From time to time, we invite industry thought leaders to share their opinions and insights on current technology trends to the In The Making blog. The opinions in these blogs are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IBM.
The desire to change something and make the world a better place requires a strong vision. The right kind of technology is essential to turn that vision into reality. We learned the power behind this vision-and-technology combination while initiating our global recycling venture, The Plastic Bank.
Previously, I was VP of a global positioning system (GPS) technology company founded by my current business partner, David Katz. We were discussing a for-purpose business as a next venture. While traveling about looking for inspiration, David called me one day to say, “I’ve got the idea. We can make plastic too valuable to enter the ocean. I don’t know how; we’ll figure it out. It just feels like it’s what we have to do.” David’s vision was clear.
Finding a cure for ocean-polluting plastic
Plastic is a real threat to the ocean environment, coastal regions and sea life. The problem has greatly accelerated within the past few decades as the amount of plastic in the oceans continues to grow. But what if a piece of plastic was worth the right price? The result is the elimination of plastic litter, and the scavenged plastic can be exchanged for other goods.
In developing countries, we discovered that about 80 percent of plastic refuse comes from areas with high levels of poverty and no effective waste management systems. We set out to create recycling systems in those areas. Stabilizing the reward for plastic at a fair price was often the tipping point, creating a dependable recycling activity that gives collectors a sense of pride.
In addition, many people we work with in developing countries lack bank accounts, and dealing in cash can be dangerous for them because of corruption and crime. But almost everyone—even in disadvantaged areas—has a mobile phone that supports digital transactions. We realized that to take our venture digital we needed more expertise, so we began working with IBM and IBM customer Cognition Foundry on a solution employing blockchain technology.
Securing digital transactions with blockchain
With blockchain, we saw how to prevent much of the danger and mistrust involved in using a cash-based system. A blockchain reward system made it possible for people to safely earn and spend Plastic Bank digital tokens. Now, people in these regions with no other resources can collect enough plastic refuse to provide for their families. The volumes of plastic they bring to established recycling centers can be exchanged for digital tokens that enable them to buy goods: food, water, phone-charging credits and more. Anyone running any kind of store can use our app, allowing the exchange of digital tokens for items in the store.
Some of the world’s largest corporations are buying and recycling the recycled plastic with the expectation that it is helping to stop ocean pollution and improving lives. These companies like the transparency blockchain provides; they know that their investment is going where it needs to go.
We’ve been inundated with demand for our solution. If we were using the old-school way of setting up teams and locations one by one, it would take far too long to stop the abundance of plastic making its way into our oceans. We need systems that can grow dynamically and handle billions of tons of collection from multiple locations at the same time. And that is where the IBM LinuxONE system comes in.
Growing fast without crashing the system
One thing we wanted to avoid was having our project succeed so much that the system crashed. Using blockchain on LinuxONE, we’re set up to scale exponentially from day one, and it’s also highly secure. Security is extremely important because a lot of people’s livelihoods depend on it. We expect to serve 20 to 30 different countries—all with independent ecosystems of people and stores.
In the future, we plan to add analytics capability to our app, helping stores better manage their business. We’re also evaluating visual recognition based on IBM cognitive technology, enabling us to identify different types of plastic and provide more reward for highly valued types.
When we started The Plastic Bank, we needed the most trusted partners to help us get it right and an extremely reliable technology to run everything. IBM LinuxONE offers a foundation that aligns all of the other solution pieces. No matter how our vision evolved, and even when the numbers got huge, one thing we heard consistently was, “That won’t be a problem on this system.”
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