The story of Gonzalo Muñoz’s transformation of solid waste management, first in Chile, and now in Brazil, begins with his upbringing. His mother, an environmental educator, was the first Ashoka* fellow in Chile, and inspired Muñoz to try to make the world a better place. “My parents, and much of my family, inspired me to be conscious of my abilities, privileges, and potential to do good things, not just for myself. Every altruistic act, every act of volunteering, every noble gesture was celebrated. And I got to see a variety of social contexts, so that I could act with confidence around anyone,” says Muñoz.

It’s with this confidence that Muñoz deals with government, business and educational institutions, developing strategies and incentives adapted to each one, and turning them into agents of change through TriCiclos, a social enterprise that focuses on changing practices related to consumerism and waste management, with the permanent goal of balancing “three cycles”: social, environmental, and financial.

With TriCiclos, Muñoz designed a recycling and refurbishing station called Punto Limpio (Clean Point). The Punto Limpio, modular plants which the company says are capable of recycling 90 percent of household solid waste, are built from recycled shipping containers, specifically adapted for this use and given an attractive design. These physical structures are sold to commercial centers, universities and other institutions with a high volume of traffic and placed in visible areas, in order to attract the public’s attention.

A Punto Limpio, with various colored sections labeled, indicating where to leave different types of waste.

One of the Punto Limpio (Gonzalo Muñoz/Personal Archive)

Founded in Chile in 2009, TriCiclos’ headquarters are now located in Brazil, and the company oversees over 200 Punto Limpios throughout both Chile and Brazil, soon branching out to several other countries. At each Punto Limpio, TriCiclos signs a contract to manage the collection, processing, and transformation of the waste and its reintroduction into the production chain. “Our model brings a recycling infrastructure to hundreds of thousands of people. It offers job opportunities. It helps citizens understand their responsibilities when they are shopping. It provides reliable and traceable information so companies can create better products and governments can create better public policies,” says Muñoz.

In order to convince businesses and other institutions to help design this new culture of sustainability, TriCiclos shares with them a percentage of the profits it makes from selling recycled materials, as a credit towards the initial purchasing cost and maintenance of the Punto Limpio. The result is that the more these institutions recycle, the more money they make. They also boost their profits the more they get the public to use their installations through, for example, awareness campaigns. And in addition to the financial reward, these institutions benefit from an environmentally responsible reputation, which adds value to their brands.

A mobile Punto Limpio, built from a bus. The recyclable material is deposited through the windows. Each window is inside a panel painted in a different color. Each color represents the type of material that window can receive.

A mobile Punto Limpio can host events to promote recycling in educational institutions and public spaces (Gonzalo Muñoz/Personal Archive)

It’s not a coincidence that the first Punto Limpio was installed in a Sodimac retail store in Chile. Muñoz understands the power of the popularity of these big brands and bets on such partnerships to promote sustainability. In order to recycle a higher percentage of materials and help create a “zero waste” mentality, he targets giants like Coca-Cola and Nestlé. By showing the efforts of well-known brands, TriCiclos hopes to inspire similar changes at other companies. “From our first day, we have given a lot of weight to transparency and have also worked on causes unrelated to our explicit goals. This way, we help strengthen networks, learn from others, and deepen our commitment to the common good,” explains Muñoz.

He believes that TriCiclos has contributed to the development of recycling systems in the countries they operate, and has helped redefine the concept of success in business. “To us, any time a basic recycler improves their quality of life is a great achievement, as well as when a brand decides to improve the design of a package thanks to our waste intelligence.”

Most of the recyclers are former trash pickers. The company uses their extensive knowledge and experience with recycling to educate the public, showing not only how to separate the garbage, but also leading conversations that make the Punto Limpio users reflect on their consumption and purchasing choices on a broader level, promoting an awareness of which materials are recyclable as well as which brands and products follow sustainable practices.

“The first thing you have to consider is where garbage comes from. This way we can understand that in a sustainable society, we will need to stop using a variety of materials and products that are still seen as normal and acceptable today. In order for this to happen, we must change our culture, change our incentives, challenge waste and programed obsolescence,” reflects Muñoz. “Break out of the mental state in which nothing matters and get into one where everything matters.”

*Gonzalo Muñoz is an Ashoka fellow. Ashoka is a worldwide organization present in 84 countries and leads a movement in which any individual can be responsible for positive social transformation.