Treating Plastic as Currency Helps Keep It Out of the Ocean

 Plastic Bank helps bring people into the financial system via recycled bottles.

Nyoman Dartini used plastic to pay for temple offerings she made for a summer full moon celebration on the Indonesian island of Bali. She plans to use plastic again to buy food and make more offerings during Galungan, a Hindu celebration marking the victory of good over evil.

Not plastic as in a credit card, but the bottles she collects from her job as a sweeper at a market in Denpasar. She brings them to a collection center operated by Plastic Bank, which tallies her deposits and sends her texts updating her balance. “My salary is not enough,” says the 60-year-old, speaking cheerfully about the extra 100,000 rupiah (about $7) she averages every month. The money supplements her own wages as well as those from her husband’s construction work and their son’s job in hotel housekeeping. “If I didn’t have this money, we would have to take out loans.”

People the world over have been collecting plastic and selling it to recyclers for decades. But the notion of turning waste into a means of financial enfranchisement is a big new idea in economic development circles. Plastic Bank collectors earn the highest rate for bottles in their local markets, plus bonuses. And they can store value at the bank, rather than cashing out daily.

Environmentalists are pleased, too. Motivated collectors pick up more plastic, which has the potential to boost the dismal rate of plastic recycling.

Around the world, efforts are under way to redefine plastic as a currency to keep it from being discarded in landfills, oceans, and waterways. The Indonesian government operates a network of so-called trash banks—recycling centers that not only give collectors cash for plastic but also grant them loans they can repay with plastic. In Surabaya, the country’s second-largest city, residents can pay bus fare using plastic bottles or cups; it’s an initiative of the city’s first female mayor, Tri Rismaharini, who set an ambitious target of reaching zero plastic waste by 2020. A two-hour bus ticket costs 10 plastic cups or up to five plastic bottles, depending on their size.

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