Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
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.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
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.