Agustina Besada

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Argentina
Elected in 2021
Because of the pandemic, Agustina Besada was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Seeing the vast environmental damage caused by uncontrolled use of plastic, Agustina seeks to transform the relationship of people and organizations with plastic and promote changes in habit. She approaches all this from an angle of motivation and possibility.

The New Idea

To face the massive problem of plastic pollution and its serious consequences on the environment, Agustina developed an approach focused on the relationship of people with this material. She promotes awareness of the problem and the development of new habits under the slogan of “unplastify-ing” organizations and daily life, focusing on prevention actions and narrative change, in order to achieve the necessary societal shifts.

Changing habits not only requires that people be aware but also that they are motivated enough to act. Unplastify works with a wide spectrum of audiences: schools, homes, companies, and state organizations, where people come into contact with the problem and design concrete “de-plastification” solutions, thus creating a reinforcement of their commitments. Access to scientifically validated information, the human design model, and storytelling using Agustina's own adventure, as well as that of other explorers, characterize the Unplastify approach.

Unplastify tackles all angles of the problem, from educational programs, to advocacy on public policies and dissemination of scientific information, to working with companies and industry. Just as society began to understand the harmfulness of cigarettes to health, Agustina aspires to achieve a similar process with plastic and the "de-plastify" movement. She believes that change requires sustained action and a cultural system that provides meaning, and for that to happen, it requires changing the incentives. With each institution they work with, Unplastify develops new processes and rules that incorporate habits that minimize the use of plastic and avoid single-use plastic.

Changing habits requires adequate motivation and commitment from people. From Unplastify they work with a wide spectrum of audiences: schools, homes, companies and state organizations, where people make contact with the problem and design strategies to face it, generating a reinforcement of commitments. Access to scientifically validated information and commitment are key aspects of the process.

Agustina argues that change requires sustained action and a cultural system that provides meaning. Consequently, the work with the institutions includes reflection by the members of the organizations and the development of processes and new rules that incorporate habits that minimize the use of plastic and avoid single-use plastic. Promoting cultural changes in organizations At the public policy level, they have promoted several bills and advice in order to achieve a law that completely avoids their use.

The Problem

The problem of plastic pollution in the world is shocking. Plastic production has grown exponentially over the past decades and it’s estimated that if we continue with the same production level, in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans (The New Plastics Economy). Sadly, waste management systems are inefficient: only 9% of plastic that is thrown out is recycled and 32% ends up polluting nature (The New Plastics Economy, 2016). It is calculated that each year approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic pieces find their way into the ocean (Jamback, 2016).

As a consequence of mass production and unsustainable management, plastic waste is affecting the health of the oceans, animals, and people. Over 700 marine species have been affected by plastic pollution (entanglements, suffocation, poisoning) (NatGeo, 2018). Microplastics have even been found in abiotic ocean products like sea salt (2017). The problem is not just microplastics, but the toxic chemicals attached to them, which are polluting the ocean food chain (UNEP, 2014). It has been shown that the toxins released by ingested plastics are harmful to fertility and cause a weakening of the immune system (WWF, 2019). Even though it may seem indirect, the human race is being affected by this problem.

At the same time, the current disposable culture in our system of consumerism and production reinforces negative and perpetual effects of the problem. What we throw away ends up being “someone else’s problem,” once we toss it into the trash, thus making the global issue invisible as well. It is calculated that half of all plastic we produce is single-use plastic (UN, 2017), with consumers being unaware of the lifecycle of a material that takes hundreds of years to break down.

Consumers and companies often turn a blind eye towards the true costs of products that use plastic as part of the components or packaging. The properties of the materials are good, and the cost seems low, but this is only because it ignores the costs associated with ultimately disposing of them. Other materials that are more noble, that are easier to manage, that are recycled better, or that are less polluting, are all cast aside. Moreover, incentives to sustainably manage plastics are scattered and the companies that produce plastics have no incentive to recover the material in order to increase their production and sales.

During the last two years we have seen a large global trend putting the problem of plastic pollution front and center on the public stage. The media, along with civil society and companies, have started to give the subject more importance within environmental problems. Tens of countries and cities across the world have passed legislation that regulates single-use plastics, and many others have proposed laws related to this issue. In Argentina there are several proposed laws in the Congress that also aim to regulate disposable plastics. However, these approaches focus on the symptoms of the problem, a lack of recycling capacity, and not on the root of the problem that makes the connection with an abusive and uncontrolled production of the plastics in the first place.

The Strategy

At Unplastify, Agustina and her team propose deplastification processes by combining exploration, education, and action, working with multiple stakeholders: schools, individuals, companies, industries, and governments, through public policies. Her approach implies a new design of the relationship between people and plastics, minimizing the use of disposable plastics (especially single-use ones) and systemically replacing them.

Unplastify has educational programs and workshops that are given in all types of organization and can be customized for different groups. What the activities have in common is that, during the process, they guide participants in being the ones who design strategies that adjust to their environments and needs, and at the same time reinforce the commitment to deplastification.

Unplastify’s actions are based on seven key principles during the design of the strategies: Inspiration: positive messages that encourage action; Empowerment: everyone is a changemaker (individuals, organization, companies, government); Responsibility: knowing about an issue makes you responsible: Collaboration: sharing ideas, actions, and effort; Prevention: avoiding plastic disposables; Action: the key is taking ideas from theory to practice; and lastly, Scaling: that refers to growing, replicating, and expanding in order to make the impact more powerful. Action plans for each group are always defined under these principles.

Agustina works with schools and sailing clubs through Education Challenges, which are applied in public and private schools in Argentina and three other countries in the region. It starts off with an inspirational training, in which young people learn about the problem and its impacts. Then adolescents, who are about 15 or 16, go to the Unplastify app where they register individually, but work on a team. The projects last about two months and the students get weekly tasks for designing a project prototype that solves one aspect of the problem of plastic pollution. In a playful way they work on their leadership, communication, impact generation, and cooperation skills. At the same time, they learn how to present the problem and get support from the teachers and educational authorities.

Since 2019 Unplastify has carried out challenges in nine schools, including a school in the United States and one in Mexico. NatGeo Learning and Disney are allies in this program that they are helping to replicate at a regional level. From its initial design, the program has been designed for scale and the app allows young people to be guided in their projects step by step with a scoring system and cooperative leadership. Some examples of the projects include a campaign that a group of students designed to promote COVID prevention without using plastic, and which teaches about hand hygiene without using alcohol gel in plastic bottles. Another group of kids researched about the most popular cookies in their school and the packaging waste these cookies generated, and they were able to get the local bakery to make cookies in bulk for them. Agustina believes that children and youth are the best change agents for their environments and her educational programs empower and equip them for this purpose.

Companies must have a leading role when it comes to deplastifying the world. Because of this, Unplastify created a program in which they can guide company experts in finding appropriate solutions for their companies and products. This initiative is meant for companies of all sizes, with employees participating from all departments including upper management. It begins by sensitizing and inspiring employees and then accompanies the organization in redesigning its relationship with plastics internally (offices and internal processes) and externally (its products and services). It is a collaborative process that typically includes four stages: diagnosis, co-creation of strategies, implementation, and measurement. As part of the solution new suppliers that are in sync with this purpose are approached and products and processes are redesigned. For example, in 2019 they worked with a fast-food company to diagnose the situation, to design alternate product materials, and to design operations (for reusable options), comparing the impact and costs of all the options. Many of the strategies were implemented, thus achieving a 90% deplastification rate.

Agustina and her team have been working very hard on developing cultural incentives as well as pushing for adequate laws that accompany this change. In 2019 they advised Argentine congresswoman Brenda Austin in designing a proposed law that would progressively prohibit certain single-use plastics from being used nationally. In 2020 they designed a project to “deplastify” Argentina’s House of Representatives, by conducting an initial diagnosis and then creating a deplastification plan, together with advisors from the House of Representatives. In order to broaden the scope to the entire country, in 2020 they created the online platform argentinanodescarta.org [Argentina does not dispose] on which municipalities from all over the country shared their preventative regulations and practices regarding single-use plastics. This was developed together with the young entrepreneur, Jerónimo Batista Bucher, who is a 22-year-old entrepreneur and scientist, and who is a sustainability and scientific dissemination influencer. Over 100 municipalities participated in the launch and 25 municipalities have regulations that are in force and registered with the platform.

Unplastify also has a research and content production area, the Unplastify Laboratory, which supplies and validates scientific information related to the problem, as well as innovative solutions. Together with the lab Agustina documented the oceanic crossing she did in 2018 and during which she collected first-hand information about the state of the oceans and the presence of plastics. In order to achieve a cultural change, they also designed a strategy of multipliers, the Unplastify ambassadors, who creatively, along with storytelling, develop paths to change the narrative. The aim is to inspire others through adventures. The ambassadors are famous sports players, chefs, and artists, all of whom are very committed to the problem. By using their professions, they can demonstrate creative ways that everyone can contribute to the change. Agustina understands that raising awareness one person at a time wouldn’t be possible, but instead it’s necessary to empower those who understand this challenge to become change agents themselves and propel others forward. Because of this, they are aiming to incentivize alternatives and make them visible through different campaigns, such as the one to deplastify delivery services; this led to the development of a delivery service in Argentina that was inspired by Unplastify.

The Unplastify team is made up of ten staff members, in addition to the ambassadors, organized online like a ship’s crew: captain, navigator, crew and port. Unplastify’s stories are narrated in an inspiring way, by combining information, stories, scientific information, and an invitation to activate the cause.

Regarding social impact, Unplastify is focused on the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. Even though the initiative is in its beginning stages, the global nature of the problem, and the networks Agustina has created, and will create, allow for a broad scaling up of impact within the region. Since 2019 they have developed the school program in nine educational institutions, designing and applying the deplastification processes, and reaching almost 2,000 students directly, and 17,000 students indirectly. These young people designed deplastification projects that are making action happen in their communities, homes, and schools. The education program has the support of NatGeo Learning, Disney, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, which will help them scale up to go beyond the three countries in which they are already established.

Unplastify has worked with large multinational companies in the deplastification of their organizations. One of them is Banco Supervielle, with which they began with the work of sensitizing and strategy design at the end of 2019 (the program was suspended due to the pandemic, but they plan to restart as soon as possible). They have had inspirational talks and activities with Bimbo, Unilever, Disney, and Coca-Cola. Agustina has developed a mentoring relationship with the CEO of Patagonia Argentina, who was interested in the innovative proposal. Among future plans with companies, she plans on developing an Unplastify seal so that companies that have worked the world over to contribute to this cause can stand out. The seal will allow for a new market entry barrier to be established as well as to decentralize the work of the organization, by recognizing best practices fueled by other agents. They have already received requests from new companies from within Argentina and from others in Latin America, without even going out to look for them.

In 2021 they will reach 50 schools in five countries in the region. They are also planning on developing research, together with the Ministry of Production of Argentina, to create deeper levels of this work around the plastics industry and to broaden alternatives and transition strategies for companies and sector agents, as well as to achieve the right incentives from public policies, laws, and cultural change.

The Person

Agustina was raised in an upper-middle class family and from a very young age she enjoyed summers in the countryside in the south of Argentina. Ever since her school days Agustina was fascinated with the wasted value of things that were thrown away. At age seven she began to participate in a school-based recycling initiative, which motivated her to convince her building’s superintendent and neighbors to set aside recyclable materials instead of throwing them out. Around the same time, she would ride her bike around the neighborhood with a neighbor, looking for bottles to recycle. At age 13 she became involved in an extracurricular school activity, supporting rural education in the north of Argentina, in which she participated in fundraising and awareness activities.

After school, because of family influences, she decided to study medicine, because she thought it was the career path that would allow her to help people. One trip to Patagonia with friends ended up being the fork in the road during which she realized she did not want to be a physician, so she took a year off to take all sorts of courses in order to find what her true calling was. During that time, she found out about industrial design and was fascinated with the combination of people-based design and solutions to real problems. During a study abroad in Barcelona, this calling was made even more powerful when she did research on sustainability. There she discovered the book Cradle to Cradle, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, which inspired her a lot for her later work. Back in Buenos Aires she focused all her energy on generating this type of projects. She was determined to deepen her knowledge and tools, so she went to the United States to do a Master’s in Sustainability Studies at Columbia University. While there she also worked at the Operational Excellence Center at the Columbia Business School.

While visiting a friend in a New York neighborhood, she discovered the recycling center Sure We Can. Motivated by her curiosity, she got to know about the center and immediately became a volunteer. A little while later the center director invited her to be part of the board, in order to collaborate on different projects, and a short while after that she was asked to take over management of the center. Agustina said no for three months because between her school and the projects she thought she wouldn’t have time, until she finally accepted the challenge. It was an experience that provided her with a lot of learning and growth. It was a transformational experience from a humanistic point of view, as well as a laboratory on the problem of plastics, which she could see every day from her office. That is where she understood the problem and also understood that the solution is not found in recycling, but instead will come from solutions centered on preventing the problem in the first place.

Upon deciding to return to Argentina, together with her husband, they decided to sail back. The return trip meant they were at sea for seven months, during which she was a NatGeo explorer. During the trip they took samples of the ocean’s plastics, they connected with experts and organizations from Europe who are working on this issue, and the idea of Unplastify started to form. Agustina has proven herself to be an entrepreneur who has great conviction, strength, security, commitment, and passion for positively transforming and impacting society and the environment.