Few weeks ago, as I was cherrypicking ideas for future blog posts I found a very interesting concept by Goncalo Baptista. Gonzalo is a young and passionate entrepreneur  who currently lives in Glasgow and runs RecycleBlu Ltd, an online marketplace for waste and recyclables. I understood by our communication that his dream is to provide a viable solution that will help inform recyclers to scale up and make their operations more viable. I share his vision too and have been involved in efforts to use mobile and web apps in order to improve the efficiency of informal recyclers. There are both endless opportunities for improvements and challenges that must be managed. So, I wish him courage, creativity and good luck and I am sure that some of my readers will contact him for similar projects.

Informal Recyclers, Catadores, Dumpsites, Mobile apps, collaborative platforms, informal recycling, waste management, human rights, wasteless future

Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012

“In the 2010 movie- “Wasteland” , we follow renowned Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz as he engages with the “catadores” (Brazilian term for waste-pickers) in what was the largest open air landfill in South America, Jardim Gramacho Landfill. The movie leaves us with the unsettling feeling that despite their ingenuity, resilience and sheer determination the catadores remain one of the most marginalized and fragile groups in society. And marginalized they are indeed. Roaming landfills for any valuable materials, they work in the poorest conditions imaginable with little to no access to other opportunities.

There are an estimated 20 million informal waste pickers in the world, with the majority being women from economically deprived backgrounds. For 65% of them, waste collection is the sole source of income for the whole family. (Wiego).

There is growing recognition that waste pickers contribute to the local economy, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. In many countries they represent the only form of organized waste management and yet occupy the lowest possible position in the Value Chain of materials. They are the lowest paid in the recycling economy and face intimidation and exploitation by middlemen and brokers.

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This undervaluation of the waste-pickers importance is partly to be blamed by their inability to add value to materials through separation, consolidation of volume and processing. This is due to lack of investment in infrastructure and limited sales channels.

The materials they collect are usually marketed locally, in relatively small volumes to local industries, various intermediaries, brokers and scrap dealers.

These intermediaries, who have a de-facto local monopoly, buy the waste at very low prices to then sell to recycling companies in consolidated form and larger quantities. The same material that might have been bought for $5 a tonne will often be sold for $20 a tonne to an end user.

Therefore, economies of scale are required to negotiate directly with the industries and get the best prices for materials collected, excluding or minimising intermediaries in the process.

Economical empowerment comes as individual waste pickers start to come together as micro enterprises and cooperatives. As they bring their individual collections together and realise value through achieving economies of scale.

Waste materials require large volumes to be considered profitable for export or even domestic sale. Collecting as cooperatives enables this concentration of materials in quantities that make them commercially more attractive and enables higher prices and profits.

As a result, waste pickers are very much an expression of the collaborative economy where many small contributors come together to offer a product or service to a much wider audience then they would if they were working in isolation.

RecycleBlu.com is an enablement platform for a collaborative waste economy. It allows users to upload their materials using nothing but their mobile phones and commercialising them globally at the click of a button.

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The platform enables virtual scaling up of this informal sector by giving every cooperative and micro enterprise access to a much wider market and as a result: better prices and stability of income.

Our innovation, the RecycleBlu app uses the smartphone to enable the upload of virtual waste inventories into a common stock management and online marketplace. In a way, this is virtual warehousing of available materials.

This innovation, together with its desktop companion enables small quantities of waste to be centrally consolidated and thus achieve the economies of scale and access to wider markets, necessary for better prices.

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But the benefits do not end there. E-commerce’s inherent capacity for data curation and data mining means that enabling waste pickers cooperatives to sell online will give them a wealth of information to make better decisions. Through this data, cooperatives will understand market price, quality demands, market conditions and specific customer needs.

It will also enable traceability of waste materials, traceability of profits and the tools to enable fair profit sharing. This traceability of profits and materials and this wealth of information will in turn enable access to finance and lobbying power.

Much like Soko is doing for ethical fashion, we, at RecycleBlu envisage a future where ecommerce will be used for ethical recycling and will make a direct impact on the waste-picking communities by giving them access to larger markets and fairer prices for their waste materials.”

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