Waste is a huge global problem and it’s growing fast. According to a World Bank report in 2018, global annual waste generation is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tonnes over the next 30 years, up from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016, driven by rapid urbanisation, adverts promoting consumerism and growing populations. It’s a huge problem considering that humanity is already operating in ecological ‘overshoot’, going into deficit by consuming more resources and producing more waste than the biosphere can regenerate and safely absorb, as early in the year as 22nd August in 2020.
Plastics – a product of fossil fuels – are especially problematic. If not collected and managed properly, they will contaminate and affect waterways and ecosystems for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. While more than one-third of waste in high-income countries is recovered through recycling and composting, only 4% of waste in low-income countries is recycled. At least 33% of global waste is mismanaged today through open dumping or burning. An estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide- equivalent were generated from the treatment and disposal of waste in 2016 – representing about 5% of global emissions.
This is the story of the potential for a rapid transformation of the waste crisis illustrated by one social enterprise in Chile, and its work to encourage people in communities and in industry to produce less waste and to recycle more. Although inspirational and impressive, it also reveals the challenges of making rapid change without the necessary accompanying policy and economic shifts. TriCiclos, is a social enterprise that focuses on changing practices related to consumerism and waste management, with the goal of balancing “three cycles”: social, environmental, and financial. Their model involves working with existing communities to develop more sustainable ways of working, while also educating the public to play their part and enabling companies to re-design their processes to suit a more circular economy. It is another way of approaching the problem compared to the state-run recycling scheme in Taiwan, covered in an early case study.
After working in the food industry and becoming frustrated at the high levels of waste, social entrepreneur Gonzalo Muñoz’ and his partner Joaquin Arnolds Reyes resolved to change how society thinks about resource use and question what happens when something is “thrown away”. They provide a service – on-site recycling centres called “Punto Limpios” or “clean-up points” made from old shipping containers – where products that can be recycled or recovered are deposited separately by consumers. These are supported by education programmes to teach people about waste disposal and recycling. A “Recycling Bus” travels the country informing and educating on how to reuse waste and how to recycle it properly. The bus visits schools and educational projects, as well as assisting with beach cleaning. The company has also invented a ReGo Machine that transforms plastic materials into toys to show the importance and possibilities of reusing materials. TriCiclos also works with existing waste picker groups and cooperatives who form a point of expertise and education for consumers at the recycling points.
What is perhaps more unusual is that TriCiclos also offers business consultancy. Following the premise that trash is a design flaw, the company helps manufacturers and designers to prevent their products entering the waste stream at all. Muñoz has described TriCiclos as a company of cultural change, disguised as recycling: “We want to change the culture of product design; the consumer culture that now exceeds our planet’s capabilities; the culture of citizens who must do their part by choosing better, as well as preparing and separating materials; the culture of the recycler that, as a standard, can and should become a service provider; and finally, the culture of waste that must disappear to accommodate circular economy culture”. To influence the production chain of consumer goods even before their creation, the company has created its own software and machinery to help clients transform materials into circular resources.
In 2011, TriCiclos became the first B Corporation outside North America, known for commitment to sustainability – and by 2014, the business had arrived in Brazil. Today it has operations in Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
The story of TriCiclos is perhaps typical of a pioneer organisation, led by an individual who is personally committed to an ethical mission. But this is still more unusual in business in the global South, where the concept of a social enterprise – retaining profit but for a social purpose – is less well known. Many other organisations are therefore still of relatively small size, while TriCiclos has managed to scale successfully. The success of TriCiclos and its founder Muñoz has encouraged others to take the leap into environmental protection through enterprise. Marine plastic has become a huge pollution issue on Chile’s beaches and in the poorer southern half of the country, no facilities existed for fishermen to dispose safely of unusable plastic nets. A recent startup called Bureo, founded by three North American surfers, is now collaborating with local fishing communities to keep hundreds of tonnes of discarded nets out of the ocean each year. Nets are sorted, cleaned, and cut in Bureo’s warehouse, before being turned into 100% recycled polyester and nylon pellets, called NetPlus, which are sold to companies as a sustainable alternative to first-use plastics. Today NetPlus is used by sustainable outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia in their hat brims, by bike firm Trek in parts, and by furniture designers Humanscale in office chairs. In other parts of the global South, Kenya based Ocean Sole and Tosheka Textiles, India based Green Wave, and Haiti based Thread International are other examples of enterprises that aim to decrease the amount of dry waste that enter landfills and oceans, through their operations.
TriCiclos works to embed social change into its operations by designating a specific team to work with existing waste picker cooperatives regionally. These groups represent an important social impact, as most recyclers are former trash pickers. Trash picking, also referred to as ‘scavenging’, which can carry a more negative image in spite of its positive contribution, is a global, risky and ancient part of economies. Under the right conditions, it can be well organised, deliver a successful living to those who are not exploited, and deliver huge environmental benefits. The World Bank estimates that about 15 million people worldwide work as trash pickers. Assuming a median income of US$5 a person per day, their global economic impact is at least US$21.6 billion dollars a year, and about US$7 billion in Latin America. In Brazil alone, scavenging has an annual economic impact of about US$3 billion. It can also cut down on imports of raw materials and enable a country to save hard currency. Other enterprises realise the value of trash pickers: Mexican enterprise Eco Domum pays higher than market wages to their trash collectors for a constant supply of raw materials for its recycling plant. And India based Trash2Cash provides employment as well as a safe and dignified working environment to slum dwellers by using their recycling skills to provide a fair wage income.
It is worth noting that trash pickers in Chile believe that recycling could have been badly affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 5,000 of Chile’s waste pickers, organised under a collective called the “Recycling Movement,” say they fear city dwellers quarantined inside their homes are increasingly opting for the trash can instead of the recycling bin. Few places in Chile pick up recyclables at curb-sides. Instead, most citizens must walk or drive to designated drop-off points throughout cities. Since many of the sites have been shuttered amid lockdown it is harder for people to reach them and there is no disincentive to putting recyclable material into the general waste.
Education is a vital part of the company’s work as it depends on people understanding the importance of recycling in order to flourish. The company cooperates with trash pickers to pass on their extensive knowledge and experience with recycling to educate the public. This means not only showing people at sites how to separate the garbage, but also having conversations that make the Punto Limpio users reflect on their consumption and purchasing choices on a broader level, promoting an awareness of which materials are recyclable as well as which brands and products follow sustainable practices.
According to Munoz,
“The first thing you have to consider is where garbage comes from. This way we can understand that in a sustainable society, we will need to stop using a variety of materials and products that are still seen as normal and acceptable today. In order for this to happen, we must change our culture, change our incentives, challenge waste and programed obsolescence.”
Chile is a nation where consumption has risen dramatically over the past 30 years and, with it, waste. Although waste production per capita in Chile (439.7kilos/year) was below the OECD average (525.9kilos/year) according to the most recent data (2017), it was rising sharply – from 397kilos/yr in 2016 – at a time when other countries with more advanced waste management infrastructure had been falling for several years. Plastic is a problematic area as it is in many countries and Chile’s long coastline makes marine plastic particularly noticeable. Chile consumes approximately 990,000 tons of plastic per year and recycles 83,679 tons (8.5%). Of the total recycled plastics, 17% (14,281 tons/year) has a domestic origin and 83% (69,398 tons/year) a non-domestic origin.
One good sign is the intention to change direction. In 2016, Chile enacted Law No. 20,920, entitled “Framework Law for Waste Management, Extended Responsibility of the Producer and Promotion of Recycling.” According to the government, the law seeks to “reduce the generation of waste and encourage its reuse, recycling, and other valuation, in order to protect the health of people and the environment.” Anita Rivera, project manager of recycling company TriCiclos, commented in an interview with BNamericas that the current legal framework was not adequate to foster recycling and that 68% of dumps operating in the country were doing so illegally. In February 2019, Chile enacted the so-called plastic bag ban—the “Chao Bolsas plásticas” (Goodbye plastic bags) law—that prohibits their commercial use. In addition, The Chilean Plastics Pact (PCP) led by Fundación Chile and the Ministry of Environment was signed in April 2019, with the purpose of rethinking the future of plastics by bringing together all actors in the value chain. This includes companies, public bodies and NGOs. The initiative is part of the Plastics Pact Global Network launched in 2018 by the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
TriCiclos understood that as a small firm they would need to harness the power of others’ brands in order to scale-up a recycling solution in a country with a limited waste disposal infrastructure. In 2010, the first Punto Limpio was installed in a Sodimac retail store in Chile – one of the major players in home improvements in Latin America. Muñoz chose to build partnerships to promote sustainability: by showing the efforts of well-known brands, TriCiclos hopes to inspire similar changes at other companies. In July 2013 the company made an agreement with Sodimac that has allowed them to create the largest national network of ‘Clean-Up’ Units in Chile, and in that year alone, more than 170,000 people used these units to recycle 12 types of materials, such as Tetra Pak, plastic, aluminum and cardboard. According to Sodimac’s estimates, the initiative enabled the recycling of 1,416,231 kilos of material that year, equivalent to 2,771,140 kWh of energy savings, 19,582,832 liters of water and 5,238 tons of CO2.
Good design has also played a role in the success of the Punto Limpio, the modular plants capable of recycling 90 percent of household solid waste. They are brightly coloured and attractive to look at, easy to use and to install in commercial centres, universities and other institutions with a high volume of traffic. Unusually for waste disposal, they look good enough to place in visible areas, in order to attract the public’s attention. Each one has 15 windows, with signage indicating the correct place for different materials (plastics, paper, glass, aluminium, etc.). Inside, it functions as a self contained small-scale recycling centre coping with 25 different types of materials divided into categories: cellulose (cardboard, white paper and other papers), plastic-coated cardboard, plastics, metals (aluminum and other metals), and glass. Using this recognisable concept and colour scheme, TriCiclos has also made mini stations and mobile stations for special events and places where space is more limited.
The financial model is key to how TriCiclos works, with social impact at its core. At each Punto Limpio, TriCiclos signs a contract to manage the collection, processing, and transformation of the waste and its reintroduction into the production chain. This brings a recycling infrastructure to hundreds of thousands of people who would not otherwise use one, and also offers job opportunities with fair pay and conditions. In order to convince businesses and other institutions to help design this new culture of sustainability, TriCiclos shares with them a percentage of the profits it makes from selling recycled materials, as a credit towards the initial purchasing cost and maintenance of the Punto Limpio. They also benefit from an environmentally responsible reputation. The company’s success has attracted funding from social investment funds such as FIS-Ameris in Chile and Small Giants in Australia. It demonstrates another, different strategy, compared to the state-led approach in Taiwan, but reaffirms the need for comprehensive approaches with support for both infrastructure and behaviour change to cut waste.
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