Home | Portugal | Interviews | How do you break free?

How do you break free?

Once you know your tipping point…

Kathi Heusel, a holistic coach from Austria, and Bart Delember, a Belgian kite-surf-instructor, both in their mid-thirties, are living in the Western Algarve. One day, they reached their tipping point regarding the gigantic amount of plastic waste in the ocean and in their day-to-day life. Finding it unacceptable to see how much garbage, and especially how much plastic, is currently floating in the ocean – they decided they actively wanted to live their lives in a different way. Most people probably feel the same, says Kathi Heusel in a conversation with ECO123. But what can one person alone do if the rest of the world continues buying and using plastic and playing the dirty game, making it possible to continue the vicious circle of plastic and oil? Both thought they could do something more constructive, by being more proactive and becoming part of the solution. They started to change their lifestyle: they avoided buying goods wrapped in plastic; substituted plastic with more sustainable and natural materials, such as glass, wood, linen and cotton; they only used reusable materials and consumed organic produce.

Taylor Leigh Cannizzaro,
Taylor Leigh Cannizzaro,

Their life became more aware, less carbon-intensive; they started buying their food and goods from local and regional sources; they began living off-grid. Deep down inside, they both felt they could do even more. Then Kathi had an idea. With her partner Bart, she discussed the possibility of organising a low-carbon event online which would help to spread knowledge and information about how we can stop killing sea animals through our plastic waste. What are the solutions? How can we find them? And what can we do in realistic terms? All this resulted in the online summit “A Solution to Plastic Pollution – First International Online Summit for a Plastic-Free World”, which took place at the beginning of June. ECO123 visited Kathi Heusel in Pedralva near Vila do Bispo and spoke about her ambition to organise the event, which had more than 10,000 followers in no time at all. Her aim is to make even more people aware of the plastic waste in our oceans and in our environment in general.

ECO123 has chosen to publish a very special interview from their summit, when Kathi Heusel and Bart Delember talked to Taylor Leigh Cannizzaro, the Chief Alliance Officer of the Plastic Bank.

It’s a really amazing idea and we need it so much as well: could you tell us what the Plastic Bank is all about? When was it founded? How did it come into being? What is its mission? Tell us everything.
All at the same time? Well, we were founded in 2013, and essentially we’ve become the largest chain of stores for the ultra-poor. Because the real reason for pollution is poverty, right? So, this is a place where everything can be purchased and transacted as plastic garbage. The idea really came from David Katz when he visited a university and was inspired by the transformation of a piece of plastic into something quite different, worth seven to ten times its original value. He then thought: ‘what if the problem isn’t actually the plastic: what if it’s us? And the way we store it as a material. What if we could extrapolate from that context, showing people the value of plastic and the value of waste?’ And that’s how the Plastic Bank was born. We’re operating in areas of extreme poverty, encouraging local people to bring us their waste. We then pay them a sum of money for each kilogram, which often doubles and triples their income. Our goal is to stop the plastic reaching the ocean and to alleviate global poverty by bringing a billion people together on a functional basis.

Uniting people, that’s what we need to do. You already said it starts with people collecting plastic, but that’s only the first step. So, where do we go from there? People go to the Plastic Bank, they get something back, and then there’s probably a lot more happening behind the scenes as well.
Absolutely. (Laughs) We’re in the business of economic development, right? We’re giving people an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise. When they exchange their waste, they can get cash or they can get a digital voucher. We have a blockchain through IBM that they can then exchange for school tuition, medical insurance, wi-fi, electricity, cell phone minutes, cooking fuel, solar stoves. Anything that the poor really need, they can exchange in kind for their waste. We then take that plastic and do a lot of our processing, recycling and preparation of materials in the same country, so that the added value remains there. To stimulate the local economy. And our aim is to produce something that’s called Social Plastic.

What’s that?
Social Plastic is a new kind of plastic. It’s not virgin plastic, and it’s not recycled plastic: it’s Social Plastic. We sell this to our customers, primarily SC Johnson. They’re about to launch a bottle of Windex made entirely of Social Plastic, ocean-bound Social Plastic. At the same time, Henkel are using our Social Plastic in their laundry care, their beauty care items, home care. We’re really excited about all our relationships with large multinational companies, which are now taking the circular economy of plastics forward. This is the new way of managing material.

There are some quite big companies already involved?
Absolutely. And more are coming on board. It’s very exciting. David Katz has been promoting this for so many years, and it’s like we’re the pretty girl at the dance now. In fact, it’s almost as if we’re the only girl at the dance and they all want to be with us. So, it’s amazing. It’s the place to be.

We’ve already heard what people can get in exchange for bringing you their plastic. It’s really quite a wide range. Does this really cover their basic needs?
Over 300 million tons of plastic are being produced every year and probably eight million tons are flowing into the ocean as well, added to the 100 million tons that are already there. We have to develop the infrastructure we need to create a supply chain of recycled material. How do we penetrate into these ecosystems and give them a sense of value, so that we can ultimately get these people out of poverty and thinking about the environment? Right now, they don’t even think about plastic pollution or about not tossing their waste away, so that, when it rains, it floods straight into the ocean. Because if they can’t even understand where their food is coming from, living on the fringes of society, in great insecurity, you can’t teach them to recycle. But you can change their behaviour. You can change the way in which they engage with you: “Ok, listen, you bring this plastic to us”. In a social franchise model, in Haiti, where families are encouraged to bring their plastic waste to school, we can exchange it on the spot for their school tuition and their uniforms.


You just mentioned Haiti. Do you already have plans for a few more countries?
It’s really where we spend most of our time and energy: Haiti, the Philippines, and, more recently, Indonesia and Brazil. Yet, there are many more countries responsible for the plastic going into the ocean. Yes, we have to do what we’re doing in San Diego in New York if we’re really going to address the problem of plastic pollution. Our main focus is currently on those communities where plastic is going straight into the ocean. We’re looking at some countries, like Egypt and Colombia, for example. We continue to expand as our partners keep coming to us and saying: “Ok, where can we go next?” For example, we’re partners with Henkel in their Shaping Futures Programme, where they actually teach poor people the craft of hairdressing. Our partnership is like this: “Ok, now you can recycle your way into a new career”. Through being a member of our recycling collection scheme, they can now go on to become hair stylists and be guaranteed a position at a salon. We’re also focusing very much on empowerment. A lot of our members tend to be women.

Can you give us an example, please?
Lise Nasis from Haiti, who David Katz took on stage in his TED Talk. She became a widow after an earthquake in 2010, and she’s now able to pay for her children’s education, school tuition and uniforms. She has a bank account. Most of these people don’t even have bank accounts. They don’t even have a birth certificate. Now, for the first time, they actually have a sense of security, especially those women with highly volatile husbands who spend the money on getting drunk or just take it altogether. Instead of trying to hide the money, these women now have the security of a bank account that only they can access.

It’s a bit like having diamonds just lying in the street, with no banks involved and no-one to bargain with. So, we’re giving the same opportunity to plastic. Otherwise, plastic would just be trash in the environment, with no value, right? But now we’re creating an infrastructure and a system, in which it’s valuable, and where there will be no trash, no waste in the streets. We’re changing that context and developing a true plastic circular economy, where there is no waste going into the ocean. Our intention is that there should be a tax on virgin plastic. In fact, there should be no more production of plastic. We have enough of it on the planet right now. There are 8.3 trillion kg of plastic on Earth today.

I can’t even imagine how many zeros that has…
If each person weighed 62 kg, then the amount of plastic on Earth right now would be equivalent to 130 billion people. Just wrap your head around that figure for a second. It’s insane. So, let’s not produce any more! Let’s use what is currently here, find a value for it and get that money back into the hands of the people.

UN commits to stop ocean plastic waste

Only between seven and nine percent of plastic is being recycled. A lot of people say it’s very difficult to recycle plastic because we just put it on the pile. It’s dirty, it’s not washed, so how do we proceed from there? What’s the Plastic Bank’s view about this?
We get some of the highest quality material because our staff monitor the process, so it is empowering and educational as well. We actually sort the plastic, based on colour and type. We remove bottle tops, rings and labels, so that we have some of the highest quality feed stock. This is one of the reasons why our partners love us. Some of the biggest recycling giants are also dealing with us because they have the complete infrastructure. They have the recyclers, the means of processing, and so on, but they don’t have the collection. They need the collection infrastructure, and that’s us. Supplying them with high-quality material is very important for us. They operate in the global north: Europe, Canada, the United States. How can we also become more effective in those supply streams? Part of our programme involves creating global ambassadors who can then participate with us.

The Plastic Bank’s theme is this: if the kitchen sink is overflowing what’s the first thing you do? Grab a mop, a plunger or a sponge? No, you’re going to turn off the tap! So, first of all, you turn off the tap and then you deal with what’s there. If we turn off the tap of virgin plastic, then we’ll also be turning off the tap of ocean-bound plastic. And then, yes, we have to clean up what’s there. We love the Ocean Clean-up Project. We genuinely acknowledge them as being the first to go out there and to try to make a difference. They’re actually defying nature.

David Katz lovingly calls the beach clean-ups ‘habitat restoration projects’, because that’s really what they are. The beach clean-ups are fantastic and we need to continue them, getting more and more people involved, and then let’s get to that root solution which is ending poverty.

You mentioned Henkel already as a company you’re working with. Which other ones are there?
SC Johnson. They’re actually the ones who opened up Bali with us. Fisk and his whole team. And, of course, Marks & Spencer in the UK. Ocean Bottle is another new partner coming on board. We’re making a contribution to our ecosystem as part of our plastic neutrality, as well as using a piece of the Social Plastic in their bottles. There’s also Eat Natural in the UK, and we have quite a list of other partners. Aldi just came on board actually, while Trader Joe’s for people who are in the United States. So, there’s Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd.

What else can our viewers do if they love your project? What can they do to contribute, to make it grow?
We’re just doing our programming right now, so what you can definitely do is go to our website and join us. We’re developing our volunteer programme, and one of my primary roles is to develop our ambassador programme. You can then enrol in our plastic neutrality programme. So, you can become a volunteer, and an ambassador, as well as being plastic neutral. It’s not like I’m saying: ‘Oh, we can talk about your plastic consumption.’ No. The reality is that, while we’re still stuck in a plastics economy, you need to know how you can continue to make an impact where it matters – in the ecosystems. We have different levels of plastic neutrality. You can become plastic neutral, an ocean hero and an ocean champion. So, I highly recommend that you participate in that. The ambassador programme will be made open to the general public, and we will offer greater education and the opportunity to make a difference in your community. You can then translate this local impact into a global impact, and there’s a whole gratification mechanism underlying this initiative.

Our summit is called A Solution to Plastic Pollution, although we know, of course, that there isn’t just one solution to this problem. Do you think there is a bundle of different solutions that could then, in the end, really lead to a world free of single-use plastics?
With plastic and trash being dumped in the ocean every minute, we have to act now. Plastics aren’t going to go away, right? So, how can we create the necessary infrastructure for the worldwide collection of any kind of material? What’s important is the design of the material and the bottles themselves by the manufacturer. It’s the collection of plastics and the creation of that bottle-to-bottle system in each country. And we also need to take into consideration the carbon footprint: shipping these materials around like this doesn’t work. So, it really is about in-country circular systems, zero waste, and then creating that infrastructure worldwide.

Thank you very much.

Check Also

BRIDGE: Laboratory for innovation?
Dealing with the past of forest fires

Saturday 13th April 2024.   Prologue: We had been vaccinated, twice in fact. When we …

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.