In 2015, after finishing a soccer game in Chile's capital, Santiago, engineering student Cristián Lara and his friends noticed an older man picking through a dumpster nearby. He was searching for anything that could be recycled, and loading it onto his bike.
"It looked like incredibly hard work," Lara recalled. After talking to the man, it turns out he had been doing the same work for 10 years, and was still living in poverty.
The encounter gave Lara an idea. What if there was a way to connect the collector on the street directly to the massive waste streams that exist in Chile, and to the companies that pay decent money for recyclables?
"We knew we had to do something," said 24-year-old Lara. That's how a recycling app startup, called ReciclApp, was born. The app launched last August. Since then, the bearded young entrepreneur has been on a mission. Standing in their section of an open collaborative workspace on the fifth floor of the luminous new innovation centre at Santiago's Catholic University, Lara let his glee shine through in his elevator pitch for the app.
"It's the Uber of recycling," he said.
It works like this: individuals, businesses, and institutions download the free app. Once they have cans, boxes or bottles to get rid of, they declare specific numbers in the app and choose a date and time period for pickup. From that data, the company creates and prints out routes for the collectors they work with. There are now an average of 200 collectors working with ReciclApp across Chile, and about 1,000 app users in the country.
For collectors, it's an efficient route with guaranteed recyclables, and they keep all the money they make. Lara's team cuts out the middleman transporters who would previously take the material to large recycling companies. ReciclApp even has designated storage centres where collectors can leave material before a truck from large recyclers shows up.
So what's the big deal? First off, Chile is the wealthiest country in Latin America, per capita. Among other things, that means Chileans buy a lot of stuff and create a lot of garbage.
Second, in Chile there are no municipal, curbside recycling programs. None. And that goes for much of Latin America.
Official figures show that Chile produces about 17 million tons of garbage per year. Less than 10 percent of that gets recycled. Compare that to Canada, where about 48 percent of residential waste gets recycled—or the US, where the figure is roughly 35-45 percent.
There's a huge opportunity for a startup like ReciclApp, and Lara's team of eight (including him) has been getting a lot of buy-in. They just closed a contract with the metropolitan region of Santiago (population 6 million), which allows them to work in all of its municipalities and surrounding areas. They also have contracts with several of Chile's other large cities.
Local governments pay ReciclApp an average of $1,200 USD per month, mainly because the service reduces their garbage collection expenses. But Lara said he's not motivated by the money.
"For me, it's the social mission of supporting the waste collectors," he said.
Lara estimates that there are about 100,000 people trying to earn money from recycling in Chile. Those that work with ReciclApp have more than doubled their recycling earnings on average from about $100 USD per month to $250 USD. But even that, Lara admitted, is a small gain when you consider Chile's high cost of living.
Marcela Puchi Fuentes has been collecting recyclables for 15 years in Peñalolén, one of Santiago's lower-income suburbs. When I met her, her dark hair was tied back to help beat the heat on a scorching day in Santiago. She and her husband, Hector, gather newspaper, cardboard boxes, bottles, and soda cans on their motorized three-wheelers provided by a municipal grant. (Most collectors in Santiago aren't so lucky and use whatever means they can to transport their recyclables.) Marcela and Hector have been working with ReciclApp for about a year.
"It's a lot cleaner now because families separate the materials and give them to you [as ReciclApp's system requires], rather than having to dig through the garbage," she said, standing in the shade on a side street in her neighbourhood. "It makes our work faster, easier and more dignified."
Though Fuentes' voice is clear and confident when she tells me how organized she and her husband are with their money, recycling still doesn't pay all the bills. So once a week they also sell used items they collect at an improvised flea market.
ReciclApp intends to change that. "We're going to start hiring waste collectors, so they'll have a set wage, a schedule, and can earn extra income based on how much they collect and how many homes or businesses they visit," said ReciclApp's director of operations, 25-year-old Manuel Fonseca, standing next to sheets laid out on the ground and covered with toys, books and electronics.
For Fuentes, 40, the biggest improvement is how she's treated. "Families value us as workers now, not as the lady who asks for donations and picks through the garbage," she said. "We spent too many years hidden in the shadows. I feel different now. I'm not embarrassed of my work the way I used to be."
The optimism is palpable both in the office and in the street. And Lara's team has managed to keep the momentum going. They have a pilot program running in Bolivia's capital, La Paz, and they've been invited to study the possibilities of expanding into Colombia and Peru.
In Chile, it's still an uphill battle to develop a culture of recycling. Only two years ago, Lara himself didn't recycle. But now he has put his civil engineering studies on hold to dedicate himself to ReciclApp full time. On top of that, a new recycling law should make it easier for companies like his to expand.
"What we want to instill in people is that we should recycle because it's our duty, because we have to save the world."
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