Interview edited by Celia Sanchez Valladares and Kristina Humphreys
Since she was a child, Agustina Besada has been intrigued by the things people throw away — and their overlooked value. Growing up in southern Argentina, she is deeply connected with social and environmental issues. But it wasn’t until she worked at a community recycling center in Brooklyn, New York, that she learned about the complexities of recycling.
Surrounded by mountains of plastic every day, Agustina contemplated the fate of unlucky items that don’t make it to a recycling center. This led to her starting Unplastify, a social enterprise based in Buenos Aires, committed to accelerating solutions to reduce plastic pollution.
“It was very shocking to find microplastics in the remote places of our planet and so far away from civilization. That was the push to create Unplastify.”
To understand the true dimensions of the plastic problem, in 2018 Agustina embarked on a six-month sailboat adventure to cross the Atlantic twice (North and South), collecting plastic samples and interviewing experts along the way. Today, Agustina and her team are expanding their work, creating “Unplastify Challenges” for schools, companies, and institutions to inspire, empower, and guide young changemakers to unplastify their communities.
Read on to hear from Agustina on accelerating solutions to change our relationship with plastic.
Ashoka: Unplastify focuses on educating people and organizations on the dangers of plastic and how to avoid its use. What do you attribute your organization’s success to in terms of having such a broad reach and impact on changing institutions?
Agustina Besada: I attribute Unplastify’s impact and reach to the fact that we challenge people within organizations and companies to take action, as simple as that may sound.
Institutions usually use top-down action or bring outside experts to make change instead of engaging and empowering employees. Instead of telling people what to do, we urge them to be part of the solutions.
To assess impact, we focus on how much plastic we’re saving and how many people we reach in the process. For us, awareness is not the end goal; systemic change is.
Ashoka: Can you explain how Unplastify has impacted schools, companies, and public policy by using this metric?
Agustina Besada: On the education side, we run a school program in which we guide 15- and 16-year-old students to design — and implement — strategies to unplastify their communities, their schools, their neighborhoods, and their families. Across each and every initiative, we measure the plastic saved as well as the number of people we reach.
When it comes to the companies we work with, our methodology allows us to measure their plastic footprint and diagnose the amount of plastic they use (or avoid) in their internal operations, product line, or even across the entire company. This diagnosis helps us figure out where to focus their attention when co-designing strategies to reduce plastic. We then spread the word about the amount of saved plastic to communicate the impact to the community of employees and customers.
For public policies, we measure how a specific regulation — and, in comparison, the existing alternatives — could make an impact. This information helps us design effective participatory processes that make long-term change.
Ashoka: What are your plans for future research?
Agustina Besada: We’re focused on finding and disseminating the most updated information about plastic pollution and related issues. We want to dig deeper into how excessive plastic use harms our health and the environment and how regulations can impact the amount of waste and pollution we generate. We’re also creating the most up-to-date map of all the major players working to prevent plastic pollution.
Ashoka: And what are your future goals?
In the education arena, we want to be the leading program for schools taking on plastic pollution. We’re building a network of over 500 schools in Latin America and expanding to other regions. In the corporate sector, we’re positioning ourselves as the most respected measure for plastic footprint, and we’re working to avoid over 10,000 tons of plastic. And when it comes to public policy, we’re working to create the largest alliance of activists, lawmakers, and organizations collaborating towards informed regulations that reduce plastic.
Ashoka: Over the course of your changemaking journey, what has surprised you the most?
Agustina Besada: The amazing team that my partner Rocío and I have built together. They are talented, collaborative, and purpose-driven people from all disciplines. We have 21 members on the team now. Every day I am amazed at how the initiative has grown beyond us and how our ideas have been taken so much further.
Ashoka: What’s next?
Agustina Besada: With the Fellowship stipend, thanks to the support of Ashoka’s and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship’s systems change program, we will continue growing Unplastify, strengthening the team, streamlining processes, and expanding our reach and impact. This capacity-building effort will also allow us to scale up our methodology in a sustainable way and build more solid ground.
I’m excited to explore opportunities to collaborate, bringing the Unplastify mindset and methodology to the Dela community.
Ashoka: What are key takeaways from systemic unplastification processes that you would like people to know in order to re-design the relationship with plastic?
Agustina Besada: There are three things that are key for understanding our message.
First, prevention is better than recycling. Unplastify addresses the problem at its root causes. Instead of waiting until the end of the cycle, when we must deal with the plastic waste we’ve created, we’re trying to prevent waste in the first place.
Second, it is not about awareness; it is about action. Sometimes awareness seems like the end goal, but it should only be the first step, and we need to quickly transform that awareness into concrete action if we want to change things.
Third, we need systemic change over individual actions. We can’t wait until all individuals have an “aha moment.” We want to serve as guides for people on their changemaker journeys as they create an even larger ripple effect, unplastifying other people’s lives.