Revealing the Value of People

Article by:

David Katz
EO Vancouver
David Katz - EO Vancouver

They say in business, you don't pick your purpose— your purpose picks you. That's certainly true for EO Vancouver's David Katz, a 2014 EO Global Citizen of the Year Award winner who's incentivizing people in impoverished communities to recycle plastic and improve their lives. In this special interview, the founder of The Plastic Bank shares how revealing the value of plastic—and in turn, people—can change how we look at the world and the mark we make in it.

What inspired you to create a social enterprise around plastic?

DK: "I've always wanted to give back to the global community, but never knew how I would go about doing it. I found my calling during the 2013 EO Global Leadership Conference in Manila, Philippines. I was invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of Manila Ocean Park. It was the worst I had ever seen any ocean. Because the water was so clear, you could see how much trash had accumulated over time. A seed was planted in my mind in that moment, and I knew I wanted to use my passion and skills as an entrepreneur to clean up the environment. It wasn't until I attended a course at Singularity University months later that I began to really nurture the notion.

"I went into the 10-day course hoping for a new business idea. I wanted to build a social enterprise with a triple-bottom line: people, planet and profit. I wanted something that could impact a billion people or more. On the second day, I had a life-changing epiphany. I called Shaun Frankson, my right-hand man at my previous company, and shared my vision: We could make plastic waste a currency to help the world's most disadvantaged people. The problem with plastic is that people see it as waste, but if we revealed its true worth, we could make it too valuable to throw away. And if we could reveal the value of people in the process, we could unleash the potential of the impoverished and give them a platform to improve their lives. It was a win-win-win business model. We could limit plastic production, clean the ocean and change lives."

Why do you think people see plastic as worthless, and how does that contribute to the polluting of our oceans?

DK: "We don't see the true value in plastic because we've been taught over time that it's disposable. It's in pretty much everything, so it's easy to discard it and not think twice. But it's a fallacy to think that we can just throw it away— there's no such thing as 'away.' We dispose of it and it goes somewhere; that somewhere right now is the ocean. Roughly 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally every year, and only about 10 percent of that is actually recycled. Of the plastic that is trashed, an estimated seven million tons end up in the ocean each year. We all have an opportunity to change that. All we have to do is change our perspective on the value of plastic waste."

How valuable is plastic, and what are you doing to reveal that value?

DK: "People don't realize just how valuable plastic is. As a commodity, plastic is a two- to six-trillion-dollar market opportunity when it comes to mining. Pound for pound, plastic is worth more than steel. Why isn't plastic waste seen in the same light? Our goal is to make plastic too valuable to waste, and to use plastic as a vehicle to improve the lives of disadvantaged people around the world. Through The Plastic Bank, we're giving the world's poor an opportunity to exchange the plastic waste they collect for income. Half of the world is in poverty, with far too many people making little over a dollar a day. Our end in mind is to go beyond just providing an income and allow people to exchange plastic waste for healthcare, education and 3D-printing services. This will further empower them to earn more money for their families and communities, as well as create the items they need to live or start a business of their own. Essentially, by creating value in plastic, we're reducing global poverty, giving people new hope and stopping plastic from entering the ocean."

You launched a Social Plastic movement through your efforts. What does that entail?

DK: "We want to reduce the amount of new plastic that is created and used globally. We're doing this by creating a consumer demand for corporations to use our recycled plastic, which we call Social Plastic. Our goal is to lead the movement toward the worldwide demand of Social Plastic usage in everyday products, resulting in the reduction of plastic waste and poverty. Through this demand, we can eliminate the need for virgin plastics to be produced. The higher the demand becomes, the higher the reward will be for harvesting Social Plastic and reducing global poverty by empowering the disadvantaged.

"Since the launch of The Plastic Bank in 2013, the support for our Social Plastic movement has been gaining momentum. We now have almost one million Facebook fans, and supporters from more than 130 countries have signed our online petition. What's more, partnership requests are coming in from around the world. For example, LUSH, the first buyers of Social Plastic, agreed to purchase all of the recycled HPDE from our shoreline clean-up pilot project, in addition to funding a Plastic Bank location in Haiti. As we demonstrate the growing demand for Social Plastic, we hope to align with more partners and further establish a movement toward conscious consumerism."

What does the future of The Plastic Bank look like?

DK: "There's a lot of energy behind what we're doing now. We're incentivizing people to care more about plastic waste and see it as a viable solution to their needs. When you assign value to something that was previously thought of as trash, people will maximize their opportunities. We're discovering that more and more as we launch pilot programs in countries that need them. For example, in early 2014, we went to Peru to learn from the disadvantaged people who recycle for a living. We visited the areas where they worked, and were invited into their homes to learn what they truly needed to improve their lives. As a result, we completed our first pilot program in Lima a few months ago, and are now focused on launching full programs in Haiti, the Philippines and globally thereafter. We hope to launch Plastic Banks anywhere there's poverty and an abundance of plastic. The more lives we can touch, the better."

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