In Argentina, Recycling Household Trash Into Design Treasures

A cooperative that's giving formerly jobless Argentines a second chance has evolved from a recycling enterprise into a flourishing sustainable-design business. Many of its partners could never have seen this coming when they lost their jobs back i

From trash to bench
From trash to bench
Gabriela Navarra

BUENOS AIRES â€" A cooperative in the Buenos Aires area is showing household trash in a whole new light. The Creando Conciencia ("Creating Awareness") cooperative has a two-fold purpose: to recycle waste and to provide work for the jobless in and around Benavídez, north of Buenos Aires. In the process, it has become a stunning source of designer furniture.

Its new collection of street furniture, made entirely of recycled "plastic lumber," will be displayed starting April 7 in the capital's Design Museum. The cooperative's 40 or so partners are people who at some point lost their jobs â€" and in some cases became homeless â€" after 2001, when Argentina's economy entered a turbulent period. Many turned to collecting and recycling household waste and are now qualified recyclers with certificates from the University of Buenos Aires.

"Our main customers are from Nordelta," a coastal sector of Benavídes, says Edgardo Jalil, a former metalworker and cooperative partner. "We go around three times a week, collecting everything that can be recycled â€" plastic, cardboard, paper, glass. We recover 22 tons of glass a month and 18 to19 tons of plastics."

But the partners also spread the word about recycling, telling neighbors that a plastic bottle that ends up at a trash site can take 800 years to decompose, whereas "if they put it out for recycling, it will come back as a recyclable container within a fortnight," Jalil says.

Creando Conciencia workers â€" Photo: Facebook page

The furniture represents a new revenue stream for the cooperative, Jalil says, and has even inspired some cooperative partners to retrain as carpenters or welders. "It means better working conditions for us," he says. Two industrial designers, Pablo Bianchi and Facundo Spataro, helped get the project off the ground. Bianchi's work has focused on relating design, culture and sustainability, particularly in low-income housing projects in which he has been involved.

Spataro, a founder of the Zum Disegno studio, has been working with Creating Awareness for a number of years. He says he has designed a glass grinding machine that has replaced a task "the recyclers used to do with a hammer, which was quite dangerous." He helped the group develop new products such as bins, and most recently a new line of park benches and tables. All the items, he says, are "for the street or for outdoors, and can be screwed to the ground."

Jalil can't hide his delight with the projects. "You know, a lot of us in the cooperative are people who lost our jobs in 2001, and had to go out and look for a way to earn a living," he says. "While gathering recyclable material is a respectable option, we wanted to do this in a stable place, with bathrooms and a minimum level of facilities. More than half our members are women, every day giving it their all to go forward in life. We do our work with a lot of care and respect. That's why neighborhoods like Nordelta took note of us."

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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