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The Plastic Bank Addressing Human Problems

Posted on January 8th, 2018 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


Most engineering challenges stretch far beyond the technical. The technical elements are just a piece of the puzzle and are often the easier parts to solve. It’s normally the social, economic or political parts of the problem that are the most difficult.

It’s the pieces involving people which can be the trickiest to get the bottom of.

As we’ve said before, normally the best way to manage complexity is to begin by clearly defining a set of requirements. Fully pinning down the boundaries of the project, the stakeholders involved and how they all interact, and making sure everyone is on board before you begin is a great way to position for success.

However, with some of the most interesting challenges facing us today, working out the interactions with different people and systems is the very essence of the problem in the first place.

The Plastic Problem

And so it is, at least in part, with The Plastic Problem. Addressing the floating islands of plastic waste in our oceans isn’t something which fits in a neat box. It’s part of a complex, global system. Everybody has the ability to impact it, but none have (or are prepared to take) an obvious responsibility for it.

When it comes to reducing, or removing, the sheer volume of plastic in the ocean, technical solutions alone aren’t going to cut it (although there have been some interesting collectors, including ocean dustbins, and fences appearing over the last couple of years).

An organization called The Plastic Bank is looking to get stuck in the complex, messy, human parts of this particular problem.

They are developing a process where people are incentivized to collect and recycle waste plastic from the ocean. They’re mobilizing people to address the issue while having a positive social impact in local communities at the same time.

At the heart of this process, The Plastic Bank is trying to change the way we look at plastic. Instead of seeing plastic as waste, The Plastic Bank is highlighting the intrinsic value of plastic. They are literally turning plastic waste into currency.

To do this, The Plastic Bank offers a consistent, above-market rate for plastic waste, which incentivizes its collection. People who gather waste plastic can trade it for money, items or services.

From there, the waste plastic is turned into pellets and sold to companies looking to procure ethically sourced plastic (or social plastic as it’s often called).

It’s their mission to open a plastic bank everywhere in the world where there are people in poverty and an abundance of waste plastic, which often go hand in hand.

A People Problem

The Plastic Bank is moving to change people’s perceptions of the value of plastic waste, and they are beginning to look at ways to disincentivize throwing plastics away in the first place. Rather than looking at the problem of waste plastic in isolation, they are approaching the situation by looking at the system around the immediate problem.

The work that The Plastic Bank is doing is great. And it acts as a reminder, at least to me, that in order to address some of the world’s most significant and pressing problems, we might need to lift ourselves out from looking only for technical solutions.

Every problem we look to solve or product we look to design is a part of a larger system. Sometimes the only way to get things right is to make sure we draw the boundary of the system we’re considering at the right level. For the most complex problems, that nearly always means considering people and how they interact with what we’re doing, every step of the way.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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