It’s a scourge of modern-day life for the vast majority of us. Strewn across our streets, seas and countryside. Clogging drains and filling landfills. Waste is perhaps the most visible, the most unsightly, manifestation of humans addiction to conveniently packaged stuff.

Plastic waste is of particular concern due to its abundance and non-biodegradable properties. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. That equates to over one tonne of plastic for every man, woman and child alive today, with about 60% of it unrecycled sitting in landfills or the natural environment.

While scientists, governments and big business are now prioritizing the issue, what is the role of start-ups and community action in ridding the world of plastic and other waste?

Light snow falls softly outside the office window of a pioneer in tackling the global waste challenge. Chatting via video call, Przemek Pyziel, CEO of Planet Heroes, talks passionately about the Polish tech start-up he and fellow Co-founders, Adam Falkowski , Monika Habrzyk and Jan Domański, established to bring together local and global communities to clean-up the planet.

“What is special is that we are building communities. A community involved in the clean-up action and a community of people that supports those projects.” Przemek Pyziel, CEO, Planet Heroes.

The Planet Heroes platform enables peer to peer transactions between those organizing litter picking campaigns all over the world and those companies and individuals willing to fund them.

Since launching in November 2019 at the UN-SPBF Second Governing Consortium Meeting in Canberra, Australia, the 580 donations made to-date, ranging in amount from as little as $1 up to $500, are used to buy equipment, rubbish sacks and marketing support for the litter picks.

Together with a talented and motivated team, partnerships have been key to the expansion of Planet Heroes. A founding member of the UN-SPBF Green Technology Startup Initiative, Przemek explains,

“The support from the Science Policy Business Forum was massive. We were able to get some serious partners like Samsung and Amazon as a result of being a member of the initiative and the trustworthiness associated with that.”

Przemek explains how buy-in from the private sector has been vital in ensuring the credibility of Planet Heroes, with initial development funding and technological assistance provided by Samsung’s third Incubator in Białystok, along with other companies such as Amazon and Inter Vion also providing support.

A litter pick in a Nairobi slum

Recent litter picking campaigns in Kenya and Tanzania have taken place while Africa struggles to cope with the ever increasing tide of waste produced by a rapidly growing population. According to UNEP’s 2018 Africa Waste Management Outlook Report, only 4% of the 125 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) produced annually is currently recycled (compared to 46% in the EU), meaning the vast majority of Africa’s waste ends up in the environment.

Given this backdrop, Przemek emphasized that addressing the waste challenge everywhere, particularly in African countries often with weaker environmental policies, requires people power. “In the last 30 years the cities have grown massively, and the infrastructure simply just didn’t follow. Our approach in Africa is to show people that not everything can be done by the government. People have to take responsibility for their neighbourhood. That’s why we organize these clean-ups to show people the way.”

Looking to the future, Przemek wants the company to tackle waste at the beginning and end of its life.

By geo-tagging and using Artificial Intelligence to analyze what rubbish is collected where, Planet Heroes is striving to help waste producers understand the impact of their products and inform waste processors where to locate close to collection points.

“We just want to show the problem and use the data to solve the waste issue. We can go to local companies providing recycling facilities and say your collection points are not in the best location based on where the litter picks are happening. It’s all a question of data and with it we can provide very useful information for waste collectors.”

Until the goal of a zero-waste future is achieved, Przemek and the Planet Heroes team will continue to facilitate and fund community-led litter picking campaigns.

“When we’ve hit the million bags of rubbish collected mark, that’s when we’ll open a bottle of champagne in the office.”

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