The Plastic Bank | Interview with Shaun Frankson
Recently The Plastic Bank had a brief cameo in The International Ocean Film Tour, Vol 4. In their own words, “The Plastic Bank is a platform for the world to gather together to alleviate global poverty and Ocean Plastic. It is a convenience store for the world’s poor that accepts plastic waste as a currency, and is sustained through the use of Social Plastic.” When I saw the footage of local residents of the Island of Haiti collecting trash (plastic) from the ocean, I admit my ‘wow-factor’ was somewhere between lukewarm and totally indifferent. Then they explained how these same residents were earning a living by collecting ocean bound plastic refuse and GETTING PAID TO DO SO. Ok, now I’m listening.
How is this possible?
I had to find out more, so I turned to the source, Shaun Frankson (and his business partner David Katz) to get the low down and dirty.
Slickster Magazine – In your recent TED talk you quote Spiderman, or screen writer David Koepp, and say, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Who exactly are your referring too? Who has great power, and what is their responsibility?
Shaun Frankson – Most people underestimate the fact that the modern consumer are the most powerful force on Earth. We have this power, that if everyone is purchasing the same way, every single company in the world will have to adapt to that purchasing habit. When we look at the rise of responsible consumerism… We look at the millennial trend where people are looking for cause, looking for impact, and essentially don’t want to support companies doing evil. I think the responsibility comes when using your power of… As I said in my recent TED talk, as a blind consumer and you just purchase random things, you are using your power to vote for all the things that are going wrong on the planet. But, if you’re a responsible consumer and you’re looking to make the right decisions, then you’re intentionally using your purchase power for good. That’s where EVERYONE can have an epic power.
So, Spiderman is your favorite super hero?
I’ve always been a huge superhero fan. I think that might even be one of the things that attracted me to the world of social entrepreneurship. That’s the way to be the ultimate modern day superhero without risking your life! I think the X-Men have always been my favorite superhero team. As someone who grew up the the 1990’s X-man cartoon, I think that was the first to get me into the world of superheroes.
Who is your favorite X-man?
My favorite X-man used to be Gambit, but I think Wolverine’s interest comes with a cool job lately.
Wow! Gambit! Interesting choice… kind of a dark horse on the team, but very cool.
In that cartoon, they did such a good job with Gambit, I haven’t seen anything that cool with him since.
So, would you prefer the X-men cartoons over Captain Planet?
Yeah, definitely would, but maybe there’s a way they can redo Captain Planet. They should just make X-men the same as Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Have the X-men saving the world and the environment and then you have a win-win!
You said in your recent talk, “80% of ocean plastic starts on land in vulnerable regions that have no existing waste managment systems“. You went on to list three examples, Peru, the Philippines and Haiti. Currently, you and David are established in Haiti. Do you have any plans to expand to Peru or the Philippines?
Yes, the Philippines are where we are expanding into right now. Indonesia will be next at the end of the year. Since we’re developing an entire app based platform, that’s what we plan to use to expand globally all at the same time. We started actually by doing our research in Columbia and Peru, learning what was working, what wasn’t working, and that’s where our experience with Peru came in. Now that Haiti is fully up and running, we can look towards what’s next.
Can you explain in more detail what your research involved in Columbia and Peru?
Sure. A big starting point for us was to remove any assumptions. We didn’t want to go in ‘with all the solutions’ but spend time talking to, speaking with people who collect plastic for a living, look at what’s working, what wasn’t working, how to do it… One of the biggest things we learned from that is, 1.) If someone is collecting plastic and one day they get told is, “Oh, the price is less than it was yesterday.” These people are very uneducated, living in extreme poverty, didn’t understand that the price of recycled plastic has a correlation to petroleum prices. So, when you try to explain to them that you aren’t paying them less, but that the prices have changed, it becomes a very difficult conversation. They feel marginalized, and that people are trying to take advantage of them and it makes recycling a diminishing experience.
So, the first thing we learned in the Peru example, if we’re going to make this work on a global scale and keep people from feeling diminished, we need to figure out a way to gain the dignity and pride point… where’s it not a ‘waste picker’ job (Editor’s note – Waste Picker is slang terminology used globally to describe this practice of collecting trash for pay.) Instead they are the proud entrepreneurs, who are the champions of their community. That was one of the first ones we learned with the dignity side. Then with the price stability, it can’t just be, “lets sell commodity plastic“, the price goes up, the price goes down. If we can have our own ‘social plastic’, where any corporation using social plastic is paying a price to guarantee that the person collecting it gets enough to improve their life, they get enough to help pay for their children’s eduction. We can have that guaranteed impact price built in, is when we can take away someone feeling diminished, because it’s now worth so much less than it was before. About two years ago, it’s not talked about very much, but about 90% of the world’s recycling went away when the global price of oil went down.
In a 2016 interview with the BBC, Mr. Katz mentions Brazil as the next location for the implementation of The Plastic Bank. Sixteen months later, how’s this going? Is Brazil still on the radar?
Yes. We have a member in Brazil doing all of the ground scouting. Brazil is one we plan on expanding to, once we have the app based platform up and running. We are piloting, or launching, in the Philippines. We have corporate sponsorship that wanted to invest and get the Philippines’ infrastructure up and running. Other than China, southeast Asia is the worst contributor to ocean plastic on the planet. So, there is a sense of urgency to put in the systems to recapture those products that are going into the oceans in southeast Asia. That’s why we shuffled the order a little bit.
How do you recruit program leaders in vulnerable areas? For example in Haiti you have Sephora Pierre-Louis, who functions more as a executive leader, but you also have your foot soldiers like, Johnny Atilus or Richardson Gustave. These are the guys who down working in the trenches everyday. How do you get good people in these critical positions?
This is another lesson we learned from Peru. It can’t be our team from Vancouver going in and doing things, setting things up, recruiting… That’s just coming from such a blind starting point. What we do is work with a lot of local NGOs. We see what’s working, who is on the ground, who is doing good jobs and then we can offer opportunities to someone who is already has an ‘on-the-ground’ presence in these countries and work with them on similar projects. In Haiti we took over an existing program that was struggling. We revived the program, kept everyone employed, and kept the impact in the community. On a global scale, we have a very positive partnership with World Vision. World Vision has a lot of communities that they are helping. They work with a lot of sub groups within those communities, and they’ve been an amazing partner to spot the champions within the communities. They find the individuals who can really make this succeed. That’s how we expanded into the Philippines, and that’s how we plan to expand into most countries around the world. Even in these vulnerable regions, there are always champions who are social entrepreneurs at heart.
Shaun, you have a lot of tattoos on your arms. Does this help to win the fight against ocean plastic and do activists need tattoos to be effective?
You know, that’s funny. My back story is, I started playing in a rock band right out of high school. That got me into the top half of the arms with tattoos. After a near death car accident, I realized that I’m a strategy guy at heart and I wanted to move towards being a ‘change the world’ strategist. Very much like a ‘branding-Superhero’, kind of thing. I wanted my tattoos to be the message of what I do. So, my tattoos are actually my core values to create, inspire and to strategize. With the idea that, if I get better at those every single day it gets me better at doing what I do best, it gets me closer towards my goals…. To me, my core values are so important.
What are those core values?
The long version is, create opportunities, inspire change, and strategize the SHIT out of things. And that’s what I do, and those are the things I want to be. Never out of sight, our of mind. To me, tattoos aren’t for everyone, but if you have some message that is so important that you never want it out of sight or out of mind, a tattoo on your forearm is about the most visible thing you can have.
Can you share your story about the near death car crash?
About twelve years ago I was in a head on car collision. It was probably about the best timing for having something like this. I was about 22 years old, just playing in a rock band and not really moving towards anything. Because of the car crash I had about thirty days where I could barely move or barley get out of bed. At the same time, I could still think and write. So, I took the time to figure out what my passions were, what I wanted to move towards, and that’s where I revealed that… I was never a musician. That was just something I did. I spent more time on the strategy behind the band, planning how to get gigs, get on the radio, and thats when I revealed… I’m a strategy nerd! My passion, my skill, my SUPERPOWER is to figure out a strategy and just game a system, create an advantage to make things happen. I went to town on this idea and asked myself, “How do I keep leveling up from there?” Before that accident, it was kind of ‘wander and wait till things happen to me’ kind of attitude. That was a complete paradigm in my life that I could just create my own opportunities to make things happen.
So, you are the strategy guru the team. What is it like working with David Katz?
It’s amazing working with David. I started working with David in our previous business. He founded a GPS tracking company. When I was 25, I came on as the vice president of marketing. Then by 27, I was vice president of the company. We automated David out of the company and then we made it so we could sell the company. Then David came up with this idea.
The great thing about David and I is, we work together so well. David is such a…. in the NICE way… such a Steve Jobs visionary, who just lives in the future, sees the future and believes it’s possible. It’s not about the reasons why anything wouldn’t work. If there is a possibility that this epic thing could happen, he sees it in his head. Sometimes it’s about translating that future vision into implementation. David and I get along really well, and people often comment on that.
Looking towards the future, there is an island of garbage out in the ocean that is full of plastic. Although scientists have debunked the myth of a floating island of garbage, we know it is comprised of particles circulating in both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean vortices. So, Elon Musk can land space rockets on floating barges now. This is already happening. This isn’t science fiction, this is science fact, and he is doing this right now. Could we develop an autonomous ocean surface drone, powered by solar or kinetic energy, that would scan though the flotsam and collect the garbage? Could we accomplish this? Would it work?
Yeah. All the recipes you just lined up, has got to be the way it happens. I’ve heard of some solutions and theories of big machines and just scooping up all the plastic at once…. Those solutions come with a huge amount of death to marine life. As an animal lover, it really makes me cringe when you hear stats like, “only one marine life is killed per hundred pieces of plastic”, which to me is a HUGE amount of marine life.
But, I actually spend a lot of time working IBM and their teams developing the blockchain system that we are, which also lets me get a little peek into the things that Watson can do, that A.I. can do. Exactly as you said, there will be a solution that a smart, responding drone can make an intelligent decision about what’s plastic and what’s life. To me, once we have that, then there can be a solution to start scooping out the plastic.
When we first started the business, one of the big considerations was, someday, someone will figure out to how to safely remove the plastic from the ocean. But removing plastic from the ocean isn’t the solution. We shouldn’t be cleaning beaches. We should make so we never need to clean another beach again. There’s a little metaphor we like to express, if you walked into a kitchen and the sink was overflowing, it’s pouring on the floor, damaging the walls, and all you had is a bucket and a plunger… What do you do first? The answer is, you turn off the tap! And, just as it is important that we figure out how to get all of the plastic out of the ocean, we feel at this stage today, it’s most important that we figure out how to turn off the tap and stop the plastic from flowing into the ocean. So that once we figure out how to clean it once, we won’t always have to clean the ocean. We’ll just need to do it one time, and then it just becomes human nature. The danger of thinking the solution is to get it at the end of the ocean is, a lot people think that we can continue to use the ocean as a dump ground, because we figured out how to clean it.
Quick fact check. In your TED talk you mention ‘digital currency’ in your speech as an alternative to cash payments for collected plastic, however on your website you list that cash is available in exchange for recycling. So which one is it, cash or digital currency?
Currently today, in the Haiti operation, people can exchange it for either cash, solar powered cell phone charging (one bottle equals one minute of cell phone charging), or sustainable cooking fuel and sustainable stoves. In the Philippines operation that we are just launching now; In July is when we launch the technology platform that I’m building, and that’s where I’ve been working with IBM to build the blockchain based digital exchange system. This is where we hope to phase out the need for cash in any of these environments.
You can imagine that, if there are locations in very vulnerable economies, where everybody knows they offer a cash-based system, and every Tuesday an individual comes back from selling all their plastic, and they’ll be walking around the most amount of cash they’ll have at one time. That’s dangerous. As we look at different areas of the world, you do get recycling industries that are run by mobs. These have a danger of people skimming money off the top and taking advantage if these people. But when you have a digital exchange system, where the only where to steal from someone is to have them transfer the money to your digital wallet, it becomes a very different degree of safety.
This is something else we learned in Haiti. For example, it is about $250 to pay for a child’s education for the year, but most people can not qualify for bank accounts. So if you live in an incredibly insecure area and your home is insecure… even just conceptually; How dangerous is it to save $250 dollars, take that all the way across town carrying the cash and make that transaction? So, with a digital currency exchange we can remove that entire danger, plus allow someone considered un-bankable to save for the first time. When we look at these digital currency, digital exchange systems, every country has a different way of doing this, but there’s always way to cash out that digital currency at the safest convenient location.
In the Philippines we actually have a partnership where there will be ATM machines where you can cash out that currency whenever you want. You can put it on a prepaid VISA whenever you want to pay for items that don’t use of whole exchange system. But, the real thing that we’ve come to learn is that, globally there is a huge want and demand among recycling programs to remove the need to pay strangers in cash. They tell us, ‘It’s dangerous for me. It’s dangerous for my staff.” Especially in any economy that is used to using mobile payments, they’ve had a glimpse of how much safer it feels NOT to be carrying cash on you or cash at a business.
So, this is where we are determined to make plastic waste a currency for change. So, even anyone can go and operate a convenience store and all someone needs to do is collect enough plastic that they can purchase something from that convenience store. We look at the ecosystem… there’s people collecting plastic, there’s people running collection points, there’s people who sell items, services, food, education, tuition, insurance… People all within those ecosystems, and if we treat that entire ecosystem as a social plastic ecosystem, any can just collect enough plastic to get their kids in school, to feed their family, to have health insurance, and that entire ecosystem is where we’re implementing that digital exchange system.
Where exactly is the Plastic Bank expanding into the Philippines?
A little town just outside of Manilla, called Baseco.
What is the actual worth of a cell phone charge?
That’s a good question. The shocking thing that I found was, in Haiti about 75% of people don’t have power, yet ALL have cell phones. So, even someone making about $2 per day, would still spend $.10 – $.60 to charge a cell phone. There are existing services where people can go out and pay money to charge their cell phones. If you don’t power at home, the only way to charge your cell phone is to pay those pennies out of your pocket. So, the starting point to charge a cell phone was about ten cents up to sixty cents. And again, when you’re talking about someone who makes such a small amount of money, that’s nearly 10-20% of your total income going to cell phone charging.
Once the plastic is collected and dropped off at the collection points, are the recyclers paid immediately?
We work on a down chain system, where if there is a person who operates an independent collection point, they take all of the plastic from the recyclers, and they give them the reward (items, cash, or so to be digital currency). That’s all done from the collection point and the recycler gets paid immediately. Then it’s brought to the processor who is repaid for everything. So, they run that independent business to get the plastic, and funnel it through with the exact points they need to be hit. This system is easiest for the collector, since they are the most vulnerable person in the entire chain. This is really the flaw to, let’s call them waste picker systems, around the world, there’s a lot of systems where they are paid less. That’s not the person who can be thought of last in the chain whatsoever.
You have repeatedly talked about your new app development and blockchain. Where can interested people go to find out more information about these?
PlasticBank.Org. We talk about this on our ‘about us’ page. As we launch this summer, is when we are going to be revealing a lot more information about it. There are also a couple of videos that IBM has put out about it on our website. They hint and talk about the technology we’re launching.
Shaun, thanks for taking your time to share your story with Slickster Magazine. The last question is a total free for all. Is there anything you’d like to say to your followers? Anything you’d like to share or promote? Good will and peace towards mankind?
Please share the TED talk. I think I put a pretty important message in it. But, one of the things that really helps and really opens doors for us is when, people use their voice. Go on social media and ask companies to use #socialplastic. It sounds like such a small action, but when we’ve had millions of people do that on Facebook, thousands of people call out companies, we’ve seen it that the companies listen. When they are called out repeatedly, that’s what opens the doors to really change their practices. It’s no longer random. They start to meet a consumer demand. If people demand for social plastic, more and more companies will use it, and that’s how we change the world.