ProPlanet, stemming the tide of 70 per cent waste to landfill in Colombia
We spoke to Natalia Uribe, General Manager at ProPlanet, to find out how they are preventing recyclable materials ending up in landfill and making useful, environmentally friendly products as a result.
What does your business offer to your clients? What is the core value proposition?
We have two different businesses within the same company, with two different business models, distinct objectives, segments and markets. The first is the production of environmentally friendly packaging for food, to replace packaging in plastic and polystyrene. It is produced with FSC virgin fiber and some chemicals that protect the product from water and grease. It is environmentally friendly as it degrades in landfill in five to six months and is possible to recycle.
The second business is recycling materials that are difficult to recycle such as Tetra Pak and polyboard (your takeaway coffee cup). Made of paper and plastic, they are difficult to recycle to the paper companies because they have a lot of plastic. From Tetra Pak we obtain brown pulp used to produce cardboard and from Polyboard we obtain white pulp to produce tissue paper. We separate aluminium and plastic to produce eco plaques to make different types of furniture. At the moment we produce different types of furniture, one of them is for schools, in partnership with private company Postobon. The furniture is donated by Postobon across UNO MAS TODOS and Mi Pupitre to schools in areas of extreme poverty in Colombia that do not have adequate furniture. Postobon uses Tetra pak in their production in brands such as Tutti Frutti and Hit which are largely aimed at children, so for them this is recycling their own waste, closing the cycle. We also produce garbage collectors from the recycled pulp, which are strong and perfect for use.
What stage of operation have you reached?
Proplanet was established in 2013, starting with the food packaging business and recycling Tetra pak by producing roof tiles then tansforming these eco plaques into furniture only a year ago. We have 50 customers between the two businesses. The company is currently expanding and looking to continue to do so over the next five years.
How do you distribute your product/service to your target customer?
Food packaging we sell directly to restaurants, hotels and distributors stores in local businesses. We also offer B2B solutions. For the furniture we collect Tetra Pak from recycling from both individual consumer recycling and commercial recycling. We sell to the wider market who may be interested in different types of furniture, this is a B2B market.
How do you market to your customers?
This is the difficult part, in all of our markets and segments we have to focus on educating the consumer. For the food packaging we have to explain the environmental benefits vs price.
For the furniture we explain a lot about the qualities of the material, as it is unique. It is a thermal material that repels the heat, good for organic trash and very high resistance. The eco plaques we produce have 100% protection against humidity and can be used in the external environment. It also has a resistance to breaking, sun and UV rays.
We try to inform potential customers across social media, we go to fairs and participate in contests such as SEED both internationally and locally, like one that is called ‘Emprender para la vida’ which we won in 2013, which supports entrepreneurs with environmental solutions.
Tell us about your impact – social/environmental/economic.
We have both an environmental and a social impact. We have recycled 500 tonnes of Tetra Pak in the past 2 years. Most of the Polyboard and Tetra Pak in Colombia currently goes to landfill, but we can transform 100% of this type of materials.
We have a social impact creating new jobs, in the last year we increased our operational area by 12 direct employees and 10 indirect. In our business we have an impact through Postobon, together we have provided 20 schools in poorer areas in Colombia with our furniture, across UNO MAS TODOS, Postobón foundation and Mi Pupitre.
Do you have partners and how do they work with you? Do you regard partnerships with other actors as a key route to scale or do you prefer to go it alone?
One of our Partners is Postobon as mentioned. Another important partner for us is Tetra Pak. They have helped us to improve our operation and improve our recovery of material that they sell in Colombia and increase our and their recyclable rate.
The idea in the medium term is that Proplanet be recognised as a company that give sustainable solutions and work in education and furniture. The idea is to try to introduce the furniture in more schools, and different markets like construction because it’s so sustainable. It’s produced with recyclable materials and can be recycled again and again.
What challenges have been encountered during implementation? What solutions were adopted to overcome these challenges?
A lot! This is a difficult question as there are a lot of challenges for a very young company.
People don’t know the company a lot and it’s hard to make the company known to a lot of people with few of us working in operations. We look to the support of external organisations such as SEED or Free Press to help spread the word, the prize obtained last year with SEED really helped get our name out there.
Another thing is that start a new company in Colombia is very hard, as there are a lot of taxes for the industry. For environmental companies governments around the world should have more support and subsidies, as we help the environment, society and country which the government then isn’t paying for.
In your opinion, what are the key factors that your business has or is seeking that will enable it to reach scale?
The private sector in Colombia has shown a lot of interest in our products as they are sustainable and 100% environmental. The environment is a global trend at the moment that is growing year on year.
Where do you see your business ten years from now?
We are looking to expand where we are- there is a big market in Colombia. At the moment we sell a lot of pulp to paper factories, but we could be using this to produce valuable products that make us a larger profit, if there was demand for them.
At the moment we recycle around 10% of the Tetra Pak in the market, we want to get 20% and grow the amount we recycle. We want to be known in Colombia as a company that supports the environment and produces sustainable products with great value. For example, in 10 years we want to use all the tetrapack we recycle in our factory to make different type of products made of pulp.
The segment in environmental offer at the moment is small and people don’t know what the solutions are- so our task is to inform them and tell them about Proplanet to increase participation in the market.
As it is an ‘on-trend’ topic do you have competitors in the market?
Yes, in the food packaging business in Colombia there is one other local company and others who import this type of material. But the main competition is Poliestirene alternatives.
In Eco plaques there are even other companies that recycle Tetra Pak in Colombia but we are the only company who recycle and reuse 100% of the components to post consumer and post-industrial Tetra Pak.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring social entrepreneurs looking to start an inclusive business?
A lot of persistence! It is very hard to start a new business, a new idea, but it’s worth it. The people who receive these materials and those who work in Proplanet and the new ideas are really well received in the market. It’s hard. But when your product is good and people like it, it is rewarding. Be persistent. Be patient!