Fantastic plastic – a Young Entrepreneurs Awards success story

The Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2017 are open for entries until 30 June. Here, 2016 finalist Oscar Andres Mendez Gerardino describes the extraordinary impact of the Awards on his plastic recycling enterprise, Conceptos Plasticos.

At Unilever, we know that innovation will play a key role in creating a world in which sustainable living is commonplace.

That’s why we’re pleased to launch the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards for 2017, in partnership with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and in collaboration with Ashoka. The Awards support and celebrate inspirational young people from all over the world who have initiatives, products or services that are tackling some of the planet’s biggest sustainability challenges.

Success in our Young Entrepreneurs Awards (YEA) can make a real difference – to you, to your business or initiative, and to society. All our finalists receive financial prizes and mentoring, and many have gone on to see their ideas break new ground.

In 2016, Oscar Andres Mendez Gerardino won over our panel with Conceptos Plasticos, his Colombian enterprise that recycles plastic and transforms it into construction materials for high-quality, safe, low-cost housing. One year on, he tells us how the experience has changed him, his enterprise and the recycling scene. Read more about Oscar and Conceptos Plasticos.

Oscar, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. How has Conceptos Plasticos progressed since you were a successful YEA finalist in 2016?

"We've doubled our production capacity and increased our sales."

The last year has been a little bit crazy. As a result of the Awards and the media coverage, we got thousands of enquiries from all over the world. We were already a business, but we were local, focused on improving our own city by working with plastic that was hard to recycle. Since the Awards, we have had inquiries from South Africa, the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Lebanon. We've doubled our production capacity, increased our sales, and we are working together with major companies on a portfolio of services around recycling.

How did the YEA help you prepare for this success?

"Can my ice cream packaging become part of a house? Yes, if you dispose of it properly."

First, the guidance we received at Cambridge helped us evolve our business model and understand the role we could play in a circular economy. It also helped us understand our project in a more global way, and replicate it to address global problems. Learning how to work with banks and major companies has also been very important.

Are you having the impact you expected?

We have reached our first goals, but we've set more ambitious ones! Many of the places from which we've had enquiries do not have a culture of recycling, which means there are no source materials to work from for our project. That means making a shift. 

If you are enjoying an ice cream which came in plastic packaging, and ask me "can this packaging be turned into the wall of a house?" My reply is "yes... but only if you dispose of the plastic in the right way." Part of our project is working with governments to introduce new waste regulations. We're seeing progress in Latin America but there is a long way to go worldwide.

Have you experienced any difficulties or obstacles this past year?

"New approaches, new paths, and new relationships."

Apart from the recycling infrastructure, there is also the issue of building regulations. Our product is an alternative to traditional building materials. We take waste plastics with no value that are difficult to dispose of, and transform them into elements that solve the housing deficit while empowering communities to build and own their own homes. 

But construction is a traditional sector, and regulatory organisations do not go at the same speed as innovation. We're overcoming this, though, by taking our project out there and showing people what a good material we are making, and how the model benefits society and the environment.

Thanks again Oscar, and good luck with Conceptos Plasticos. Before you go, what advice would you give this year's participants at the Young Entrepreneurs Awards?

Well, it is a unique experience. You should make the most of every talk and meeting, keep your eyes and mind open, and find new approaches, new paths, and new relationships or synergies.

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Calling young change-makers

If like Oscar you have an initiative, product or service that is tackling a big sustainability challenge in the areas of farm to table, opportunities for women, waste or water, we want to hear from you. Enter the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards by 30 June 2017 and we’ll give up to eight finalists a boost to scale up and change the world.

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