Passing by the streets of Sandiago, Chile’s capital, engineering student Cristián Lara and his friends noticed an older man picking through a dumpster nearby. It was probably not an unusual sight, although Chile is the wealthiest country in Latin America. The man was searching for anything that could be recycled, and loading it onto his bike. For ten years, he had been selling his findings in order to make a living. In 2015 Chile still had no municipal, curbside recycling program, as it generally happens in Latin America. Witnessing the exhaustion of the man, the young engineer came up with an idea to make the collector’s life easier; what if there was a way to connect the collector on the street directly to the massive waste streams that exist in Chile, and to the companies that pay decent money for recyclables?

That’s how a recycling app startup, called ReciclApp, was born. The app launched last August and since then it has engaged an average of 200 collectors working with ReciclApp across Chile, and about 1,000 app users in the country. It works as simply as possible; individuals, businesses, and institutions download the free app. Once they have cans, boxes or bottles to get rid of, they declare specific numbers in the app and choose a date and time slot for pickup. From that data, the company creates and prints out routes for the collectors they work with. This way, collectors become able to plan an efficient route with guaranteed recyclables, and Lara’s team cuts out the middleman transporters who would previously take the material to large recycling companies. ReciclApp even has designated storage centres where collectors can leave material before a truck from large recyclers shows up. You can follow the ReciclApp in Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn looking for @ReciclappChile. Watch this video in Spanish for some more details.

More than 60,000 informal recyclers are working in Chile. Given Chile’s lack of recycling programs for the  17 million tons of garbage produced per year, there is a great opportunity for ReciclApp to expand its use to other large cities apart from the capital. Local governments pay ReciclApp an average of $1,200 USD per month, mainly because the service reduces their garbage collection expenses. But for Lara ‘s team there is a whole different motivation; “the social mission of supporting the waste collectors”. Those that work with ReciclApp have more than doubled their recycling earnings on average from about $100 USD per month to $250 USD. But even that, Lara admitted, is a small gain when you consider Chile’s high cost of living. Most importantly, the app makes their work faster, easier and dignified, as a collector in Santiago said to Vice ‘s reporter. “Families value us as workers now, not as the lady who asks for donations and picks through the garbage,” she said. “We spent too many years hidden in the shadows. I feel different now. I’m not embarrassed of my work the way I used to be”.

The big challenge in Chile is not only developing a system of recycling, but also a culture of recycling. At least there has been some progress made since the Chilean Ministry of Environmental Affairs passed a new recycling law last December, thus providing for the legal framework that would make it easier for companies like these to expand. Lara’s intention was – and still is  – to ” install in people that we should recycle because it’s our duty, because we have to save the world.”

Congratulations Cristian, I am sure that a lot of people will copy and adapt your idea! Such examples highlight that informal recyclers can be a great partner in cities’ efforts to advance recycling and circular economy, and that the negative prejudice in which they are usually faced by officials is the 100% wrong way to deal with waste pickers. As I use to say innovative solutions are spring up within local communities at the backyards of informal recyclers and entrepreneurs. ReciclApp is just one of many outstanding waste management projects that combine new, socially inclusive business models with technological advances or social innovation. If we could identify these innovative approaches and unify them in a citywide network, in cooperation with the city authorities, and the formal waste management stakeholders, then we would be able to address the waste challenge in a much better way than we do now.


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