Climate solutions

The trash-to-treasure hunters

How two environmental leaders are using innovative waste reuse strategies to spur economic development and clean up their communities in the process.
Published in October 2020icon-clockTime to read: 3min 39s

This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations in implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Reese Fernandez-Ruiz and David Schweidenback, who are featured in this piece.

It is early morning in Manila’s impoverished Payatas district and the tropical heat is already unbearable. Cynthia sits with her head down and her hands clutching a tattered piece of fabric. She divides the worn textile recently plucked from the area’s notorious dumping grounds and then sold to her into small strips and gets to work. This is how Cynthia makes a living, albeit a meager one. She uses the recovered material from the nearby landfill to make handwoven rugs, which she then sells to a middleman for a daily sum of 10 pesos, the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents.

That was decades ago. Today, Cynthia earns significantly more by helping to craft beautifully woven handbags that are sold in designer clothing stores. Still using discarded material now collected directly from Manila textile factories she is one of hundreds of artisans employed by a Philippines-based social enterprise called Rags2Riches, or R2R for short.

Turning waste into opportunity

In a discussion hosted by The Collective's Jeff Kirschner, Rolex Awards Laureates Reese Fernandez-Ruiz and David Schweidenback delve into the details behind their innovative projects focused on the creative reuse of discarded materials.

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R2R was cofounded in 2007 by Reese Fernandez-Ruiz. After graduating from Ateneo de Manila University, Fernandez-Ruiz knew she wanted to find ways to help the poor an abiding aspiration she tracks back to her childhood experiences with her mother, who was a missionary. “That exposed me to the realities of the world very, very early in life,” she said.

When Fernandez-Ruiz learned about the plight of women like Cynthia, she knew she had to do something to support them. R2R began to organize the local artisans, helping them to consistently source textiles and sell their handmade products at fair prices. In support of her efforts, Fernandez-Ruiz won a Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The award, given to pioneers and entrepreneurs dedicated to improving lives and protecting the planet, is an acknowledgement that her project is part of a larger sustainability trend focused on the creative reuse of discarded materials like textiles, furniture, even vehicles. She and other leaders are showing that the approach has the potential to dramatically reduce waste and improve lives around the world.

The philosophy of R2R'S upcycling

Fernandez-Ruiz speaks to how social values inform her company's practices.

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Reusing the wheel

Roughly three decades ago, David Schweidenback had an idea. He lived in suburban New Jersey and he was consistently noticing old bicycles being thrown away. “I realized that if I saw a bicycle or two every week in the garbage, then nationwide there must be millions of them being thrown away, and often there’s nothing wrong with them,” he said.

Schweidenback knew a way to lessen this unnecessary refuse and help vulnerable communities in the process. In 1991, he founded a nonprofit organization called Pedals for Progress, or P4P. Part of the broader reuse movement, the organization is devoted to improving the economic livelihoods of people in developing nations by selling them would-be wasted bikes at a fraction of their actual value. The mission was informed by Schweidenback’s experience as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. “I lived in this little town where everybody walked everywhere,” he said. “It just slowed life down. My landlord had the only bicycle in the entire state. I was always amazed at how successful he was, and that’s because he had a way to get somewhere.”

The power of wheels

Schweidenback speaks to the economic potential that bicycles can unlock in the developing world.

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As Schweidenback saw it, the lack of easy means of transportation undermined any hope of economic development. Bikes then could be a tool to radically change lives and boost job prospects. “I decided on my own, maybe in a fit of madness, that I was going to collect 12 bicycles and, on my own buck, ship them back to the Ecuadorian town I lived in to help out some people.”

Soon, the organization was shipping thousands of bikes to various sites abroad. This effort got a boost in 2000 when Schweidenback was honored with a Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which allowed him to continue to scale up the program.

A crisis of refuse

Fernandez-Ruiz and Schweidenback are guided in part by a common goal: to counteract the massive accumulation of garbage around the world. Humans produce over 2 billion tonnes of waste every year. That figure is expected to balloon by 70 percent by 2050 the result of population growth and urbanization.

Jeff Kirschner is a sustainability activist working to solve the problem. He’s the CEO of Litterati, an organization he founded to help people engage in what he calls “crowdsource-cleaning the planet, one piece of litter at a time.” He developed a mobile app that uses social networking to encourage people to keep their neighborhoods trash-free. Kirschner believes it’s the community and the concrete, visible results of users’ combined efforts that helps keep people motivated to continue fighting for the cause.

“You’ve got to give people a sense of hope,” he said. “We’re all taking the same action for the greater good, and we’re connected.”

Reuse projects like R2R and P4P can be a vital tool in reducing the immense waste footprint. Every year, millions of bikes are thrown away or left to gather dust. Meanwhile, Americans alone annually toss more than 10 million tons of textiles into landfills. “We are all part of this problem,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “So that means that we can also be part of the solution.”

The Rolex Effect

Over the years, the projects have had profound impact. Since its founding, P4P has collected more than 150,000 used bicycles. They’ve also expanded to shipping sewing machines to communities around the world. For its part, R2R employs dozens of local artisans and the organization’s meticulously handcrafted products have been sold in their own brick-and-mortar shops, an online store and fashion retailers around the world.

Both organizational leaders attribute much of this success to the support they received from their Rolex Awards wins. “It was an incredible honor,” Schweidenback said. “There's no doubt about it. It certainly changed my life and it gave me the opportunity to succeed.”

Fernandez-Ruiz’s experience is similar. “The credibility that it gave us opened so many doors,” she explained. “Yet it’s also the community that it is able to give you. The Rolex Awards community is a very supportive one. That is what I appreciate the most that during your most difficult moment, when you were doubting yourself you have a group to talk to about what you're going through, and you know that you are not alone.”

The Rolex partnership has yielded important work relationships beyond the Rolex Awards Laureate community. For example, Fernandez-Ruiz has collaborated with Thao-Nguyen Phan, a young Vietnamese multimedia artist, through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which connects emerging artists from around the world with seasoned creators. The wider Rolex network also brought Fernandez-Ruiz and Schweidenback together for an important project during the pandemic: The duo is in touch about shipping sewing machines to the Philippines so R2R artisans can quickly make protective masks.

The Rolex Partnership

Fernandez-Ruiz speaks to the impact that the Rolex Awards for Enterprise made on her work.

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The collaboration is consistent with the legacy that both Rolex Awards Laureates have built one defined by an urgent calling to do their part to make the planet perpetual. It’s a philosophy that guides the vital work being done by environmental leaders all around the world that believe in the benefit of reusing resources and are dedicated waste reduction.

“I want to leave this place a little bit better than I found it,” said Kirschner. “And if I can play a tiny role in addressing the bigger problem, that's fine by me.”

These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.

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