How Plastic Bank went from 0 to 1B bottles recovered

We caught up with David Katz to learn the origin of his company and entrepreneurial spirit.

This is part 1 of our series on BC-based aquatech companies for World Oceans Day. 

As clocks ticked over to signal April 22nd, the grand marketing machine of the world awoke. With the same momentum that propels a steam locomotive out of a station, social media became flooded with digital calls to action in support of the world. It was Earth Day, after all, and as is the case for any honorary timestamp, collective awareness of all things earth peaked, then dipped. Most of us are guilty of this rise and fall in attention. I know I am. Yet, for those who are drawn to the earth as a source of their entrepreneurial journeys, the idea of 1, not 365 Earth Days, isn’t an option. Cleantech innovators don’t celebrate Earth Day just once per year.

This is true for Foresight CEO Jeanette Jackson. In a guest contribution she penned for Vancouver Tech Journal, Jackson noted the gravity of allowing empty promises to roam free. “Earth Day offers the temptation to share some platitudes and resume the status quo,” she wrote. “The problem is: the status quo is destroying our planet." Along the same vein as cleantech innovators, entrepreneurs drawn to ocean waters have 365 World Ocean Days—not just June 8th. One such entrepreneur is David Katz, founder of Vancouver-based Plastic Bank. The company has created a global network of collectors who pick up plastic, branches where those collectors drop off their wares and large-scale plastic sorting facilities to recycle them. Local collectors of plastic are presented with digital tokens that can be exchanged for necessities—cooking fuel, groceries—or services—insurance, tuition. Blockchain technology keeps it all running smoothly. 

When I spoke to Katz back in April, he recounted that the origin of the company was a sensory experience. “It was May 11, 2013, right before lunch, where I had the idea of a plastic bank. I like telling the story of the origin because I had these three thoughts. Number one, the idea of the Plastic Bank Group, changing the perception of the material, instead of looking at it as disposable. Look at this like money, gold or diamonds. What can we achieve—woah, my hair stood up the back of my neck,” Katz reminisced.

The subsequent thoughts, however, are what shaped Katz’s approach as an entrepreneur. “The second thought was like, ‘oh, who are you? You're a dude out in Vancouver. You're going to sell to the Fortune 200’s of the world? You’re going to create a supply chain?’ You’re going to do that in the most impoverished, illiterate, violent communities of the world? Who are you to do that?’” Katz shared. “And so that's where I'd like to communicate that the idea of Plastic Bank came in the third thought. I had a third thought, after all of that. I said ‘David, you don't need to be the person that could do any of them. All you really needed to do was choose to become the person who could.’”

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And so he did. Both Katz and Plastic Bank grew exponentially, leading to the celebration of a major milestone one month shy of Plastic Bank’s 8th birthday. On April 6th, it was announced that one billion bottles of plastic had been stopped from entering the world’s oceans thanks to Plastic Bank. “Plastic waste entering our oceans is one of our greatest global challenges. At a time when the world is calling for greater responsibility, this significant milestone is evidence of our ability to make deliberate environmental, social and economic impact,” Katz stated at the time. “The collection of one billion ocean-bound plastic bottles confirms we can reduce plastic waste while driving social progress through a circular economy.”

My conversation with Katz occurred shortly after this announcement, meaning I could ask him about the upcoming platitude-driven marker. I presented Katz with the question: how can we make Earth Day, every day?

“It is every day. I’ve decided to make it every day. You can either be a part of the solution or be part of the pollution,” Katz responded before continuing with some concrete examples. “You can recognize you’re a powerful consumer. You walk into a store and you ask the manager to point out all the recycled content: ‘I want to buy products that only have recycled content.’ You can now at least create a paradigm inside the store where the manager will report back that consumers are asking for more recycled content. Okay, that's pretty simple. It's your way of being. It's who you are in the world that counts, not what you say. I love the saying: I can't hear what you say because what you do screams so loudly.”

These principles can be applied to today’s date in the calendar, too. The health of our Oceans impacts us all. Luckily, there are those, like Katz, who have instilled in themselves a mission to improve the waters around them. We can all learn from those on this mission. To complement companies like Plastic Bank, who seek to build an out-of-water ecosystem that benefits our oceans, BC is home to a host of burgeoning aquatech innovations and entrepreneurs for us to learn from.

This is part 1 of our series on BC-based aquatech companies for World Oceans Day. Read part 2: This.Fish is digitizing your seafood