A Vancouver company gained the attention of the United Nations and the Pope this week with a project that turns waste plastic into currency.

Creators Shaun Frankson and David Katz founded Plastic Bank in 2013 and have grown their company to include collection projects in Haiti and the Philippines with plans to expand their services to Brazil and Indonesia.

They were presented with the "Lighthouse Momentum for Change" award on Tuesday from the U.N. under the category of "making a planetary difference."

Pope Francis, who has said it is a Christian duty to be stewards of the planet, will spend an hour with the pair on Sunday in Vatican City, which coincides with the Catholic World Day of the Poor.

"The entire idea almost starts with a metaphor, that if you walked into the kitchen and the sink was overflowing, pouring water and all you had was a bucket and a mop, what do you do first? And the answer is, you turn off the tap," Frankson told CBC's On The Coast host, Stephen Quinn.

Their focus is on developing countries where waste management systems aren't keeping up with region's rapid growth — a situation that contributes to the highest percentage of plastics entering the ocean. 

Scientists at the University of California looked into 192 coastal countries and how they disposed of their plastic.

The research showed that 20 countries are responsible for 83 per cent of the world's mismanaged plastic. 

China, Indonesia and the Philippines were the top three producers. 

"It's these areas ... that we focus on turning plastic waste into a currency that allows anyone to go out, collect plastic, and earn an income where they can provide for their families and exchange that plastic for other items," Frankson said.

Items and services that can be obtained from the exchange include cash, solar powered cellphones, education, insurance and more.

"On a high level, we really just have the world's largest convenience store where plastic garbage is what can be used toward anything you need."

The programs the company supports have collected close to half a million kilograms of plastic and continue to expand every year.

Frankson said their goal is to partner with companies that are interested in creating a more sustainable economy.

One of the most recent partnerships has Plastic Bank working with IBM to create a digital currency exchange app which will more closely monitor where the funds are going.

The digital currency transfer, also known as blockchain technology, will allow collectors to keep track of their earnings and buy items within the secure app.

It will also make transactions safer and eliminate the need for clients to carry cash. 

Instead of cash exchanges Frankson said the app can accurately track how much value is going to someone collecting the plastic digitally.

Overall he says the project is showing a way for the world to solve its plastic problem.

"We've proven that there's a tipping point, and we use the example that if every piece of plastic was worth $5, in North America… you wouldn't see plastic anywhere.

"We're inspired by the idea that plastic can be too valuable to enter the ocean."

To hear the full interview with Plastic Bank's co-founder Shaun Frankson listen to media below:


With files from the CBC's On The Coast