Carlos León
CEO and Partner
View from the Top

Conquering Mexico's Waste Material Challenges

Tue, 11/01/2016 - 16:38

Q: What are the main challenges of recycling waste material in Mexico?

A: In Mexico, Tetra Pak is created with white, long-fiber cellulose, which we recover and sell to the paper industry. Recycling waste material is important because producing a ton of virgin cellulose requires 13 trees, which is a concern considering the amount of cellulose used in the world. We also lower carbon emissions by reducing the need to import this material, which is not produced in Mexico. Designing a process that incorporated the thousands of tons of multilayer packages thrown out annually in the country, 85 percent of which are Tetra Pack, was the first challenge we faced. In 2008, only 8 percent of these packages were recycled. The number has increased to 18 percent thanks to initiatives like Verdek’s.

Cleaning Tetra Pak waste was another obstacle we faced because that entailed the separation of different layers, which traditionally required expensive equipment. After several trials, we found a cost-competitive process to clean the Tetra Pak and efficiently separate the plastic and aluminum layers from the cellulose. We avoid using chemicals, which makes our process even cheaper by eliminating the need for wastewater treatment equipment.

Now, Tetra Pak factories in Mexico are starting to shift to brown cellulose, which represents a new challenge for us. Globally, its subsidiaries are encouraged to increase recycled materials, which motivates them to support initiatives like Verdek’s as part of their corporate sustainability strategy. It is difficult for them to support us here because Mexico does not have the proper regulations in place. Mexico lags behind other Latin American countries that are planning to pass laws holding companies accountable for the residue of their products. Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil are among the nations considering these measures.

Q: What social impact is Verdek having in the country?

A: In Mexico, 1.1 million families do not have access to decent bathrooms, which negatively impacts their quality of life. We are considering the production of affordable and sustainable bathrooms to help solve the lack of proper sanitary facilities in marginalized regions of Latin America. We have a prototype that is easily transported and assembled in rural areas. Considering that a large percentage of our target population does not know how to read, we have included color-coded instructions for assembling the product. Verdek also is considering the construction of self-assembled rooms for impoverished areas, with the public Un Cuarto Más (One More Room) program. The goal is to build 400,000 extra rooms for low-income families to diminish overcrowding and abandonment. These sustainable and high-quality modules also can be used for educational facilities. We also help by formalizing recycling. We do not work with companies that do not provide invoices, giving us stricter control over our expenditures and resources.

With these initiatives, we are looking to transform Verdek into a socially responsible company. We have plans to build a new factory in Monterrey in partnership with a successful waste management company already operating in the city. Guadalajara is also a potential location for our business but we still need to analyze elements such as the presence of cellulose consumers in the region.

Q: What have been the company’s biggest achievements?

A: One of our biggest achievements has been certifying our recycled building panels under the SCS Global Services seal, becoming the first company of our kind to earn this recognition. The certification considers different aspects of the process, including water usage, which is one of our strengths. Verdek’s process uses the same water five times before disposal. The wastewater contains only traces of cellulose that can be used as a fertilizer in agricultural fields. Local farmers usually come to collect the remaining water, which can otherwise be discarded in drainage without negatively impacting the environment. Generally, recycling companies tend to use artisan practices while we rely on a system that is 90 percent automated. We even reject a certain amount of materials due to the lack of capacity. It is a positive sign that we might soon have to expand thanks to our success.