Published in Forbes magazine June 8, 2014 by Anne Field
The Plastic Bank, a Vancouver-based social enterprise I wrote about last fall, just announced it’s created, in the words of co-founder Shaun Frankson, “the world’s first 3D printed item from entirely recycled ocean plastic.” Specifically, they made a wrench.
Of course, this requires more explanation.
The company is the brainchild of David Katz, who previously founded Nero Global Tracking about 12 years ago. During his travels around the world, Katz was stunned by just how much plastic waste he encountered littering beaches and waterways, especially in less-developed countries.
Then he got an idea—a pretty big one. It combined recycling with helping impoverished people to find a way out of poverty through self-sustaining entrepreneurial micro-ventures.
People would collect plastic refuse and take it to an exchange center; the facilities would be located in places where there’s a lot of poverty, in addition to a lot of plastic waste around waterways. In return, they’d get money and something else: credits towards making something on a 3D printer.
These things would be items they could use to start their own businesses—say, selling gaskets –or they could have other consumers pay them to create something they needed. (Trainers would help collectors learn methods for the safe handling of plastic waste).
Or people would be able to use the credits to fund schooling. According to Frankson, they’re working out the details now. But one possibility involves providing tablets pre-loaded with educational videos.
Katz calls the collectors “micro-recycling entrepreneurs” and the material they deal with “social plastic”, which he refers to as a new type of currency.
The Plastic Bank would make money by selling what Katz calls “ethical plastic” to like-minded companies. “We‘re providing companies that use plastic in their manufacturing and that want to be socially responsible the ability to have plastic that is socially responsible,” he says.
As for the item they just produced: The system was developed in conjunction with engineers at the University of British Columbia. They built a machine through which you can place plastic. Then it extrudes a long filament, which is the building block of 3D printed items.
Together with 12 NGOs and community groups, they spent much of the fall in Alaska, collecting plastic waste with which to test out the extrusion-3D printing process.
The final product was a wrench. A small one–but it proved the viability of the system.
Plastic Bank hopes to open its first exchange centers in a few weeks in Lima, Peru. They’re in the final steps of arranging funding from PeruRail, according to Frankson. Katz says he‘s also spent about $400,000 of his own money.
A new form of currency. A new category of entrepreneur . A new use for plastic waste. It’s quite an idea.