Gonzalo Muñoz is reinventing the recycling industry in Chile by showing that we can recycle many other materials than the traditional ones, and by sharing the financial rewards of recycling. He is slowly replacing the current waste management system, which simply hides garbage and encourages waste through financial incentives. Gonzalo strives to create a future with no garbage; in which recycling is part of the daily life and actions of all institutions and people, and everyone, especially the environment, profit.
La idea nueva
Gonzalo’s innovation focuses on changing society’s current consumption habits and the inefficiency of the waste-processing system currently in place with a three-pronged approach.
Gonzalo is making it easier for the public to start recycling by creating a series of convenient Clean Collection Points in which both businesses and ordinary people can drop off their garbage at the same time they learn about sustainable habits and check how materials are then separated into major recycling categories by the staff of TriCiclos. Gonzalo incentivizes companies to foot the bill for these Clean Collection Points by sharing a percentage of the profit that the resultant recycled materials garner as they are sold to other companies that buy such materials. Thus, the more that is recycled at each respective station, the more the contracting company receives, and Gonzalo is able to enlist these companies as partners in major education campaigns, which inform the public of the importance of recycling (bringing more recyclers to the station). The combination of this consciousness-raising and the provision of such an accessible recycling service effectively works to close the gap between merely understanding the problem and taking action.
Next, Gonzalo created TriCiclos as a social business to focus on changing the practices linked to consumption and the management of waste more generally. A strong emphasis is placed on making recycling an easy-to-adopt practice that is accessible to businesses, municipalities, educational institutions, and the general public with which it shares the benefits and challenges that it encounters while working to build a new sustainable culture.
Gonzalo is also working to replace the perverse financial incentives which actually encourage more waste and garbage by developing relationships with municipalities and other sectors of the government to push for the enactment of changes in a system that currently provides disincentives to recycle, and encourages an obsolete system of dumping waste into open landfills.
It is difficult to change an easy-to-use system in which individuals throw everything in a black bag that is picked up at night and do not have to worry about separating trash or about its final destination. This describes the current state of Chile’s waste management system—a system that entirely disconnects people from the negative impacts generated by the resultant waste of their consumption. In fact, it is often said that the only time people think about the true cost to society of garbage is when a new landfill site is needed, and nobody wants it near their neighborhood. And while many individuals may be willing to make an effort to change their habits in this respect, few are willing to pay an additional fee for a sustainable waste management service. Even for those who have decided to recycle, significant challenges often prevent them from doing so as the majority of the country’s recycling plants are located in the metropolitan region of Santiago. Further, many of sites that accept recyclables actually mix all of the waste—recyclables and non-recyclables—together. In many cases, garbage trucks mix the trash and recyclables in plain view of the individuals who just made the effort to separate them. All of these factors encourage users to dissociate themselves from the waste they generate, reinforcing wasteful practices and behaviors that do not consider environmental sustainability.
Adding to these issues is the existence of country-productive financial incentives. Specifically, the waste management system is not regulated in a way that promotes sustainability. In Chile, for example, there is a monetary incentive to generate more trash because the more tons of trash brought to landfills, the cheaper each ton costs in terms of transport and disposal fees. Many of these seemingly illogical incentives can be traced back to the fact that the Chilean garbage industry is currently controlled by six major garbage collectors who exert enormous political pressure on municipal authorities. They currently have a stranglehold on all key contracts, encourage financial incentives which are bad for society but good for them, and create tough barriers to new entrants.
Moreover, government action has been wholly inadequate. While it has set certain goals, such as to recycle 25 percent of all waste in the metropolitan region by 2020, these goals are meager fractions of what needs to be accomplished, and still far from the reality set by simple economical conditions (only 15 percent of the materials can pay their logistic and create economic profits). And while there are campaigns in Chile that promote recycling, they are always temporary and fail to communicate key information like the fact that 90 percent of domestic waste is recyclable. Further, they fail to focus on educating the public on reusing waste, which can be turned into a resource and reincorporated into the value chain, as a fundamental step to communicating the importance and value of recycling. And for those who do make the effort to recycle, the lack of reliable information from government about the recycling process fails to ensure them that their effort is not in vain.
Since founding TriCiclos in 2009, Gonzalo has worked to change the industry of recycling management by carefully choosing partners from government, educational institutions, and business, and generating incentives and strategies tailored to each of them individually, thus transforming each into changemakers who can in turn help promote and spread his vision.
Through TriCiclos, Gonzalo designed recycling and recovery stations called Clean Collection Points, which are modular plants capable of recycling 90 percent of domestic solid waste. The Clean Collection Points are stations created from recycled shipping containers specially adapted for this use and developed with an attractive, eye-catching design. The physical structures are sold to malls, universities, and other kinds of highly visited institutions, and are placed in highly visible areas to attract public attention. TriCiclos signs a contract through which it offers its services and management of the Clean Collection Points, collecting, processing, and transforming waste and reintroducing it into the production chain.
In order to entice businesses and institutions to embrace the role of co-designer of a new sustainability culture, TriCiclos shares a certain percentage of the profit from the sale of recycled materials with them, as a credit toward the initial cost of purchase and on-going maintenance. The result is the more these institutions recycle, the more they earn. Further, the more they get the public to also use these facilities, through awareness-raising campaigns, for example, the more they earn. Lastly, beyond this immediate financial reward, the institutions benefit from a newly acquired reputation for being “green” and “sustainable.”
The first Clean Collection Point was installed in a Sodimac retail store. Since then, two additional recycling stations have been installed in other areas within the metropolitan region of Santiago. The success of these operations in reducing waste and saving money has motivated Sodimac to extend this waste management model to various regions outside of Santiago in the coming months. Sodimac is also promoting the installation of the first Clean Collection Point in Colombia, which will serve as a base to extend this model and achieve change on an international level.
The power of name recognition is not lost on Gonzalo, who targeted Sodimac because of the brand’s popularity across Latin America. He plans to pursue other well-known brands not only to contract Clean Collection Points, but to also make their general practices more environmentally sustainable. He has targeted producers of packaging materials, for example, to make a higher percentage of their materials easier to recycle and to help create a “zero waste” mentality amongst producers such as Coca Cola and Nestle, which have become leaders in this effort in Chile. By showcasing the efforts of well-known brands, TriCiclos hopes to inspire similar change in other companies within the food industry.
But while TriCiclos has focused its efforts primarily with major producers of garbage, such as businesses, shopping centers and schools, which are quickly becoming early adopters of recycling, Gonzalo knows that he must eventually reach individuals to truly transform the waste management system. To this end, TriCiclos is focusing on new neighborhoods, where Clean Collection Points infrastructure can be incorporated into the development and residents can move in with education materials and help to incorporate simple recycling into their lives. TriCiclos sold the Clean Collection Point to a real estate developer, for example, who advertised it (and its accompanying fees) as an additional service offered by the residential consortium. Gonzalo is currently in the process of discussing similar agreements with other real estate developers in order to incorporate and adapt his model to apartment buildings, facilitating access to a wider range of people.
It is important to note that the employees of the Clean Collection Points are mostly former collectors of recyclables who once sorted through waste in environments that exposed them to various health risks. Now their extensive knowledge and experience with recycling is being leveraged to be educators for the public. In this way, TriCiclos works with systems already in place and incorporates people from all sectors of society to create an inclusive and sustainable model. Specifically, as people come to the containers, TriCiclos employees not only show them how to physically separate their trash, but they are trained to facilitate conversations that get users to reflect on their consumption and purchasing choices more broadly, by, for example, better understanding which materials are recyclable and then choosing brands and products that follow sustainable practices.
Stepping back, Gonzalo is clearly aware of the money and corruption surrounding the garbage industry. However, he does not rule out a partnership with one of the six major garbage companies once they have seen that his new approach to waste management is gaining traction and they can either move toward recycling or lose out. He has had preliminary conversations with two of the companies most likely to change their business model. Until this happens, however, Gonzalo will target rural towns and midsize cities where these major garbage companies are not strong. Gonzalo has already started working in the Municipality of Colina, a semi-rural area near Santiago, where he is testing his expansion strategy beyond Santiago.
TriCiclos is constantly in the process of developing technology that improves the capacity of recycling at the Clean Collection Points. They have developed technology that allows them to radically reduce waste to a dust-like consistency, which will allow more of the materials that are recycled to be transported to their purchasers. This is especially useful for municipalities from outside Santiago, where most of the purchasing companies are located. Currently, these regions depend on outdated waste management models such as open landfills and there is no recycling system in place.
In order to reassure users of the impact of their efforts and the key role TriCiclos plays, Gonzalo tracks and publishes the progress of the containers. In December 2010, the Clean Collection Points were visited by 5,592 people and received 56,083 kilos of twenty different kinds of recyclable material. As a result, 917 trees were not cut down, 60,192 liters of oil were not consumed, and 683 tons of coal was not burned.
As for his interaction with government, Gonzalo advocates for laws that accompany the kind of change for which he is working. To do so he participates in Santiago Recicla (Santiago Recycles), the most important forum in Chile, where businesses in the waste management sector, recyclable collectors, governments, and social organizations meet to discuss recycling management. Gonzalo has met with the Chilean Congress many on occasions to provide technical training impacting laws related to waste and plastics.
Gonzalo visualizes a growing recycling industry in which TriCiclos acts as a pioneer through its practices: The development of technology, marketing and strategic relationships opens possibilities to impact entire industries. Gonzalo has had conversations with Waste Management Inc about its new “Zero Waste” vision, and may expand in Latin America in partnership with them.
TriCiclos is currently financed with a loan Gonzalo took out to begin the initiative. Once this is repaid and the business becomes profitable, half of the profits will be used for two primary purposes. The first will be to share the profits with workers who have worked for TriCiclos for more than three months, and the second will be to continue to expand and improve TriCiclos and its equipment as an example of a commitment to sustainability; such as its use of energy, responsible consumption, and organic products. In 2010, it generated US$420,000 in revenue.
Gonzalo considers his family to be the source of his commitment to social and environmental causes. His mother, Ximena Abogabir, is an Ashoka Fellow working on the environment and both his parents instilled in him a sense of responsibility and concern for others and for one’s surroundings.
At the beginning of Gonzalo’s university career in the early 1990s, Chile was struck by a devastating cholera epidemic that affected horticultural consumption. In response, Gonzalo taught himself hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water without soil that was not included in the agriculture curriculum in Chilean universities. He developed his own hydroponics garden and committed himself to teaching this self-sustaining model, and working to solve the sanitary problems that contributed to the outbreak and spread of the cholera epidemic.
Between 2000 and 2009 Gonzalo reinvented and ran businesses in Chile and Argentina as an apprenticeship for his current social business. He succeeded by developing new products, attracting new clients, and rethinking their business models. For example, he managed Mar de Plata Elevators, part of the port industry, from 2001 to 2003. It was nearly bankrupt due to poor relationships with their unions, just as Argentina entered its worst economic crisis in fifty years. As President, Gonzalo sat down with the key workers, discovered that their primary complaints were filthy bathrooms and garbage; so he personally cleaned the toilets and garbage, and won the workers’ confidence. The company survived the crisis.
In 2007, two personal tragedies caused Gonzalo to rethink his work and his future. His youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia and a very close friend passed away at 37-years-old. Gonzalo redirected his efforts toward his ideals and passion for sustainability and the environment using his business and entrepreneurial skills.
Having seen the waste generated by private sector businesses, Gonzalo knew he could offer a transformative service that would help the environment and be financially sustainable. By making key customers and his workers financial partners in his social business, he has taken a new approach to waste management.