This article was originally published on guardian.com as part of the series ‘Sustainability Unwrapped’ sponsored by Henkel.

Paid for plastic: how a new recycling model creates cash for collectors

Henkel Beauty Care partners with Plastic Bank

Plastic is a major environmental pollutant, but the re-use of the material could dramatically increase by providing people in poverty with the chance to earn money through recycling schemes

Nearly 9bn tons of plastic has been produced since it first went on sale as a mass-manufactured product in the early 1950s – and most of it is still around. It’s buried in landfills, it litters the streets in some countries, and sooner or later large amounts of it enters our rivers and oceans. It has prompted some to claim that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish.

This isn’t just bad for the environment; it’s also bad for the global economy. As most plastic packaging is only used once, up to 95% of the value of the material – worth up to $120bn annually – is quite literally thrown away. In short, we’ve been treating something valuable as if it’s worthless. And that needs to change.

Banning plastic isn’t necessarily the best solution, as other types of packaging, such as glass or metal, often have a bigger carbon footprint. It’s also an incredibly useful material: it keeps our food fresh, for example, and it stops products from getting damaged during transport or drying out before we’ve had a chance to use them. But if a total ban isn’t the answer, what is?

Taking collective action

According to the New Plastics Economy, which brings together business, government and other actors to rethink and redesign the future of plastic, we should look to reduce the amount of plastic we use, reuse it wherever possible, and ensure it is recycled properly so that it stays within the plastic value chain – a concept known as the circular economy.

“We see it [plastic waste] as a systemic problem which no single organisation or part of the value chain can solve on its own,” says Sander Defruyt, new plastics economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We need the producers of plastics, the brands and retailers who use and sell packaging, as well as governments and organisations that collect, sort and recycle plastics, to work together in order to solve this issue.”

Henkel, a global chemical and consumer goods company, has risen to this challenge. As well as being a member of the New Plastics Economy and signatory of its Global Commitment, which unites businesses, governments, and other organisations behind a common vision and targets for addressing plastic waste, it is one of the founder members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. This is a group of global companies that have collectively committed $1bn to developing and bringing to scale solutions that will eliminate plastic waste in the environment.

The company’s sustainability strategy includes specifics about packaging built around three core principles that reflect the key phases of a circular value chain: materials from sustainable sources, smart packaging design, and closing the loop. There is a dual focus on recyclability (aspects of packaging that make it easier to recycle) and recycled content.

Ideally, all consumers should be able to dispose of packaging in a responsible way once they’ve finished using a product, but unfortunately this isn’t always possible in developing nations. “Research from around the world shows that the vast majority of ocean plastic comes from regions without adequate waste management and recycling,” says a spokesperson for the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. “In fact, about 80% of all plastic in the ocean originates on land, and 10 major river systems are the primary pathway by which unmanaged waste reaches the ocean.”

Plastic Bank is tackling the issue by providing people in poverty with the chance to earn money, goods or services (including medical insurance and school tuition) by removing plastic waste from the environment. In the countries where the social enterprise operates, traditional market prices for plastic are often too low to motivate people to collect it. By improving infrastructure and paying a membership bonus on collected plastic, Plastic Bank reveals the material’s true value and incentivises its recovery, thereby creating a stable source of income for collectors and their families.

In 2017, Henkel became the first fast-moving consumer goods company to team up with Plastic Bank. Through the partnership, three new plastic collection centres have been opened in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. More than 35 tonnes of plastic has been collected so far, the equivalent of more than 1.2m drinking bottles. “Plastic Bank is a great example of meeting the challenges we face and how we need to think about them holistically and creatively,” says Uwe Bergmann, director of sustainability management at Henkel.

Cooperation with the Plastic Bank: The plastic that is collected by local communities is sorted and processed, and then integrated into recycling value chains as Social Plastic®. Henkel has now included some of this recycled plastic in 25,000 bottles for its laundry and cleaning products.

Closing the loop

The plastic collected by Plastic Bank is sorted and introduced back into the value chain as “social plastic” – which means Plastic Bank has verified that the collectors received an above-market price for it. To date, Henkel has included this plastic in 25,000 bottles for its laundry and cleaning products, and plans to integrate it into even more of its packaging in the future.

Bergmann says this allows consumers to make a positive contribution to the fight against plastic waste. David Katz, founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, agrees: “When a company like Henkel takes material that has been collected and puts it into packaging that goes back on to the shelf, the person who then buys that bottle is helping to put an end to poverty, and they’re stopping plastic from flowing into the ocean.”

Indeed, we all have an important role to play in keeping plastic out of the environment and in the circular economy – and that starts with recognising that it is a material we really can’t afford to waste.

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