A peek into HP's investment in reducing ocean-bound plastic in Haiti

Plastic bottles compressed and prepared to be recycled
ShutterstockWarut Chinsai
Plastic bottles compressed and prepared to be recycled.

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Like other third-world countries, one issue that Haiti faces is an abundance of waste, coupled with a minimal sanitation system. Storms don’t help the matter either as ocean waste, particularly plastic, washes up on the shores and in the canals of the Caribbean nation. Additionally, a great deal of plastic could end up in the ocean because most Haitians drink their water from plastic bottles or bags.

Yet, despite the obvious challenges in cleaning up so much, HP and two of its partners have found a way to collect plastic waste and, ultimately after treating it, put it to good use. Since 2017, HP has manufactured ink cartridges made from over a million pounds of plastic bottles recycled from Haiti. And for the past 19 years, overall, the company has converted a staggering 199 million-plus pounds of plastic into 3.9 billion printer cartridges.

In addition to cartridges, HP is using this plastic for other products, including monitors and a personal computer made entirely of ocean-bound plastic, which debuted in September.

The opportunity to use plastic from Haiti landed on HP’s radar after the company was approached by Ian Rosenberger, founder and CEO of the First Mile Coalition, formerly known as Thread International. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Rosenberger contributed to the relief effort but also discovered that turning this trash into money could do some good for the country’s citizens.

"We decided to focus on plastic because there was so much of it," said Kelsey Halling, director of partnerships at First Mile. "Generally, [plastic] is more valuable than paper or cardboard, and we discovered we could turn plastic PET bottles into fabric and yarn."

After joining the Clinton Global Initiative, First Mile connected with Timberland, their first commercial apparel partner. Upon hearing more about HP’s commitment to using recycled materials, and their intention to increase that part of the supply chain, Rosenberger saw where the organization could contribute.

"When he heard that we were using a huge volume [of recycled plastic], he thought that HP could be one of the buyers out of Haiti for this type of plastic," noted Ellen Jackowski, global head of sustainability strategy and innovation at HP. "When we look at our own supply chain, we were buying plastic off of the general global plastics market, mostly out of North America, so shifting some of that volume to Haiti seemed like a good possibility."

In essence, First Mile serves as a go-between for HP and plastic recyclers in Haiti. But, in addition to interfacing with the brand and collection centers, the organization has helped develop programs around safety and hygiene and business-related matters, including how to manage accounting and cash flow. Additionally, the partnership has led to the opening of two learning centers in the country, serving over 100 children with quality education, food and medical assistance.

But at the core of the effort is the fact that Haitians have an opportunity to earn a living wage and beyond. As independent contractors, the collectors can gather as much plastic as they would like and are compensated. Similar to an Uber or Lyft driver, the amount of money earned is based on volume.

According to Edouard Carrie, founder of ECSSA, one of the plastic suppliers in Haiti, over 9,000 people are registered to collect, with an estimated 1,200 doing so full time. Since 2010, ECSSA has recycled over 60 million pounds of plastic materials from the country, and he says that the partnership with HP and First Mile has been transformative.

"The impact on their lives is amazing," said Carrie, who learned more about recycling as a student at the University of Tampa and then decided to start the company to help his home country. "Without recycling, they would have no other source of income or revenue. What’s most rewarding to me is seeing the number of people we can help. People are buying something that was affecting our ocean, [and it] is helping the rest of the world."

An investment in continued success

The next phase of the project involves additional investment by HP. Specifically, the company has committed $2 million for a new plastic washing line in Haiti that helps eliminate the need for an extra step before the harvested plastic is sent to Montreal, where the ink cartridges are manufactured.

The facility helps lower HP's carbon footprint by eliminating steps and providing a more direct line from raw materials to finished products. According to HP, it also could create more than 1,000 new local income opportunities. Yet, from a practical perspective, the new, sophisticated equipment helps accelerate the scale of moving plastic from Haiti.

"It’s [a modest] investment for a company like ours," said Jackowski. "But the significance of that decision is breakthrough."

According to Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale: "There are currently more than 86 million metric tons of plastic in our ocean, and each year, over 8 million metric tons of additional plastic enter the ocean," and that "HP’s collaborative approach in Haiti is driving meaningful impact to reduce marine litter."

In terms of next steps, the program could serve as a blueprint to scale similar operations in other countries facing related issues with ocean plastic. Yet, according to Jackowski, the focus is on ensuring that Haiti continues to build momentum.

"The appetite to repeat and extend it to other countries is huge both internally and externally," she said. "We want to get [the Haiti] process scaled and stable. We’ve been open source about this and share our knowledge with other global companies," referring to the partnership the brand has with Next Wave Plastics, a coalition of companies dedicated to drastically reducing plastic waste in the ocean.

For now, however, the focus continues in Haiti, where the brand not only has reinvented sourcing of materials but provided an essential opportunity to improve the lives and futures of people in the country.

"HP has been a really unique partner for us," added Halling. "They’ve had a tremendous impact on the neighborhoods and communities that we’re working in."

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