Using plas­tic to combat hunger

Co-founder Anna Herbst explains how the idea behind ‘Buy Food with Plastic’ flourished via social media, how the concept is now having an impact on hunger and environmental pollution, and why her association’s memberships are named after animals.

Where does your nonpro­fit enga­ge­ment stem from?

As a child, my parents took me on trips to count­ries such as Cambo­dia. I was expo­sed to extreme poverty at the age of 14 – and I saw what happened when you spoke to people living in those condi­ti­ons and listened to what was on their minds. When commu­ni­ca­tion happens, so does action. It’s the key to posi­tive change.

That’s why you wanted to work at an NPO?

Having a posi­tive impact through commu­ni­ca­tion is an idea that’s been with me my whole life. I joined an ambi­tious marke­ting start-up straight from univer­sity. Our work revol­ved around adver­ti­sing great discounts for various compa­nies. This expe­ri­ence helped me to acquire some really valuable know­ledge and I would certainly do it again. But at some point, I asked myself whether I was really commu­ni­ca­ting what I wanted to share with people. During this stage of my life, I was looking for an idea as to how I could use my passion for writing and storytel­ling to get people to make a change. And then I saw an Insta­gram post by Khalil, the co-foun­der of Buy Food with Plas­tic, about his first commu­nity event in Nica­ra­gua – and I knew that was exactly the type of story I could tell.

His event marked the start of Buy Food with Plastic?

Exactly. It all began with Khalil making his dream a reality: he spent three months living in a modest beach­front bunga­low in Nica­ra­gua and going surfing every day. There, he was confron­ted with the enorm­ous hunger problems in the coun­try and was expo­sed to the impact of plas­tic waste. This all ended up in the natu­ral envi­ron­ment or was burned, with some mothers even using plas­tic as fuel for cooking.

And that spaw­ned the idea for the event?

Yes. Khalil wanted to orga­nise an event with hot food and music where people were to pay with plas­tic instead of money. He told one of the staff at the bunga­lows about his idea and they loved it: they orga­nised the first event in colla­bo­ra­tion with other local workers. More than 100 people turned up. Scores of child­ren were stan­ding outside the event hours before it was meant to begin, clut­ching plas­tic bott­les – and despe­rate for a hot meal.

three strong Ghanaian team members trans­port the coll­ec­ted plas­tic bott­les to the upcy­cling factory in Elmina

Did sustaina­bi­lity or social aspects take centre stage?

The idea was driven by social concern and sparked by his expo­sure to extreme poverty. Pairing this with the plas­tic problem was a stroke of genius.

You lear­ned about the event via social media?

I saw a video of the first event on Khalil’s Insta­gram page. 

Did you know Khalil?

We went to school toge­ther, but we hadn’t spoken for years.

The video moti­va­ted you to get involved?

I was abso­lut­ely blown away by it: a simple idea that solves two problems. And I wasn’t alone. Other people also respon­ded to the video. We put toge­ther a small team, stream­li­ned commu­ni­ca­tion and assis­ted with orga­ni­s­ing three addi­tio­nal events. After Khalil retur­ned to Switz­er­land, people weren’t sure whether we’d be able to successfully keep the project going from here. We all had jobs to do or degrees to complete.

What moti­va­ted you to conti­nue your involvement?

After two weeks, Jaffet, our team member in Nica­ra­gua, got in touch: the child­ren had been knocking on his door and asking when the next event would be. That was a real turning point – we had a local team on the ground who belie­ved in the idea and were able to put it into prac­tice. And we helped from here. 

So you have two commu­ni­ties, one in Switz­er­land and one in Nicaragua?

Exactly. We also star­ted working in India and Ghana at a rela­tively early stage.

The idea: local mate­ri­als, proces­sed locally and sold locally.

Anna Herbst, co-foun­der and mana­ging direc­tor commu­ni­ca­tion & HR

Why these two countries?

This is the posi­tive impact of social media. We did not seek these loca­ti­ons out: they found us. Our local mana­ger in India, Shakti Yadav, saw the concept on social media and thought it would be perfect for people living in the slums of Bhan­dup in Mumbai. He got in touch with us.

So people came to you?

The project proba­bly wouldn’t exist today without the intrin­sic moti­va­tion of the child­ren and the local popu­la­tion in Nica­ra­gua. The same goes for India and Ghana. The project wouldn’t be able to operate without the people on the ground who serve as our part­ners and make Buy Food with Plas­tic a reality. 

Is your commu­nity made up of youn­ger people?

Well, it depends. Shakti Yadav in India is a little over 25. Frank Sarria, our coun­try mana­ger in Nica­ra­gua, is over 30. Most of our helpers are between 20 and 35 years old, but there are always excep­ti­ons. The project inspi­res so many people, young and old alike.

And you commu­ni­cate with them via social media?

We do, but we also use our website. Plus, we hold a twice monthly in-person event here at the Charity Gallery. Our office is also a gallery: our workspaces are in the middle, while images of our projects hang on the walls. 

Why did you set up a nonpro­fit association?

Khalil initi­ally laun­ched the initia­tive in a private capa­city. Our first few dona­ti­ons were paid into his perso­nal account – but that wasn’t a long-term solu­tion. That’s why, in Octo­ber 2018, we set up an asso­cia­tion, opened our own account and applied for a tax exemp­tion. This meant we could also issue dona­tion receipts for the money we recei­ved from the beginning.

Did you start working with the orga­ni­sa­tion as a volunteer?

In the early days, we put toge­ther teams in Nica­ra­gua, India and Ghana, while those of us in Switz­er­land all worked on a volun­t­ary basis during our lunch breaks or in the evenings. Khalil and I deci­ded to quit our jobs two and a half years ago, and we star­ted to hire other team members. But even today Buy Food with Plas­tic wouldn’t exist without our army of volunteers.

The local Buy Food with Plas­tic team proces­ses the caps of PET bott­les into new products, such as surf combs, in order to bring them back into the circu­lar economy.

How important are dona­ti­ons for your organisation?

At present, dona­ti­ons fund 95 per cent of our work. 

Do you also receive back­ing from larger-scale donors?

We receive large dona­ti­ons from foun­da­ti­ons, compa­nies and private indi­vi­du­als. The chall­enge is that most major dona­ti­ons are one-off rather than over seve­ral years. That makes plan­ning more tricky, and it’s why we’re looking for more part­ner­ships with a time­line of three years.

Is the project always going to rely on support or does it have a busi­ness model?

Our aim is to estab­lish a circu­lar economy on the ground: we want our local acti­vi­ties to be self-support­ing within three to five years. Events, coll­ec­tion points and other concepts supply us with plas­tic that we turn into new products in local facto­ries. Then, we sell these products. 

One of these products is a surf wax comb. 

That’s right. It was the very first product we made in Nica­ra­gua. It’s a logi­cal choice, as locals and tourists alike use those combs there. That’s our concept: local mate­rial, proces­sed and sold locally. We’ve now expan­ded our product range. We manu­fac­ture a Jenga game in Nica­ra­gua and plant pots in India. 

Were you ever worried that the idea wouldn’t take off?

I never doub­ted that it would work: I always had faith in the project. I’m parti­cu­larly impres­sed by the fact that we always have a direct impact. We don’t need 10-year plans to deter­mine whether some­thing works – we get confir­ma­tion in Nica­ra­gua, India and Ghana, where we can see directly what happens with our donations.

But you have faced chal­lenges and setbacks?

We’ve dealt with nume­rous chal­lenges. Estab­li­shing the legal struc­tures in these count­ries was chal­len­ging. Another exam­ple is our project to build a house from PET bott­les and cement. The results seemed promi­sing at first and we were convin­ced this could be the right path for us to take. But we later reali­sed that it was hard to sepa­rate plas­tic and cement, which would have meant simply passing the plas­tic problem to the next gene­ra­tion. That’s why we modi­fied our concept to create a circu­lar economy.

What do you think is the biggest chall­enge for your generation?

I’ve noti­ced that some people have become discon­nec­ted from nature. If this connec­tion had been main­tai­ned, less plas­tic would end up in the envi­ron­ment. That said, I am seeing some posi­tive chan­ges. I don’t feel that we are power­less: I think we can take action and have an impact.

And that’s what you do with the association… 

The idea didn’t just appeal to the five of us who foun­ded the orga­ni­sa­tion: we also attrac­ted other people who worked for us or wanted to become members. 

Your member­ships are named after animals. What’s the reason behind that?

Have you heard the story of the humming­bird? It’s shaped what we do for a long time now.

No, tell me.

A massive jungle fire drove out all the animals. They fled the wood and sought shel­ter next to a small pond. Only the little humming­bird used his deli­cate beak to take a drop of water from the pond, before flying back to the fire and thro­wing the water on to it. The big animals laug­hed at him and told him he’d never be able to extin­gu­ish the fire. The humming­bird said he knew that, but that he was just doing what he could – and if ever­yone did the same, they’d be able to put the fire out.

So, the humming­bird is your role model?

We’re well aware that we can’t save the world on our own. Nevert­hel­ess, we’ve brought the project to life and are doing our little bit. Now, we need support from lions, elephants and giraf­fes, too. In my eyes, this inspi­ring tale is testa­ment to the fact that every single one of us has our part to play.

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