Addressing the environmental and social impacts of a company’s activities means addressing what happens at every step of the chain, including the very last ones. Recycling may be developing and becoming a consumer habit, but end-of-life for products and their packaging remains a crucial issue in ensuring that a business activity is responsible throughout. Consumer “education” is one thing, and the management of waste is another equally important question that can sometimes be endorsed or supported by the manufacturers themselves. In Mexico, the Danone Ecosystem Fund has thus helped develop a project that aims precisely to improve the management of packaging at the end of its life: the Pepenadores empowerment project, which was part of the Dan Awards 2012 competition.
The many virtues of recycling
Pepenadores is a Mexican word for “waste pickers”: they operate in the landfills, where they often live with their families, and hand-pick solid waste suitable for recycling. The system is fragile, as pepenadores endure hard and risky working conditions and live in a less-than-healthy environment. Moreover, they are forced to sell the waste they collect at very low prices, earning on average $219 a month, and are heavily dependent on fluctuations in r-PET exports, and consequently also on the prices. In addition, over 10% of pepenadores are children, bringing in up to 40% of their families’ incomes. But, as Alfonso Martínez Muñoz, of local NGO Mundo Sustenable, explains, “the intensive mechanical processing of waste is simply not possible in our country. Waste pickers’ cooperatives are a credible alternative for us.” What the recycling circuit really needs is to see the pepenadores’ activity professionalised to ensure better working conditions for them, and more reliable waste management for the manufacturers. This is the philosophy of the Pepenadores empowerment project:
improve the income and life conditions of Mexico’s waste-pickers while reinforcing the sourcing chain towards the local recycling market.
To achieve this, Danone Mexico (through its local water brand, Bonafont) has partnered with Ashoka (a global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs) and the NGO Mundo Sustentable (an NGO that already has strong experience in implementing social projects with pepenadores in Mexico) and sought the financial support of the Danone Ecosystem Fund to build a sorting centre outside the landfill. Children are prohibited from working there, and the pepenadores can sort waste much faster and more efficiently. Ten recycling shops have also been built, to create new jobs and provide education about recycling. In addition, the Fund supports children’s education, sending as many as possible back to school.
The social impacts of the project are already showing: over 400 families are directly involved, their income has risen by 30%, their health care and social needs are now covered, and their children no longer work. The business impacts are significant too: the project has already made it possible to raise the recycling rate from 20% to 50%, securing 5,000 tons of r-PET each year.
Now, because the r-PET circulates in a closed loop, its price is much easier to control, meaning a steady income for the waste pickers. Bonafont’s productivity has increased too, thanks to the good-quality r-PET it receives, and the model has proven replicable, which means that the benefits can be scaled up. Bonafont is actually the first Danone company to have achieved a 100% r-PET bottle. The Pepenadores project is yet another good example of how business, social and environmental interests can be matched to create added value at every step of the production chain.
Photo © Shutterstock / De Visu
-  PET: Polyethylene Terephtalate, the plastic used to make bottles. r-PET is recycled PET, used to manufacture new bottles.