just bring offering on Sunday, but their recycling, too. We then match the church with the poor. Or, like in Vancouver, any individual can now return their deposit refundable recyclables, and instead of taking back the cash, they have the opportunity to deposit that value into the account of the poor around the world.

RAZ: So you look at this and you say, all right, we need to go to the source of this. We need to take the plastic before it even hits the ocean, and then just collect it. And then we can recycle this into material that can be used in other recyclable products?

KATZ: The beauty, as it unfolds for us, is that we create a new paradigm around the material. We are much more like a bank than a store. You know, we are an opportunity. Like, our newest center is on the island of Bali, where our bank branch engages the population to bring us their household material before they go grocery shopping. And then they have the opportunity to buy more rice, buy more oil, buy more other things.

RAZ: I mean, it's sort of clear that what you're trying to do here is to create a circular economy.

KATZ: What we do can't be considered anything but circular. We take a material value, exhibit the value of it, allow people to benefit from that value. It goes back into packaging, it comes back into society. The value is revealed again. It's collected, put back into packaging, and on and on. And I think, importantly, as well, when we equate it to, like, a dollar bill - if you've got a dollar bill or a $5 bill, you go to the store. You pay for something with the $5. The $5 is not destroyed. It's circulated.

RAZ: Sure.

KATZ: It continues to circulate. And that's what we do, but with plastic.

RAZ: It's, like, create a commodity out of plastic.

KATZ: We've created a currency out of plastic. That's what we've done. So it is never thrown away.

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RAZ: David Katz, founder and CEO of Plastic Bank. To hear his full talk, go to ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.