Life in plastic, it’s fantastic. The iconic words of Aqua’s 1997 smash hit Barbie Girl. But we are rapidly coming to terms with just how fantastic plastic really is. Plastic is an incredibly versatile material. Forms of plastic occur naturally such as rubber, chewing gum and shellac, but in 1907 humans synthetically produced plastic and have never stopped manufacturing and consuming it. For good or bad, we now live on a Plastic Planet.
There has been a highly visible movement towards being more considered about how we recycle, reuse and reduce our plastic addiction. A dutch teenager has come up with a new way to clean the oceans, bacteria is being engineered to eat plastic and even the dude is getting behind a campaign to reduce our plastic usage.
People are also finding solutions to this global problem on a more localised, community level. WASTED Labs, an initiative of Cities Foundation, has started to collect plastic from the Noord neighborhood in Amsterdam, which are then locally upcycled into entirely new products. To achieve this they have created a new community currency that rewards households who recycle their plastic waste with a coin that they can spend at local businesses to earn deals and discounts. For instance, by recycling one bag of plastic a “Wasted Neighbour” (that is people taking part in the scheme) would get a free coffee at the neighbourhood’s sustainable café. We spoke to Barbara Koole, the project manager of WASTED labs to find out more about the new initiative.
How did the project come about?
I was working with the Cities Foundation in 2012 and we were doing very active, practice based research in projects around the food chain specifically looking at food as a process and not a product. As part of this research, plastic packaging waste and plastic soup came up as a big issue. This sparked our interest and we started talking about how we might solve such a global problem on a local scale. We spent some time developing the concept and designing the currency and finally ran a pilot project in 2015. We are now up and running in the Noord neighbourhood of Amsterdam and so far it's going really well.
Who is participating in WASTED?
We already have 650 households signed up and participating and have about 15 new households joining each week. We also have 30 businesses signed up where you can spend your WASTED coins. The businesses are very different, from a beer brewery in the Noord to a bike shop and each offers something different to spend your coins on. It's a very sustainably active neighbourhood so there are a lot of people who love the idea and want to be part of the system.
How successful has the currency been so far?
It's amazing how much value the currency has added to the community, both economically but also socially. A bag full of plastics has the economic worth of around ten cents, but with our currency that bag can have 20 times that value and it's all kept in the neighbourhood.
What do you do with all the collected plastic?
We have so much plastic being recycled! Right now we separate the different plastics and use the LDPE (low-density polyethylene for all the plastic geeks out there) plastics to locally produce modular blocks. Designing them to be modular (and open source) means that we can build loads of different things with them, from park benches to music stages.
What are your future plans for the WASTED currency and project?
We would love to automate a lot of the recycling process as it is very labour intensive. We are also exploring the possibility of creating a digital wallet for our currency. This means we will be able to better understand the circulation of the currency, specifically where and when it is being spent.
The WASTED project is a strong example of how currencies can be designed to promote positive sustainable behaviors in a local context. The challenge now is to streamline the process and scale it up, so more people can get WASTED on plastics.
Thanks Barbara for sharing your work and viewpoints with us. We look forward to seeing what the WASTED team gets up to next.
Read the whole Alternative Currencies, Alternative Realities series.