Bringing fair-trade practices to waste collection.

Andrew Almack from Plastics for Change. Thanks for taking the time to talk today.

Thank you so much, Peter. So good to be here

Let's first get a handle on what your organization does. Plastics for Change is the world's largest source of fair trade verified recycled plastic. Just to unpack that. The world's largest source of fair trade verified recycled plastic.

Proudly is indeed.

Excellent. Where are you right now. Where are you based?

I've been living in south India for the last six years. So I'm based in Bangalore in the middle of the south India.

What is it in your background that brought you to Bangalore?

I've always been really fascinating with the intersection of plastic waste and poverty. That whole area under the curve, if you will. And the potential to make the lives a little bit better, the greatest number of people. And it just seemed like India was an area that has quite a lot of people living in and around the poverty line and then a very premature waste management system. So a lot of plastic waste and and of course India is just such an incredible country, the culture and the people and the food and everything., I've really fallen in love with with the country and the opportunity to to make an impact here. There's there's at least 1.5 billion people at the base of the informal waste economy.

I would just like to pick up that phrase. The intersection of plastic waste and poverty. You work directly with waste pickers in Bangalore. What are the lives of waste pickers like?

These are some of the, really the poorest people in society, people that have really quite severe barriers to formal employment. So often people that are illiterate or maybe they haven't had the chance to get an education.

And there's no entry barrier to going and collecting waste from the streets.

A lot of people move from the country into the cities, and they can just start by going and collecting the waste.

It's, very much our whole philosophy here at Plastics for Change is utilizing plastic waste as a resource for creating better livelihoods and improving the lives of Those people doing all that hard work of picking up the discarded plastics, getting it into the circular economy and really driving the recycling systems forward in not just India, but the global south.

I can hear loud and clear that people are at the heart of your operation

Very much, very much so. Yeah. It's a human powered supply chain.

Let's talk about what got you to where you are today. Where did it all start?

I started off traveling through Cambodia and then other parts of south and southeast Asia. And then I had the opportunity to write an honours thesis in university around this concept of creating a ethically sourced plastic, plastic that's picked up from the environment and, then I, yeah, really wanted to make it happen. How I ended up in India was we launched a crowdfunding campaign. This was 2015 to create the world's first fair trade, recycled plastic supply chain.

We raised a couple thousand dollars and that was enough to buy a plane ticket, get over here. In the beginning it was very hard. It was a big audacious challenge, to mobilize so many moving parts to get the whole supply chain together. We needed a brand to backed initiative. So, there's quite a lot, a lot to get together.

How did you get started? Did you have a local partner while you were learning the ropes?

We had some great local partners in Bangalore. An NGO called Hasiru Dala was very formative, to help us shape our vision. It still took a long time to actually solve the chicken and the egg problem of how you create the fair-trade supply chain without the brand onboard and how do you get a brand to endorse it without having a fair trade supply chain setup.

I think a lot of people are familiar with fair trade coffee, fair trade bananas, and fair-trade handicrafts. Tell me how you are different to all the organizations that collect and resell plastic waste.

Well, we certify all of our supply chains, but the world fair trade organization as a third party verification partner.

The World Trade Fair Organization has verified your supply chains. What does that verification mean?

They make sure we adhere to the principles of fair trade.

And what are the principles of fair trade?

Everything from human rights through to fair payment, building transparency through the supply chain, making sure there's no child labour making sure that people have the rights to have their voice represented. Building the compliant standards into really a completely informal sector.

The informal sector is a disaster from a human rights violation.

What does fair trade principles mean for the waste worker?

You have some, the poorest people in the supply chain. as well. They are quite vulnerable. So what happens often is that those, the base of the chain sell to a scrap shop.

So you can imagine, the informal waste worker they get up in the morning, they go around their neighbourhood. They collect plastics from wherever they can get at the side of the street from neighbours, from anywhere.

They're entrepreneurs, anything that has value, then they sell it to a neighbourhood. level, kabadiwala, or scrap shops. These are small mom and pop shops. they take the plastic, they do a basic level of categorization, or we call it a primary level, segregation.

And then, those scrap shops sell it to. larger aggregation partners where the plastic is accumulated in enough bulk and then sold to the industry partners.

What kind of risks do the waste workers run?

If they ever get into trouble financially, they often will take loans or if they don't get paid that day there they're then stuck in may. They're unable to put food on the table. So it's very difficult for them to earn a consistent income opportunity. And there's Al there's also like a lot of indenture moment that happens in the supply chain.

By indenturement, I understand that if a worker has a debt with someone, they are forced to work for that person under conditions dictated by that person.

Do you have an example how the situation of indenturement might arise.

For example, the informal waste worker gets bit by a dog.. And they can't work for a few days. Well, then they take a loan from the scrap shop and , it can often translate into different forms of, of social and economic indenturement.

So this is really where we're trying to apply the principles of fair trade into this informal waste economy to help create those better, more responsible supply chains that are connecting this very deeply fragmented supply chain to global brands and driving that change by enabling these global brands to take part in the solution.

So you reduce the risk to the waste worker by providing a reliable wage, right?

Yeah. The most important thing is making sure that they can get paid on time in full every day to making sure that they're able to get that predictable income opportunity. That's the first and foremost thing.

Apart from a regular wage, what are the most important issues for waste workers.

Typically find the things that they asked for the most. It's always better future for the kids. So they want to make sure , help me, help me make sure my kid stays in school is genuinely like the first thing. Then it's healthcare, preventative health care things like childhood nutrition.

Why is health so important economically?

Because if they're not healthy, they're not going to have a predictable livelihood either. Even basic things like helping them getting an identity card. It's, really surprising the percentage of people that don't have a basic identity card. So then they're unable to access any of the or social services.

And then finally like the financial literacy, getting them to the point where they have a bank account, it can accumulate savings. That's a really important milestone for them to make that journey, out of poverty or towards a better livelihood opportunity.

Plastics for Change is for profit or a philanthropy.

It's a hybrid. So, we have a For-Profit. That manages the whole supply chain and, helps to connect stakeholders as well as helps to, work with the brands manufacturers to deliver the material to them. And then we also have a foundation that provides philanthropic services at the base, education, some of the financial literacy training, So it's a really taking a very holistic approach to how we , provide, , our theory of change in this supply chain..

That's fantastic. Plastics is a pressing environmental issue but at the heart of what you are doing is an organization that is improving people's lives.

Well, they, are two sides of the same coin, because if you look at the areas in the world where the plastic waste is the worst, it's typically emerging economies where the informal sectors, the main driver of the collection and the recycling systems.

And so our philosophy has been to tackle the plastic pollution problem you need. And you're fundamentally to two core things. You need somebody to pick that plastic up off the ground, and then you need somebody to use it and create value from it. So that's where it's all about creating those livelihoods for the people that are doing that service and then catalysing the brands and manufacturers, making it irresistible for them to be able to source from a responsible supply chains.

.

I see from your website that the Body Shop, which is an international brand in the body care sector, uses the recycled plastic from your operation in their shampoo bottles. How did the engagement with the Body Shop begin?

They were the first ones to support us. I flew to a conference in Singapore to meet the sustainable sourcing manager. ,The conference was actually not that great. The chap actually left the conference right after doing a speech.

But I chased him down the hallway and I was like, look, I've moved to India, we're doing this fair-trade supply chain. You've got to do it. And we submitted a proposal. And then, they ended up supporting the initiative back in, in 2016, two years later, we were able to achieve their client standards, which was like, The valley of death as a start-up, right.

But we can achieve the compliance standards. And then we launched it in 2018. We launched it up world fair trade day with them, and it really it blew up. So it got a lot of, a lot of interest, some 522 different articles published in the first six months, , information at the point of purchase, enabling our consumers also participate in the journey we learned about the informal waste economy, the role that. this sector is having in driving the circular economy forward. And from there it's really been taking off. So we then raised a round of investment, , in 2020, it grew from a team of some, , 20 people to over 160 people. And we're expanding across the coastal region of south India setting up these these fair trade supply chains. Yeah, we've been on an incredible journey.

You are working with brands who are using the recycled plastic in their products. What challenges do the brands face?

There's some 400 brands that have all committed to use twenty-five percent recycled plastic by 2025. And, none of them are close. They're all not going to meet their goals. So fundamentally the brands that are making the most progress are the ones that are actually getting involved in their supply chain.

So you are saying that the brands that will succeed in reaching their goals will require them to be more involved with the supply chain.

They're not used to getting involved with the recyclers, let alone the scrap shops and the informal waste workers. So that's where we're really breaking down those barriers that the brands face we help reverse engineer their supply chain so that they can get , access to not only the right quality standards, the consistent supply, but also supply chains that are responsible and that have third-party verifications and do then those real authentic impact and the KPIs around that into engaging cause marketing campaigns..

What arguments do you use when talking to the brands about ethically sourced recycled plastic?

A lot of what we do on our sales team is we are going out there and engaging all of these brands, all these manufacturers and saying, why use the fossil fuel based plastic? It's creating enormous CO2 emissions. We have enough of it. We don't need to produce anymore. And then we educate them on how they can leverage their purchasing power to drive a transformation in their supply chain.

Fair trade is pretty well known for goods. But fair-trade plastic is quite pioneering, right?

Well, we're the first to it, right? When we started, I looked at all the different third party verification schemes we could use . There was nothing for the informal waste economy when we started.

So we worked closely with the World Fair Trade Organization to create this concept and building it very much on the principles of fair trade agriculture. And then just applying that today in form of waste economy. So the same way that a farmer is connected into a supply chain for agriculture we're connecting them from a waste broker, it just supply chain for recycle plastic.

How does what you're doing with fair trade differ from ocean bound plastic certification? What is similar and what is different

We go through both verification systems. The the fair trade is much more, , comprehensive in terms of the social compliance. Whereas the ocean bound plastics certification is more so a verification of transparency through the supply chain coastal community or community, near the coastline, within 50 kilometers. So that's also something that I want to make sure there's a lot of people think that it's coming from. the ocean with the OBP verification. That's not true. That's coming from a region that's close to the coastline.

Ultimately, we know that the plastics all entering trying to establish those recycling systems in these coastal communities a priority.

Looking forward to the next 12 months. What is coming up for Plastics for Change?

What's coming up in the next 12 minutes, but we want to continue to expand. , across India. So we're really proud of the 2021. We already have over 5,000 direct beneficiaries in our supply chain. So these are people that are we're supporting directly. And then if you take that and extrapolate it to their families, five times at a month. And our plans for 2021, we want to also look at expanding into other regions in the Asia Pacific, as well as in Africa, physically every, every week. In the world the primary , collection is all happening in an informal supply chain. So we want to continue to help, , help the stakeholders, make that transition, , towards a more formal or a ethic ethical and more, , environmentally friendly And then. I try to help as many brands as possible, that transition away from fossil fuels CO2.

And the outlook in the next few years?

Ultimately, we want to try to reach 1 million. informal waste workers on our platform by 2030, this is our goal. So we just got to keep growing at 5% every month, which he's been doing.

You are growing at 5% every month. That is great to hear that. That is warp speed but I guess if you are going to involve a million waste workers, you are going to have to move fast.

There's such an urgency to develop systems, connect these people in responsible supply chains And create a better future for our planet as well as a humanity.

What can somebody who is listening to this podcast do to show support for what you are doing?

Right. So if you're coming from a developed nation, I think the number one thing you could do is , get curious, understand where where's your plastic going in your community. What's recyclable. What's not, , just to understand, what happens to your waste after you put it in whatever you do with it.

And if you're in an emerging economy,. I'd say, you know, get to smile at the local waste picker , the next time you see them, , in your community And understand how you can segregate your waste at source.

That's very important. In emerging economies, a of waste at source. And yeah. Continue to get curious about how you can drive change in your, in your local community.

And of course, make sure you express you vote with your wallet and the brand should know that you want recycled plastic, , ethically recycled plastic instead of the fossil fuel based material.

Thanks Andrew for telling us about what is going on at Plastics for Change

Peter. Thanks so much for having me.

 

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