The Road From Garbage to Gold

By Beverly Schwartz
Author Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World

Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” my forecast is that Sheryl Sandberg’s title “Leaning In” will become a business and social concept that we’ll be referring to for years.

Consider Melissa Lawrence’s discussion of this in her “I’m Just Sayin’” column on CloudMom.com.

“Success doesn’t mean staying in a game that’s not for you because leaving connotes failure,” she writes. “Rather, it’s having the courage and self-confidence to go for what you want, and the forbearance and maturity to accept the consequences.”

I’ll go with that—as I can easily relate to it from all the work I do with social entrepreneurs around the world.

  • Almost to the one, they have left lucrative roles in the corporate, medical, academic, service, or other professions to pursue what they felt compelled to pursue for the good of all.
  • They have all “leaned in,” become present, and focused on creating a more equitable world for all.
  • By “leaning in,” they have listened to their hearts and guts and changed not only themselves and others around them, but entire systems that have increased the quality of life for millions of people.

Consider Albina Ruiz.

An engineer by training, she grew up in the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon. Since moving to Lima, she had been shocked and dismayed at the condition of the streets. The heaps of rubbish in many parts of the city were so massive that they stopped growing vertically and were now spreading horizontally like algae, covering anything in their path.

Garbage was all around, so people tossed trash everywhere—in the streets, rivers, and vacant lots, creating a perpetually nasty environment that many residents found dispiriting. The downward spiral was palpable everywhere she looked.

“No one was picking up the garbage in these parts of the city because the poor couldn’t pay, and the city believed (as one municipal official told me) that poor people liked to be dirty,” she explains. “Every time I go to a waste dump, whether it is in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, or India, my heart breaks when I see human beings, like you and me, who are working, many accompanied by their children, in deplorable, risky conditions. Their working and living conditions encourage me to work tirelessly and try to change this situation. I envision a world where millions of waste pickers become part of the formal waste management system with strong support of the public/private sector and civil society.”

Ruiz realized that garbage represented people. For every piece of discarded material, there is a person behind it and in front of it.

She believed that each sector of society could not accomplish its role effectively without depending on each other.

At 28, Ruiz became the first female director of the municipality of Lima, Peru. Ruiz was, by her own account, almost obsessed with the trash that seemed to overwhelm the city. She came to Lima excited to experience big city life, but much to her disappointment, all she could focus on was the mountains of smelly and insect-infected garbage piled in the streets.

Nowhere had she ever seen garbage like that, for in the jungle, everything that was discarded by one person was useful in some way to someone or something else. Moreover, the garbage issue was inescapable—when she moved to Lima in 1983, the city only picked up one-third of the more than1 3,500 metric tons of daily garbage, resulting in trash being strewn over the other two-thirds of Lima.

To Ruiz, the situation was a huge disappointment, not at all how she had envisioned big city life. From where she lived, Lima looked and smelled like one big garbage pit.

This incongruity never left her, so when she was about to graduate as an engineer, she decided to focus one of her course assignments on measuring the efficiency of garbage truck pickups, and she developed a plan for optimizing pick-up routes. While her classmates were analyzing supermarkets and banks, she was all about garbage.

Always in the back of her mind, she was trying to answer one big question: Why wasn’t the garbage getting picked up where she lived? The obvious answer, realized as a result of her now completed course assignment, was that the city trucks were physically too big to go around the piles of garbage in the streets and to travel up the narrow hilly roads that skirted the downtown where the largest proportion of the poor lived. It was then that it struck her—a new system needed to be developed.

When she could literally and figuratively see beyond the garbage, she noticed the huge number of people who lived off of it—the garbage pickers and recyclers. These people had little dignity, almost no income, and were living very hazardous lives in disease-infested surroundings.

These people were the ones whom Ruiz organized into an association of recyclers, an association that helped encourage a culture of paid garbage collection in the poorest sections of the city, helped cultivate a household practice of garbage separation into recyclables, and inculcated a philosophy of garbage as a usable asset—which preceded a decrease in the practice of dumping garbage anywhere.

These were the people Ruiz inspired to be changemakers—people who would help themselves, their families, their neighbors, and turn the garbage of Lima into gold.

Here’s the way she saw it:

“Where many see a problem in garbage, we see an opportunity,” she says. “An opportunity to give jobs, an opportunity to improve the issue of the environment, an opportunity to improve public health, an opportunity to create more social entrepreneurs, but also political and business entrepreneurs.”

Ruiz set about designing and building a new type of small tricycle truck that could fit through the narrow hilly streets and around the garbage that blocked the roads. She started to envision a system interweaving community tricycle collection trucks, garbage collectors, and waste recycling, and partnered with a public campaign that would convince people to wait for the trucks to throw their garbage out.

This dream would all be predicated on a small monthly household payment for the services. But new systems that replace or circumvent the old ones involve changes, and change always creates some level of obstacles that need to be surmounted; obstacles causing friction, belligerence, envy, jealously—even violence.

But Ruiz already intuitively knew that her role would always involve some greater or smaller level of risk for herself as the person who attempts to create the changes in the first place. She was ready to take that risk. She was leaning further and further in.

Fast Forward to 2010

For more than 25 years Ruiz has been working in waste management, and since early this century, she has been the founder and director of Cuidad Saludable, an NGO that is building a community-based solid-waste management system and playing an increasingly important role in improving sanitation and health conditions not only in Lima, but around Peru and other areas of Latin America.

Ruiz is currently expanding her system to Haiti. The centerpiece of her strategy is an inclusive and highly networked system, consisting of community-organized and effectively linked collection, recycling, and disposal activities. Included are related initiatives to control illegal dumping and eliminate illegal dump sites. Her primary tool is employment, which she does this by organizing recyclers into income-generating micro-enterprises, a strategy built into every stage of the waste-management cycle.

She worked to promote the first law on solid wastes that addressed recycling and reusing as well as recognizing the recyclers as a legitimate entity and, after 20 years of persistence, witnessed the passage of that same law by an act of Congress. She nurtured the establishment of hundreds of trash and recycling micro-enterprises after she initiated a credit fund for recyclers so they could set up services in their communities and use the money to buy, use, and make products from the recycled materials.

Ruiz has developed an innovative chain of employment and income-generating micro-enterprises that have enabled an entire new classification of changemakers to emerge.

These changemakers themselves become community micro-entrepreneurs—who start small businesses that take charge of collecting and processing the garbage. They take advantage of the micro-loans Cuidad Saluable makes available to them and in turn hire others as employees to work alongside, expanding the employment pool and creating virtuous cycles of change that positively impact their families, friends, neighbors, community, and city.

In the end, one wonders if Ruiz’ ultimate vision is to bring the wisdom of her childhood education in the jungle to the rest of the world. Value everything, use all, know that something of no value to you has value to someone or something else, leave no footprint, involve the entire village, consider your relationship to everyone and everything.

Maybe we could use a little more jungle within us all. Leaning in may just be the ticket.

Portions of this article were reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World by Beverly Schwartz. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.


Marketing VP and “Rippling” author Beverly Schwartz joined Ashoka after spending years as senior marketing counsel from Fleishman-Hillard, an international communications agency, where she built and helped manage its social issues portfolio.

Schwartz’ interest in social issues spans most of her career. In the mid-70s she was executive director of the Minnesota Association for Nonsmokers and was instrumental in passing the nation’s first state law banning smoking in public places. Subsequently, at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she helped design and manage the first US education/prevention campaign for HIV/AIDS.

Follow Schwartz on twitter@beverlyschwartz and Tweet about the article and become a Rippler! You can also fan her at Facebook.com/RipplingTheBook.