Every year, about 8 million metric tons of plastics go into the oceans. It’s not a new problem, but recent stunning revelations—like the existence of a huge floating cluster of trash known widely as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”—have been a wakeup call to the world about the scope of the problem.
There’s been talk of cleaning up the ocean using huge robotic skimmers, which is an option. But those of us at Plastic Bank believe it’s important to stress that the only real solution is to stop plastic pollution at the source: our research has shown that about 80 percent of plastic pollution originates on land. That’s why we believe that the long-term solution to the problem lies in creating an economically self-sustaining way of keeping plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place.
David Katz and I founded Plastic Bank on the simple, yet powerful vision that it was possible to set up recycling systems in economically disadvantaged parts of the world that would enable local citizens to monetize plastic pollution, converting into a liquid asset that can either be spent or saved. Think of it as a kind of convenience store for the world’s poor that accepts plastic waste as a currency.
The fact that our model creates a self-sustaining engine of economic mobility sets it apart from other plastic remediation plans. Nevertheless, we were realistic at the outset about the challenges we faced in making it happen. Economically challenged parts of the world—take Haiti, for example, where we started back in 2015—tend to have two things in common. First, a considerable majority of citizens—especially in rural areas—are “un-banked,” they lack access to traditional banking services. Second, they’re more vulnerable to institutional corruption, which makes any activity where wealth is accumulated vulnerable.
We knew that to deploy our program, we needed a secure and transparent system to track, record and store the value that citizens would “bank” when they turned in their recycled plastic at a local redemption center. And because we ultimately wanted to bring the system to wherever it could help local poor populations, we knew it needed to be both portable and scalable. Those criteria led on a straight path to cloud and blockchain.
To create our platform, we turned to an IT solutions provider that shares our socially conscious values, IBM Business Partner Cognition Foundry. Together we tapped the expertise of the IBM Garage team and used Design Thinking to visualize and co-create a solution based on blockchain technology. We developed an ultra-secure, scalable reward system—a blockchain banking platform—that uses The Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Fabric, deployed and managed with IBM Blockchain Platform, running on IBM LinuxONE servers on the IBM Cloud. The system is now fully deployed in Haiti, Indonesia and the Philippines.
To the people that matter most—those with a potential to change their lives through a new source of income—the technology is all but invisible. When people bring collected plastic to a Plastic Bank branch, they’re issued digital rewards that are stored on their mobile phone in a digital wallet. Like a traditional bank account, people can securely and transparently access, view and track their balances.
But the security and transparency of this virtual bank account derives from the fact that all the information is stored on a distributed blockchain ledger. Each time a person spends vouchers on daily lifestyle necessities—it could be school tuition, medical insurance, Wi-Fi, power, sustainable cooking fuel or high-efficiency stoves—the blockchain ledger logs entries that are both transparent and immutable. The system is all the more secure because it runs on the IBM LinuxONE cloud platform.
The other big benefit of running the digital rewards platform on the IBM Cloud is the ability to scale up deployments of the system to anywhere in the world, giving us the means to bring our proven model—environmental transformation conjoined with economic opportunity—to the many places it’s needed.
In addition to digital wallet balances, the ledger also tracks the movement of the new recycled plastic—we call it “social plastic”—back up the supply chain to manufacturers, such as Henkel and SC Johnson, whose purchases of the plastic balance the economic equation to make the program sustainable. Here again, the inherent security of blockchain from tampering or skimming was essential because it gave these companies the confidence—the trust—they needed to be willing to be part of our socially conscious enterprise.
Thinking without limits
In realizing our vision—creating a self-sustaining framework for reducing the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans while providing economic opportunity for millions of disadvantaged people around the world—blockchain is an essential element. But it’s really part of a bigger theme. For us, building a smarter business through technology means thinking exponentially, thinking without limits and just thinking of what could be and inventing the way to make it happen.
That’s what we’re doing now. With blockchain, we’re uniting a billion people to gather together to monetize ways of creating a social plastic revolution. It lets us unlock other peoples’ ability to solve local problems and be a conduit for change.
Watch Shaun Frankson explain how blockchain is a foundation of trust that allows them to grow and adapt as needed: