Álvaro Núñez Solís

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Álvaro Núñez Solís's work was prepared when Álvaro Núñez Solís was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .

Introduction

Alvaro Nuñez is catalyzing the culture, infrastructure, and market necessary to develop a practice of e-recycling in Mexico. Alvaro’s nonprofit, Punto Verde, works with schools, volunteers, and municipal governments to generate a culture of e-recycling in response to the large and growing problem of e-waste, while his social business, Recicla Electrónicos Mexico, provides the actual infrastructure to lead the market in environmentally and socially responsible e-recycling.

The New Idea

Alvaro Nuñez is catalyzing the culture, infrastructure, and market necessary to develop a practice of e-recycling in Mexico. Using a nonprofit to build culture and a social business for the actual recycling, Alvaro is preparing Mexico to address the large and growing problem of electronic waste in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Because Alvaro has not been able to rely on the legal frameworks established in the United States and Europe, he is instead working to make e-recycling a social norm and providing the infrastructure to make the process easy.

In order to generate an e-recycling culture from the ground up, Alvaro has created an impressive network of volunteers and designed widespread public education campaigns through the nonprofit Punto Verde, or “Green Point.” All across Mexico, his volunteer-led reciclons serve to increase awareness and begin the process of collecting e-waste. Believing that the next generation is critical for change, Alvaro is working with the government to implement his “recycling squad” cartoon program, which breaks down the importance of e-recycling for children, in schools across the country. Punto Verde also works with student tech and engineering entrepreneurs to help students turn to their e-waste for the components of their own prototypes and models. In order to increase awareness of the alternative prospects of recycled electronic goods, the organization also refurbishes and repurposes computers to donate to low income schools.

Alvaro has realized that if he wants to change culture, he needs to demonstrate viable opportunities for e-recycling. His social business, Recicla Electronicos Mexico (REMSA), uses Punto Verde’s network to provide the infrastructure necessary to make e-recycling a reality, and is leading the market toward true electronic recycling. REMSA receives e-waste from Punto Verde’s 27 permanent collection centers all over Mexico, and also offers direct pickup for free in homes and businesses. At the facility, the innovation continues with Alvaro’s mastery of completely environmental processes. While many “pseudo recyclers” in Mexico only extract the useful parts of electronic waste and illegally burn or dump the remains into the ocean, REMSA takes apart each item of electronic waste entirely, and recycles more than 95% of each device. Simultaneously, the recycling center is a headquarters for recycling research, working privately and with businesses to develop new and more efficient recycling technologies. Major global corporations have already begun to reach out to Alvaro for innovative solutions to their specific types of waste, and he is working on plans for scaling across Latin America.

The Problem

Straddling the threshold of industrial development and digitization, but without the recycling policies of a developed country, Mexico is one of the world’s principle offenders of electronic waste. Each year, Mexico generates 1.003 million tons of e-waste, which consists of any former electric or electronic device or its components. E-waste is even more problematic than normal waste, because it often contains hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium and flame retardants, which are dangerous to the individuals who dissemble the equipment and to the environment when released back into it. However, society in Mexico is generally uninformed about these dangers and does not value the recycling of e-waste.

In Europe, the United States and Canada, legal frameworks make producers responsible for collection, processing, and recycling of their electronic products. In these countries, producers pay third parties to recycle their e-waste, and the costs are passed on to the consumer in the form of higher product prices. Mexico, however, has no such law in place; a clause of “joint responsibility” between government, producer, and consumer means that in reality, no one takes responsibility for recycling e-waste, and firms have thus far been unwilling to pay for the service. Furthermore, a lack of accessible electronic recycling centers means that even if citizens wanted to recycle their electronic waste, they would be hard-pressed to find a location in which to do so.

The cost of electronic recycling can ultimately be net-zero, if the valuable elements of equipment, such as computer processors, are used to offset the cost of recycling items which have lost their value. However, the only e-waste organizations that exist in Mexico today practice ‘pseudo-recycling’: extracting the valuable parts of electronics but burning or dumping the parts which are not valuable; a process which releases poli-chloric gases, phenol, dioxins, carbon dioxide, and other gases into the atmosphere. Many pseudo recyclers also illegally export the unused pieces of e-waste to foreign countries, most commonly Pakistan, China, India, Ghana and Nigeria. In those countries, the workers that dissemble these pieces suffer from brain damage, lung cancer, genetic mutations, and gastrointestinal problems from the mercury, beryllium, chrome, arsenic, cobalt, barium, and lead that are found in e-waste.

Aside from its dire environmental and social consequences, the problem with this sort of recycling mentality is that it fails to develop any lasting habit of e-recycling. As long as individuals only turn in the products for which they will receive compensation and continue to trash or burn the remains without changing the way they think about the environment itself, the problem will continue to grow.

The Strategy

In order to tackle the problem of e-waste, Alvaro has developed a strategy with three main components: developing the culture, infrastructure, and market for e-recycling.

In order to generate a culture of recycling e-waste, Alvaro is investing in the next generation with an e-recycling education program focused on children. His nonprofit, Punto Verde, developed an educational video program which the organization has brought to 31 states of Mexico. When possible, Punto Verde personnel visit the schools themselves to conduct workshops on e-waste; however, in an effort to expand, all materials are available online for local use in classrooms and to the public. Punto Verde has also built a strong network of volunteers across the country. They manage the permanent collection centers, the reciclones (collection campaigns) and also speak at local recycling conferences. Through a program called Saber Ayuda (Knowledge Helps), since 2012 Punto Verde has donated more than 250 completely refurbished, like-new computers to schools with scarce resources in order to demonstrate the power of recycled goods and to increase social impact.

Punto Verde also has a weekly radio show which features different entrepreneurs in the e-recycling sector on a regular basis to increase public awareness of the sector. Finally, Alvaro has developed a Recicla Electronicos Mexico (REMSA) e-store, which sells recycled parts from electronic products to young entrepreneurs, working with them in one-on-one consultations to see how they can take advantage of the low cost of recycled materials for their products and further build on a culture of e-recycling.

Alvaro has worked to bring e-recycling infrastructure to the entire country. Punto Verde has 27 permanent collection centers across Mexico, most of which have been established in cooperation with the local municipal governments. These organizations collect e-waste on a regular basis and send it to REMSA for processing. In places where there are no permanent collection centers, Punto Verde’s volunteers run reciclones, or periodic efforts to collect e-waste across a community. The organization also has an agreement with Estafeta, Mexico’s major courier service, to conduct in-home and in-office pickups of e-waste and deliveries to REMSA’s facilities in Queretaro, free of charge for the person delivering the e-waste. Through the combination of the permanent collection centers, the reciclones and the courier service, Alvaro has created the infrastructure to lower the barrier to e-recycling and increase accessibility.

REMSA’s plant itself is leading the field in developing a true e-recycling market in Mexico. The plant recycles upwards of 95% of every electronic product, ensuring that the full process is environmentally sound. The team is constantly innovating and finding new ways to recycle electronic products. Alvaro is the first person to have discovered a use for the glass recycled from television monitors, and is currently working to develop a line of floor tiles, sink basins, and other ceramics out of the glass. He is also working to break down individual coffee canisters, generating ant-repellent and aluminum out of the remains. While REMSA currently recycles a given product into 70% primary materials and 30% finished products, Alvaro’s goal is to develop more finished products and reach a 50 / 50 ratio, which would be more sustainable in light of volatile commodity prices. REMSA’s team is also working to consult the government, in order to ensure that it understands the nature of e-recycling and the risks of ‘pseudo-recyclers’.

With regards to expanding to meet the growing demands of e-waste in Mexico, Alvaro believes that spreading culture is the most important step. In addition to the continued expansion of his education programs, he is working with major electronics producers including Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft to begin to form relationships and parallel the types of e-recycling models they have in other countries, even in those without Producer Extended Responsibility laws. Mexico is also beginning to see other e-recyclers enter the market, a sign that Alvaro is starting to build an industry for responsible e-recycling.

In the past five years, Recicla Electronicos Mexico has processed more than 7000 tons of e-waste; a rate which they hope to continue to expand. In the next year, they plan to process an additional 2000 tons. REMSA’s profits are invested in Punto Verde to support the educational program and work towards creating a cultural shift. The organization is now looking to expand into other Latin American countries. With the returns to scale as the organization gains more awareness and collections, Recicla Electronicos Mexico hopes to be collecting 25,000 tons a year in five years and 100,000 tons a year in the next decade, with Punto Verde increasingly present across Latin America.

The Person

Since he was a child, Alvaro has always been motivated to use his entrepreneurial and scientific ability to solve problems. When he was still in high school, Alvaro saw how time consuming the process of tortilla-making was for his mother, and invented a machine for her, so that she could spend less time laboring and even sell more tortillas. Alvaro sold more than 100 of these tortilla machines from his childhood home. During university, frustrated by the problem of having to carry around his jacket all day after early morning swim practices, Alvaro invented a convertible jacket-backpack that was so successful he was able to convince his university to sell it in their campus store.

Although his entire family worked all their lives at Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly, and he had a job offer there, Alvaro’s desire to be an entrepreneur led him to leave his hometown and study industrial engineering at the Universidad Tec de Monterrey. In his third year, Alvaro received a grant to study for a semester at the University of Wisconsin in the United States. While living in a small student housing basement in the US, Alvaro’s commute home passed through an alley where locals would discard radios, computers, and other electronics as trash. He was surprised to see how many electronics were thrown out, and to discover that people were willing to pay to see them recycled in an environmentally friendly manner. Alvaro realized that as technology continued to develop and spread globally, the same problem of discarding rather than repairing electronics would confront his native Mexico. He returned home with a strong desire to find e-recycling solutions for Mexico.

However, Alvaro soon realized that the existing cultural and legal frameworks in the United States were not present in the same way in Mexico. No legislative structure required the recycling of electronic waste, and neither individuals, businesses, nor the government, were interested in paying money to have their electronics recycled. He would have to innovate across all sectors; business, culture and technology, in order to create a working e-recycling model that worked for Mexico. This type of project would require capital, however, so Alvaro put his engineering degree and problem solving skills to work. In his first major business experience, he designed a cost- and energy-saving multi-transmission engine for trucks, which he ultimately sold to CEMEX. With the funds from this transaction, Alvaro invested in Plamesa, a plastics recycling company. He gave Plamesa a more professionalized corporate structure, and built out his knowledge of the recycling sector until he felt prepared to venture into e-recycling.

Through relationships with universities including Tec de Monterrey, where he had been teaching entrepreneurship classes on the side, Alvaro was able to host his first reciclones. He founded Punto Verde in a back office of Plamesa in 2005, beginning to spread culture, host more reciclones and refine his e-recycling model. In 2009 REMSA was officially incorporated, providing Alvaro with the infrastructure to back up Punto Verde’s cultural mission. Since then, Alvaro has become an expert in environmental and social entrepreneurship, speaking at conferences all over the United States and Latin America, teaching courses at universities, and authoring two books about entrepreneurship. He is the winner of the SEMARNAT-COPARMEX Recycling contest (2009, 2010, 2011), the State Prize for Ecological Merit (2010) in Queretaro, Tecnos Innovation Prize in Nuevo Leon (2011) and National Entrepreneurship Prize (2012). He is currently working with the government to jointly manage large-scale recycling projects.