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LifeCycled Materials

Empowering informal waste collectors to create and sell durable, affordable building materials made from paper and plastic waste.

Photo of Brandon Reynante
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500 million tons of paper and plastic waste is generated worldwide each year, but only 10% is recycled. Such a poor recycling rate contributes to overflowing landfills and continued extraction of limited natural resources, unnecessarily taxing the environment. Developing countries in particular face enormous challenges in solid waste management, and they are also in need of low-cost, labor-intensive income opportunities for millions of poor, unskilled workers. 

This situation drives nearly 15 million people in developing countries to sort through garbage in hazardous conditions to collect and sell recyclable items to earn a living. Known as waste pickers, their occupation engenders severe economic and health risks and causes them to face social exclusion in which they are viewed as annoyances and criminals rather than legitimate workers. Waste pickers are also exploited by middlemen, often receiving as little as 6% of the amount industry pays for recyclables, resulting in abysmally low earnings (a few dollars per day on average) that prevents them from obtaining adequate housing, safety gear, and education for their children.  

Meanwhile, billions of people lack access to adequate housing, and available building materials are often expensive, poor-quality, or unsustainable.

The confluence of massive waste generation, rapidly depleting natural resources, widespread poverty and exploitation of informal waste collectors, and growing demand for affordable yet durable building materials presents the opportunity for an integrated solution that bridges planet and prosperity.

Explain your idea

We are developing technology and infrastructure to empower informal waste collectors to create and sell durable building materials made from waste. Specifically, we are planning to establish recycling centers that provide equipment and training to waste pickers so they can create and sell construction panels made from scrap paper and plastic. To date we have developed a process that utilizes simple equipment (i.e., a t-shirt press and blender) to enable fabrication of waste-based panels that have ~85% the strength of plywood.

Who Benefits?

There are two primary beneficiaries. The first group is waste pickers, who will benefit from increased financial security and dignity as a result of being able to create value-added products from their collected waste and thus bypass exploitative middlemen. The second group is people without adequate housing, who often cannot afford high quality products, as they will gain access to durable building materials at an affordable price. We are initially targeting Mexico City for a pilot project, due to its proximity to San Diego and the presence of waste picker advocate groups we have been in contact with (e.g., WIEGO — Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing). There are about 10,000 waste pickers in Mexico City, and a third of the population live in housing with metal roofs. There is huge potential for expansion to other developing countries, as there are 15 million waste pickers and over 1 billion people without access to adequate housing.

How is your idea unique?

There are numerous organizations focused on addressing issues of waste management, resource scarcity, poverty, and inadequate housing in developing countries. However, we are not aware of any groups implementing a solution that tackles all four problems simultaneously in an integrated manner.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Tell us more about you

LifeCycled Materials is a non-profit social enterprise located in San Diego, CA. Our team has expertise in human-centered design, humanitarian engineering, sustainable community development, education, marketing, and small business management. Our team includes a lecturer in humanitarian engineering at the University of California, San Diego, a program manager for international UX at Google, and a product engineer at Hewlett-Packard. We will be responsible for developing the technology, supply/sales infrastructure, and operational training for the waste pickers. We have been in discussions to partner with waste picker groups, affordable housing organizations, and other related NGOs in Mexico and India. Our partners will provide information about local contexts as well as support and credibility in interacting with our intended beneficiaries.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of eldy wullur

Hola brandon,
El reciclaje es la materia prima más barata en la producción de bienes.
China importó rotas las luces de Navidad de América, pelar cables y teniendo la lata
para ser utilizado como móvil y la rentabilidad de mercado para el resto del mundo,
incluyendo los Estados Unidos.
Si tan sólo pudiéramos hacer algo así.