Life

How Four College Students Are Changing The Way The World Looks At Trash

KHM: Amid Extreme Poverty, Cambodian Garbage Pickers Work Into The Night
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Think back to your junior year of college. What were you doing? Were you pulling books from the library shelf and scholarly articles online as you considered your upcoming senior year, your looming thesis? Were you running drills for your next track meet or soccer game? Grappling with the realization that in a little over a year, you’d be throwing a tasseled cap up into the air, hugging friends, roommates, and professors goodbye, saying hello to the reality of being an adult, released into the wild?

Whatever was on your mind, it probably wasn’t trash. But four juniors at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania do have trash on their brains — because they want to revolutionize the way the world looks at it.

Meet Peter Wang Hjemdahl, Robert Dowling, Holly Li, and Jake Fischer. They’re students dealing with the same problems any student might have: juggling coursework, internships, jobs, friendships, and family time. They’re also tackling another challenge: addressing increasing levels of waste in urban slums, and the poverty of the trash pickers whose livelihoods depend on sorting through seas of garbage to find recyclables.

The four students are the co-founders of RePurpose, a social enterprise designed to empower the marginalized, featured by Forbes as one of the Nation’s Top College Startups. If in recent years, the term “millennial” has become something of an epithet, these four millennials offer a perfect counterpoint. From becoming National Finalists in the 2016 RECESS Pitch Competition, to taking home the Pivot Environmental Challenge championship, this passionate team has made it clear that they’re not afraid of hard work. Their goal? To lighten the load for people whose challenging circumstances more than often go unnoticed and unmitigated.

It was a privilege to speak with two of the team’s members to find out just how RePurpose aims to do that.

How did the four of you meet? How did RePurpose come to be?

Robert: End of freshman year, Jake, Peter and I, unbeknownst to each other, show up at the same social impact conference here at the Wharton School. We just got to chatting. We talked to a couple other people we know, and they were saying, you know, the Hult Prize is going to be released next September. Why don’t we make something happen with that?

Peter: [The Hult Prize is a] social entrepreneurship competition which is backed by the Clinton Global Initiative, and they give a million dollars to the winner.

Robert: Thirty-thousand people submit pitches every year. It’s the largest contest of its kind. They basically invented a new field; it’s the only competition completely devoted to social impact in business. So, fast forward to September. The Hult Prize is released and it’s a huge undertaking, but we say, “You know what? We’re gonna do it.”

Peter: We were tasked with this question, “How to double the income of ten million people living in extreme poverty.” And we looked toward this one group of people, trash pickers, they make a daily income of usually less than a dollar, picking up recyclable trash in huge dump sites in urban slums across the world. In the U.S., these things happen really smoothly; infrastructure is there, a lot of companies do this. You don’t really think about where your trash goes. You just throw it into the recycling bin and everything’s fine, right? But in developing countries, trash is not usually recycled, so everything is thrown into a huge dump site where you have to have manual labor to sort all the trash that can be reused. So that’s where these people come in. They’re often looked-down upon, by other occupations in society. And the very simple problem facing this industry is that there are middlemen. Middlemen, wholesales people that stand between the trash pickers and the people that the goods actually arrive to, the recycling factories. They stand between them and take up a huge chunk of the margin, usually up to 95 percent of the market value of trash, which is crazy because the trash pickers do all the work.

We looked at this, and we were like, “How is it possible that nobody’s ever done anything about it? There are some people that have done some stuff, but nothing’s working. This is a huge problem that we’ve got to solve.”

We did some research on middlemen, and it turns out, middlemen have two key capacities that make them the middlemen, that make them capable of owning that part of the supply chain. They can process the trash. When the plastic bottle comes in, it isn’t sent like that to the recycling factories. It has to be pressed and compressed into huge cubes of trash and it’s sent in bulk. So those are the two core competencies: one is to sell in bulk, and the second is to compress the trash with expensive equipment.

“We were tasked with this question, “How to double the income of ten million people living in extreme poverty.”

The competencies of these people are not gathered together, these are individual workers that aren’t able to stand up against the middlemen by themselves. But we thought, “Hey, why don’t we incubate cooperatives, groups of trash pickers that are able to pool their collections, achieve some scale, and also get empowered and own the entire supply chain by us providing the equipment necessary to process the trash?”

It’s the whole thing of, when you’re in a group, you have more power. Collective bargaining, unions, it’s a very old idea. And we combined that old idea with a new idea of social entrepreneurship and micro-finance. We combined those two ideas into cooperatives, into small businesses. Let’s say we put them together in groups of 50 to 100 trash pickers; they’ll have a smaller scale processing equipment, and they’ll press their trash into the standard-size cube for recycling companies, and that will be it, right? That’s how we’re able to have them replace the middlemen, because they will process the trash, and they’ll be able to sell in bulk, because with more people, they can become major suppliers for the recycling factories.

And that answered our question, our original million dollar question, how to double the income of these people, and in theory, we can quadruple their income, because with middlemen taking up 95 percent of the market value, complete eliminating those middlemen will provide huge added income to the trash pickers, and also add income to their families and communities. That’s the rundown of what we’re trying to do.

KHM: Amid Extreme Poverty, Cambodian Garbage Pickers Work Into The Night
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Prior to the Hult Prize, was this issue anything the four of you had ever heard of?

Peter: No! Not at all! And that’s the power of these competitions. We love problem solving. We love looking at new stuff, new problems, and trying to come up with the solutions, because, to us, anything that has to do with entrepreneurship and creating good for people that need it, I think that it’s just the best of both worlds. We looked at a new problem and realized we needed a solution for it.

Robert: We had no idea each other were interested in this. And then we got really close over it, which is a really incredible thing. We have a mutual commitment not only to the idea, but also to each other, and that is something that I think is helping us not only execute the vision, but also go beyond and potentially take this to places where it wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

It seems like more and more, we’re seeing that one of the best ways to help with environmental concerns, is to care for the people too.

Peter: Yeah! The whole concept of social entrepreneurship is that doing well is not mutually exclusive with doing good. For centuries, businesses have thought that the the main goal is to profit maximize, and that’s the only way to do well. But people started realizing if I do good, I can still do well. It started out with Tom’s, the shoe company. For every pair of shoes they sell, they donate a pair to somebody who needs it. That’s how social entrepreneurship started; Tom’s has been an incredible success. Now people are realizing, it’s not just about having some charity with your company; they’re now looking at where the space coincides between your core competency, and doing good in society. It’s a social purpose, but it’s a for-profit business, and the profits that are made are reinvested into social impacts. It’s kind of like dual bottom lines that feed into each other.

Robert: What’s actually incredible; Holly did market research in Mumbai for us. She’s actually still in India. When she was in the slums just right outside of Mumbai, she found a very different environment than we thought was originally there. All of our pre-existing notions were immediately shattered. Turns out, the slum is thriving. Sure, people are making one dollar or two dollars a day, but people are working hard, people are eating, kids are happy playing cricket in the street. We found actually the biggest issue there is sanitation. The recycling industry — in India at least — is incredibly complex. People bid for contracts. Waste pickers go through dump trucks and they get paid, like, 40 rupees for a kilo; they may end up with a dollar, two dollars a day, which still is not a lot, but people get by. It’s not like everyone over there is starving and can’t put food on the table. People are thriving, and it’s an incredible economy; we just want them to live more comfortably, I think is the best way to put it.

We have created this solution at the intersection of the environment and poverty alleviation, and if doubling their income allows them to keep cleaner streets, or provide some more toilets—you know, that’s another huge issue, in the big slums in Mumbai, there’s like one toilet for every 200 people, which is ridiculous.

I’d be interested in having you address this perception of young people that we tend to see in social media; this feeling that they’re entitled, that they’re not willing to work hard, that they expect everything to be handed to them. Because here, with the four of you, we see the exact opposite.

Peter: I think for people that think that [our generation is entitled], the perfect counter example is the Hult Prize. Look at all these competitions out there that are meant for students. We were just blown away, because we went to the original final in San Francisco; there were different teams from all across the world with their own ideas, that were so passionate about what they’re trying to do, right? We are the future of the world; literally, because we’re the future generation, we’re the ones that are supposed to create change, create the next innovations. Looking at that just makes me so amazed. There are so many millennials out there that are risk-taking.

When I first discovered social entrepreneurship, I was a freshman in college. I had no idea what was going on. But then things started to line up, and I realized, anyone can have a startup, anyone can have an idea and just go for it. Especially millennials. Look at all these startups that are millennial-started, especially social enterprises. I think that’s a perfect testament to young people creating social change.

Robert: I don’t know who created that narrative about millennials. I haven’t experienced that in my time working, especially here at Penn. Everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with has been incredibly hard-working.

I was at an entrepreneurship panel the other day; a partnership between the International Young Leaders Assembly and the Penn Diplomacy and Policy Council. There were about 70 people from 25 different countries. They all convened here at Penn. One of our speakers is an entrepreneur — Kayvon Asemani — and a good friend of mine, and he sat on the panel. He’s a junior at Wharton too. He said something that I felt was really important, which was that he wanted to do something that was bigger than him. I think that a lot of people want to have an impact. A lot of people in this generation want to have an impact. The problem is, resources to actually execute that vision might not be there for everyone. We’re lucky, because we go to the Wharton school. If we want to make a vision happen, it’s gonna happen. One way or another, we’ll be introduced to someone who will provide funding, we’ll be introduced to someone that will be an advisor for our business. People will gravitate toward our idea because of the name of our institution. But now the onus is on us to actually execute it and make it happen.

In terms of the millennial question, there’s no better time for social impact to become the booming deal that it is, than now. Our generation, they want their work to have an impact on others around the world. Is social media responsible for that? I don’t know. We’re more connected, we’re talking to people. We desire that impact.

What’s next for team RePupose?

Peter: After being finalists for the Hult prize, after the whole thing happened, what’s happened since then, is we got into another pitch competition called RECESS, and we got to the national finals. We won the environmentalism category award with Pivot. Since then, we’ve all had different stuff to do, and after summer break, we’re all going to get together and continue working on this [rePurpose]. Where we’re at right now, is we’re trying to get funding for piloting. We have already a pilot plan — a pilot city called Belo Horizonte in Brazil. This city has very good market conditions in the sense that there already existing efforts to make cooperatives, but they’re more in a political sense, more in a union sense. But a lot of the trash pickers are willing to work with outside providers that are willing to help them become groups of people that can stand up better against the middlemen. We have a huge potential to succeed there, and we have made connections. We’re just trying to get the funding.

Any startup, you go through the process of continuous prototyping, continuous improvement of ideas and gathering feedback. I think we’re at a stage where we can be anything, and we’ve identified this really, really interesting problem, and a really solvable problem that we think we can do something about. And we think we can go through with it. A startup could pivot at any time. At this stage, we are four people with creative visions for the world, and we’re trying to create social change in this space, try to change trash recycling so that it can both double the income of people that need it and are marginalized by society, but also at the same time, create good for the community and for the environment, to combat climate change and reduce trash. We have these dual principles, dual purposes within ourselves and the company. This is a segment where we can serve both purposes at the same time, but we’re not limited.

“At this stage, we are four people with creative visions for the world, and we’re trying to create social change in this space…”

Robert: Being able to find solutions that are at the intersection of two different fields, I think is the way that the world is going. Being able to integrate knowledge of engineering and business. Being able to integrate knowledge of poverty elimination and the humanitarian development field. Climate change and the economy. We started out as a social exercise. We wanted to alleviate poverty for ten million people around the world, and we ended up finishing the summer with an environmental prize from Pivot. People from multiple fields will resonate with whatever your project is; people are recognizing—even if you don’t realize it at first—what that impact is.

If people are inspired by you, how can they get involved?

Robert: Reach out to us at rdowling@wharton.upenn.edu — especially if you work in a refugee camp or a slum. We need to speak with you as we are constantly dismantling the preconceived notions we have about development work and the life of a person living in a dense urban area, through conversations and our research in the field.

We are constantly looking for partner institutions and funding. If our mission resonates with you or your organization, reach out to us, we would love to chat further.

Visit our site at repurpose.global or share our Facebook page. Exposure is serendipity and creates opportunity!

Young Boy Climbing and Picking Through Landfill
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Check out new, seemingly impossible feats of recycling on the third season of Human Resources premiering on Pivot Friday, August 26 at 7:30e/p.

This article was created as part of our partnership with RECESS.

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