Reducing Plastic Pollution with Blockchain

The plastic pollution study by National Geographic reveals that an estimated 18 billions of plastic waste enter the world’s ocean from coastal regions each year. Not only that plastic pollution is dangerous to animals and the environment but also to human health because the plastic disintegrating into smaller pieces, i.e., “microplastic”, can easily be absorbed by any small sized animals such as fish. On the 8th episode of Blockchain Beyond Hype, we invited Russel Maier, Founder of  Global Ecobrick Alliace to discuss his ecobricking movement and how he uses blockchain to solve plastic pollution and turn plastic waste into multi-purpose building blocks.

Laks: We’re here today with Russell. Welcome to Blockchain Zoo. We’re excited to have you here to discuss your thoughts on how the blockchain technology can enhance waste management.

Russell: Laksmini, it’s a pleasure to be here. My team and I have been working on integrating blockchain with our Ecobrick project for the last two years, and we’ve got some exciting things to tell you about.

Laks: It’s our pleasure. Please tell us a bit about your passion for sustainability and how you got into the blockchain. How did you come up with the idea to use it for environmental purposes?

Russell: Well, you don’t have to be a genius to know there is a problem with plastic and pollution on the planet today. All we have to do here in Bali is walk on the beaches, and you see the plastic scattered all around. We go down to Kuta, we go down to Denpasar, and you see the plastic everywhere.

Laks: That’s true.

Russell: So this is something that’s been heavy on my heart for the last seven years. My story with this begins in a small village in the northern Philippines where I got stranded after a vacation gone wrong. Never in a million years would I have thought that I’d be working with plastic and with blockchain in my life. However, my vacation went wrong in the Philippines, and I ended up being stranded in the small indigenous village for four and a half years.

I had to remake my life totally. My finances fell apart, my passport expired, my visa expired. I was really screwed, and I had to rebuild my life way up in the mountains in the northern Philippines in the land of the Igorot people. These people live life completely different from how we live here in the West and so the ideas that are now implemented into the ecobrick movements are not so much Western ideas but Igorot concepts and ideas.

There is no concept of waste. In the Kankanaey language, there’s no word for waste or trash. This really blew my mind when I realized as I was learning the language that they had no concept for waste. However, there was a problem with plastic up there. So my friends, I and the villagers, we started working on ways on how we could transform the plastic into solutions. From this concept that plastic is not waste and not useless that it can still have value to it, we came up with this technique of packing plastic into a bottle to make a reusable building block. So what we’ve done here is we’ve taken all the unusable plastic, we packed it tight into a bottle, and we’ve kept it safe from all forms of degradation.

Laks: Now you’re devoting the majority of your time to running an Earth Enterprise. What does it involve on a daily basis?

Russell: It’s a brand new concept that my team and I have come up with. Social enterprises have been around for a while, and those are organizations/companies that are focused on solving social problems. So we’re an Earth Enterprise, and we’re 100%  focused on solving Earth problems, coming up with solutions for the Earth. We’re not focused on profits. We’re not about growing and becoming bigger or feeding our shareholders. We’re about solving plastic. This keeps me really busy. There’s a lot of plastic in the world to be solved.

Laks: You came up with the very low-tech simple idea of creating ecobricks. Could you tell us more about what it is and how they can be used?

Russell: Yeah, sure. So this is made from my own personal plastic (Russell showing the ecobrick). It’s a plastic that I’ve been saving up for the last month. I keep a basket in my house. I keep all my plastic clean and dry and then at the end the month I pack it into a bottle, and we make a brick.

Laks: That’s one month’s worth? In one brick?

Russell: Yeah. This is about a month’s worth of my plastic consumption – 300 grams, right here. In my home, my chairs, my table, my garden, are all made from ecobricks. Your viewers if they want to see some great examples, they can visit our website or our YouTube channel, and they can see modules, gardens, even structures that are built with these ecobricks.

Laks: So, how exactly does the high-tech like blockchain fit with the low-tech asset like ecobricks?

Russell: Great question. As I’ve been working hard on solving plastic, it’s become clear to me that there’s an inextricable link between plastic and money. If you’ve got money, what do you do with it?

Laks: You spend it?

Russell: You spend it. And when you spend it, you’re buying stuff. And what is that stuff made of?

Laks: Plastic.

Russell: Plastic. Almost everything we consume in the world today is made of plastic. So my organization or our Earth Enterprise we’ve really had to wrestle with this because by getting the money it’s like we’re continuing the problem. The money we get, it has to be spent on traditional things. They’re usually wrapped in plastic, and that just doesn’t work. So for the last three years, I’ve been well aware of this link between plastic and capital currency. To really deeply solve plastic, we have to go beneath and get to the root problem, which is the money.

Money and plastic are inextricably connected. When you’ve got money, you buy stuff. That stuff comes wrapped in plastic. Our economy is based on petroleum. Free, easy petroleum energy. I’m not an economist so we can save my critique of the economy for later. But I imagine most of your viewers if they’re interested in blockchain, they’re already suspicious of money and capital as some of the root problems for the environmental crisis we have today and the vast gap between the rich and the poor we’ve got in the world today. For me, there’s a systematic connection between money, plastic, and the problems we have in the world. So what better use of plastic than to create a currency that can work hand-in-hand, an alternative currency that can work to help solve these problems to undermine the capitalist system that we have today.

Laks: The movement which you have created around the need of diminishing “unloved plastic” and creating building material as a byproduct sounds excellent, so how does this connect with blockchain?

Russell: By packing the plastic into the bottle, we’re creating a whole new value for plastic. In the recycling industry, we would sell this for the material value. It would have a very small value. This piece of plastic here would be worth less than a penny, which to me doesn’t actually capture another value that the plastic has. So if I were to take this plastic and chuck it onto the road, the grass, or the beach, it’d be sitting there, creating problems, degrading into toxins, into microplastics. Not good. But if I was to go and pick that up, take it out of the environment, you and I could agree that that’s valuable.

Laks: Yes.

Russell: Yes, it’s incredibly valuable. Because no longer this plastic is going to choke a whale or a turtle and cause environmental problems. Our ecobrickers around the world are doing exactly that. They’re creating this ecological service, and through ecobricks for the first time, we can quantify this value. We call it the value of the absence of plastic from the biosphere.

Laks: There is a validation element where people have to check the density of bricks and accept them to the database or not. This looks like room for negligence or cheating.

Russell: So what happens is – after the plastic has been picked up, it’s put into an ecobrick, and people log it. So we’re logging it onto our app. Anyone can access our app, get a free account, and they can log in onto our database. They get a serial number that they write on the ecobrick. They take a photo that’s uploaded, and our users then validate and authenticate the ecobricks. What we want to do is to have a repository of validated authentic information of how much plastic has been removed from the biosphere. So, anyone who goes to our app, they can look up this number, see my ecobrick, see my picture and they can see that I took 300 grams out of the environment and they can also review this ecobrick. So they can take a look at it on the system with our validators, go through it, answer questions about the photo that they see and make sure that the data that I logged matches up with the actual ecobrick. When we have three people do this, and they all concur that the data lines up properly then we consider that ecobrick authenticated.

Laks: The production of ecobrick seems to be very labor intensive. Does ecobrick actually make sense as a building material?

Russell: If I were to build my home today here in Ubud, the most cost-effective way to do it would still be to buy normal bricks and to build it the traditional way. However, as a means for trapping and securing plastic, what we call sequestering, ecobricks are the best. In fact, I would argue it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to deal with plastic in the world today. You don’t need big machines, you don’t need factories, you don’t need governments, you don’t need politicians. Anybody can grab some plastic, start packing into the bottle and trap it, secure it, ourselves, right away. Because of this, here in Indonesia we now have hundreds of thousands of people if not millions of people who since I arrived here in Bali have begun doing it. The movement is spread all over Indonesia. People are making ecobricks, and with the ecobricks they make, they then make stools for their home, for their kids, for their school. People are now building gardens and parks out of them because we’ve got them and it’s useful material.

Laks: As you’re a non-profit movement, who helps you to develop the GoBrik app platform and create tokens, generated for every 100 grams of plastic transformed into ecobrick?

Russell: There are folks around the world today who are more and more aware that plastic is a problem and these folks want to do something about it. We have an incredible team that’s formed around the ecobrick intention, the movement, and also the intention for the app and the brikcoin currency. These folks have just come to join and contribute their talents. We’ve got some amazing people on the team. Stephen DeMeulenaere who joined you guys for your first episode, I believe, a cryptocurrency expert who lives here in Ubud. Now he’s in Europe consulting. He travels around the world, and he’s been working with us for the last two years guiding us on our trajectory as we develop this. We’ve got a retired programmer in the UK who developed Treasury programs for Morgan Stanley and other blue-chip companies, big names. He’s helping us out with the backend development now. My partner, Ani Himawati, she’s worked for the World Bank, for the UN here in Indonesia and Southeast Asia with Community Empowerment. We’ve got a bunch of other folks, Shiloh and Leon, helping with servers and with other things, interacting with our movement.

Laks: Just like bitcoin, you have a proof of work concept involved in creating your assets. Just the work process is different. How would you explain it to us?

Russell: Proof of work system, a manual blockchain. I mentioned before that when someone has completed their ecobrick, they log it onto our system. When it’s logged, our community takes a look at it and authenticates it. This is the same kind of system that Bitcoin uses when you’ve got different computers that concur that the mathematical puzzles have been solved and they agree and then the coins are issued, the block is issued. So, when our validators say ‘yes, this is a properly done ecobrick, that 300 grams have been sequestered’, then we issue three brikcoins for the ecobrick. So we have our currency pegged to the amount of plastic sequestered. For every 300 grams, it’s going to be three brikcoin. So one brikcoin equals 100 grams of plastic. This is a way how we can prove how much plastic our community, our movement has taken out of the environment and also give value to it. To be precise, one brikcoin for every hundred grams of plastic.

Laks: So wouldn’t solid database do the work? Why do you need the blockchain in this case?

Russell: Yeah, I really appreciate this question. Where we’re with the GoBrik app and with brikcoins at now is we have a database-based system. It’s not a cryptocurrency or a decentralized ledger, yet. To deal with all the plastic that’s being generated in the world, the plastic to come, the plastic that already is, we’re going to need a true Earth Enterprise. We’re going to need millions of people working together, taking the plastic out of the environment, logging them and creating a currency based on that. And that is going to be a big thing that a database just can’t handle. One single, centralized database can’t handle that and it shouldn’t. Again we’re an Earth Enterprise so we’re not focused on building a big app or a big company that’ll have lots of value. We want to solve the problem, we want to solve plastic, and we want to get at the deep issues beneath it. To do that, that’s where blockchain comes in. Blockchain is a fabulous technology. We all know that. That’s why you guys are listening to the program. It has the potential to solve these problems by applying it in the right way, and we feel this is the way to go. So we’re building our app. We’ve proved our concept. Just last week, we passed ten thousand kilograms of plastic sequestered on the app.

Laks: Congratulations!

Russell: Thanks. Over ten metric tons. So that’s ten tons of plastic that are not on the beaches in Bali, that are not polluting rivers around the world. Ten tons is a drop in the bucket of plastic. You know, the city Denpasar here in Bali probably goes through that in a day or maybe a week.

Laks: But it’s a great start.

Russell: It’s a start. It means we’re onto something. We have over 30 thousand users now who are using this system and where our growth curves are looking like that. So our trajectory, our vision, and our roadmap are to connect it with maybe an ERC20 token that would connect to an Ethereum or another blockchain where our centralized app would then connect and distribute the actual work and the creation of the brikcoins to a decentralized ledger.

Laks: Will the value of your tokens eventually grow, and why?

Russell: That’s a question that honestly doesn’t concern me too much, Laksmini. Capital growth, value increase, monetary valuation of our tokens, I know this interests a lot of other people who are developing blockchains and tokens. This isn’t our priority. Our priority is solving plastic and whether or not the value grows or doesn’t is secondary to keeping that plastic out of the biosphere. So what we’re working hard on is developing the systems to enable that, to enable people to log their ecobricks, to get brikcoins, to be able to have them in accounts, to send them back and forth. However, what we are seeing is there is interest in keeping plastic out of the environment by companies. There is a demand for offsetting plastic production with something, and we feel that could be ecobricks and brikcoins. Companies like Starbucks who create these plastic paper cups that get sold and trashed. Companies like Marimas here in Indonesia. I can see you’re smiling. Maybe you know Marimas…

Laks: Yes, I am familiar with it. All the little sachets.

Russell: Exactly. So we’re working directly with Marimas. The CEO is concerned about his company’s plastic production. They literally produce over 100 tons of plastic every month that is non-recyclable in Indonesia. So he’s got his entire staff, his entire company and himself making ecobricks as a way to take responsibility for their plastic. Now, a hundred tons of plastic is a lot, and that’s every month. So they can deal with that by offsetting their plastic production through the purchase of a token that represents plastic sequestered which could very well be brikcoins. We at Earth Enterprise are hoping that we can offer this service, this way of connecting the hard work of ecobrickers around the world to folks in companies and businesses who are concerned about their impact with plastic and want to transition from their plastic packaging to other organic materials but the technology just isn’t there yet. So this is an interim road, a means of transition which we call plastic transition that they can start off right away using blockchain technology.

Laks: All right. Well, this has been very interesting. Thank you for telling us about ecobricks and Earth Enterprise which uses blockchain. We do like to ask all of our guests – how do you envision blockchain changing the world?

Russell: Well, I think I’ve just painted a picture for you.

Laks: Yes, pretty good picture.

Russell: We see so many people interested in validating and working on ecobricks on our app right now. We created the system, but we didn’t quite know how it would happen whether people would engage with it or not. But wow, we’ve got a tremendous amount of folks in the UK now who are logging on, going through this list of ecobricks that we’ve got. Before we had a backlog of 30,000 ecobricks and now that backlog is only at a thousand. Those folks who are doing it are getting brikcoins as a reward for doing the work, but the brikcoins aren’t worth anything yet. So what we see is that there is a tremendous motivation among folks to solve, be part of the solution and to do something practical even without a financial reward. We can start to quantify that for them. I think it’s valuable to quantify it and that’s where blockchain comes in as a way to quantify values that we all know exist but haven’t been quantified before. When we give something of value, that’s when things change.

Laksmini, at the beginning of the interview you asked me about waste management, and I talked about how the word waste and its concept is something that I don’t really like or I try my best to avoid using the term waste or trash precisely because I think that is at the root of the problem. I see blockchain as a way to transcend the concept of waste. To give value to the valueless, to give utility, to quantify the value of something that hasn’t been valued before. To give this value, not necessarily capital or financial, economic value as we have in the fiat currencies but to give it value nonetheless that we can quantify. And for me, that’s what blockchain is all about. This is how it can really change the world.

Laks: And how do you think the market for blockchain-based solutions will evolve?

Russell: I’m excited to see blockchain solutions become more grounded. I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s up in the air and that’s not so connected to real worlds ecology, to people. Here in Indonesia, for example, here in Ubud, lots of people are interested in blockchain. But Ubud and Bali are just small fractions of Indonesia. When I get out working with folks and communities around Indonesia, no one’s using blockchain, no one’s using bitcoin, they haven’t even heard of it. And that’s hundreds of millions of people. You’ve got 300 million people in your country, right?

Laks: I think so. Something like that.

Russell: Right. So by grounding these technologies, then we can really reach and empower hundreds of millions of people.

Laks: Well, this has been fascinating. Thank you again for coming to speak with us at Blockchain Zoo about the way that the blockchain technology can enhance waste management or as you like to say…

Russell: Plastic transition

Laks: Plastic transition. Thank you for watching guys. We at Blockchain Zoo are excited to bring you our new guest on our next episode.

BBH Guest: Russel Maier, Founder at Global Ecobrick Alliance
Aside from a Founder of Global Ecobrick Alliance, Russell is both a philosopher by education and change maker by profession. For over a decade, Russell has been working on projects which are changing the world for the better. Solar energy, waste management and now it’s time for Blockchain and using this technology for diminishing plastic usage.

Blockchain Beyond Hype is a series of interviews with blockchain experts and technology professionals from all across the globe about blockchain projects, challenges, innovations and the future of blockchain within the blockchain jungle!

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