Conversations with Unreasonable Fellows: Luis Duarte of YoReciclo
In this series we check in on Unreasonable Institute graduates. The Institute puts 25 entrepreneurs through an intense training and mentoring program to speed the development of their social enterprise. Here we’re tracking their progress and examining lessons learned.
Luis Duarte is a co-founder of YoReciclo, a company in Mexico working to make recycling a common practice and to raise awareness of the importance of reducing and managing waste more responsibly. Recycling is common in Mexico at the industrial level, but smaller players have been left out of the recycling chain. YoReciclo is working to change that by encouraging places like schools and small businesses to start sorting their trash and start recycling.
Duarte took YoReciclo, just a couple years old and growing quickly, to the Unreasonable Institute, where he was able to expand the idea among other entrepreneurs focused on social or environmental ventures. Duarte spoke with Dowser from Mexico, a couple months after leaving the Institute.
Dowser: Where did the idea for YoReciclo come from?
Duarte: I had the opportunity to do my MBA at Babson College, and when I was about to graduate, I met my current partner, who is also Mexican. He wanted to return to Mexico and create a business that not only created wealth but also helped in some way.
We both had the experience of living in rural communities and understanding the lack of natural resources, and we found that recycling rates in most of the developed countries is around 30 to 50 percent, but in Latin America, all recycling rates are very close to zero percent. In Mexico specifically, we have a 3.3 percent recycling rate. That for us was unacceptable.
Is recycling something with which you were already familiar? Is it a new concept in Mexico?
I lived in Germany for about six months, and I lived in the U.S. for at least three or four years. So I knew how the system worked and the only thing I needed to do is understand how to change the culture. Here in Mexico, we are used to mixing everything. We don’t care about waste. We don’t know the statistics of waste and the consequences of generating without any conscience.
How do you go about recruiting customers to start recycling?
One of the things that we do, we try to start a recycling program for any institution. We first give lectures, and the first topic is showing people pictures of our streets, our lakes, our rivers, where we have found trash laying everywhere. And it’s not common trash, it’s things that can be recycled. What we have done is once every month, we grab a camera and we drive around and try to take pictures of places that are common just to walk by. There are some rivers in this area and most of them are very polluted with waste.
As soon as we show these pictures during our lecture and we jump into the statistics of Mexico and waste, how much we produce and how much we could save if we start recycling, then people understand.
What kind of materials do you work with?
We started with two materials: aluminum cans, which of course has a big product here in Mexico, and PET bottles. Those were the first two. Right now we are collecting around 25 different materials from our programs, including electronic waste, wood and plastic pallets, cardboard, paper, glass, and plastics from almost 1 to 7.
I think that the market already existed here in Mexico, but there was no connection between private institutions and those recyclers. Nobody looked into schools or buildings or offices, or any other institution that was smaller and that didn’t represent a huge volume. So what YoReciclo is doing is creating a bridge to bring those institutions into the recycling chain.
How much material are we talking about here?
At the beginning, we were just a small player. We started managing around maybe 10 tons of recycling material per month. After two years of operation, we are managing around 500 tons of material and we plan for next year to start managing 1,000 tons per month.
We have around 55 customers right now, and those vary very much. They go from kindergartens in schools to universities to corporate offices and manufacturing facilities. We should also be working with landfills soon, trying to set up material recovery facilities. That’s a project for next year.
Do you provide some kind of incentive for potential clients to participate?
What we usually do is create competitions between schools. Most of them receive school supplies for the recycling materials. There’s also an economic incentive, which we try to put as secondary.
Do you work with waste pickers at all?
For some customers, we partner with formal waste pickers so they can bring us the material. We are more focused on the recycling part of the business, not on the collection part. We have customers in other parts of the country and because we don’t have offices in those parts, we have partnered with other waste pickers to collect the material and then we have a lot of communication to monitor all the customers’ waste stream and to provide them with the environmental impact report that we give every three months.
I’m very glad to say we have become members of the Clinton Global Initiative for this problem. What we are trying to do as a group, is trying to involve waste pickers into a more formal industry, because there’s evidence from other cities that when you involve them and organize them, not only are they more dignified, but the city and the companies have lots of savings in terms of waste collection. One of the things YoReciclo has been doing since the beginning is first treat them as human beings, because they are always put on the side. As soon as we have any new waste picker that comes and sells us their material, I personally go and sit with him and try to have a nice chat with him — trying to know their names, understand what they are doing, where they live. What they have been saying is that they keep coming to our business because they feel better, just because there’s someone that opened the door without yelling at them or saying bad stuff about them.
We have not reached a point where I can say their income will be any different than if they go to another place to sell their material. What we have seen is on the human side, I think that’s where the improvement has been.
And now that we’re part of the Clinton Global Initiative, now we really have a huge task on trying to see how we can organize them and involve them in this industry in a more formal way.