Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Nonprofit Tries an Unusual Approach to Recycling Plastics

Late last week, Forbes discussed a Vancouver-based nonprofit that is attempting to use plastic waste to "Monetize plastic waste found in beaches and other waterways, turn it into a source of income for people at the bottom of the pyramid, and then recycle the stuff, so it’s not littering the planet. Oh yes, and give plastic collectors access to 3-D printers."

The concept is pretty easy to explain - people collect plastic waste and turn it in at a recycling or collection center. But then there is this unusual twist (or 2):
"So, someone, say, working in a gas station could collect all the bottles around, bring them to a local center, and exchange then for goods (not cash), at a rate of about 25 cents per pound. Each center would have a few basic items in stock. But mostly, people would order items from a catalog.

Or–and this is the really wild part–collectors can get access to a 3-D printer, which they can use to make items that have an impact on the community–a water filter, for example, or a sprocket– and then turn themselves into entrepreneurs by selling the stuff.

The more plastic they collect, the more they can lift themselves out of poverty."
The first twist - trading in the plastic for goods (most of which need to be shipped in at a later date) raised a few eyebrows in the comments section, as did the perceived irony of trading in plastic for 3-D printed plastic parts. My thoughts however, went to Brazil. As I learned at a recent plastics recycling conference that I attended, Brazil has very high recycling rates yet has very few established recycling programs. The success is due to people who pick up the trash for themselves and turn it in at recycling centers for immediate payment.

The proposed non-profit program has the paternalistic attitude of someone having decided that wastepickers need goods more than they need cash, or perhaps more properly, that in giving cash to the wastpickers, it would be poorly spent. Besides, unless there is extensive policing of the program, the goods could easily be converted to cash, and certainly for a lesser value than if the program had provided straight up cash.

This plastics-for-goods program adds an extra level of complexity to a simple program that has proven viable elsewhere. Is this really needed? I'm not convinced of it at all.

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