I’ve been keeping a secret.
My secret is not something shocking, it’s not about music, and it’s not anything that would make an exciting gossip column. And the people who are impacted by this secret–the people who benefit from what I’m about to tell you–may never really know how it happened, because they do not have internet, may not have electricity, and almost certainly have never heard of Linkin Park.
I have a childhood friend from California named Andrew, who works for a non-profit, doing things like getting medical supplies to refugees after natural disasters. He had been going back and forth regularly between the US and Haiti. A little over a year ago, during one of his stops at home, I had him over for dinner. We talked about what was going on, and as he recounted the complex and troubling scenario he saw on his trips, he revealed an unexpected idea. He was considering starting a business in Haiti.
Andrew told me how, on every visit to the country, he was shocked at the mountains of plastic trash piling up in streets, waterways, and beaches. He showed me pictures. It was everywhere. He told me that they didn’t have a recycling program to clean it up. So he wanted to start one.
At first, we imagined it as a non-profit. But if it was set up that way, the donation money might get tight or run out, and the program would have to stop. So I suggested that, if it was set up for-profit, it could not only be more sustainable, but could also create a sense of pride for the workers. Andrew had been thinking the same. By the end of the conversation, I decided I was willing to take the risk with him. After all, even if the business failed and the money we put in was lost, at least we would have cleaned a bunch of plastic off the streets.
The company we created is called Sustainable Recycling Solutions, or SRS. It is not a charity. SRS is a business based in Haiti, run and operated by Haitian workers. One of the co-owners of SRS is a Haitian gentleman named Pino, who also sells cheap, clean water all over Haiti in little plastic packets. He expressed his concern that his plastic product is creating a lot of waste, and he wanted to do something to offset it. So he joined us.
At this point, one might ask, “with all the other problems facing Haiti, why focus on recycling?” Their cholera outbreak that began after the earthquake has now been upgraded to “endemic” status, which is one level away from “as bad as it gets.” More than half the country can’t read. The earthquake has left people displaced in tent camps all over Port Au Prince and surrounding areas. And most shocking of all, Haiti has a 75% unemployment rate. How will recycling fix anything that really matters?
To answer that, let me first say: I have not spoken publicly about SRS for a number of reasons. First, because in the beginning, SRS was absolutely nothing but a dirt lot, with no electricity or water. Second, because Linkin Park is relatively unknown in Haiti, so there would be no substantial benefit from a public endorsement of mine in the early stages. And third, because there was a seemingly substantial chance it would fail.
SRS has been operating for over a year now. And as it turns out, collecting plastic fights all the problems listed above. SRS is paying people for cleaning up their neighborhoods and not littering. The streets are starting to visibly change. With enough trash removal, the water will be cleaner, promoting better hygiene and fighting cholera. The people are learning the social and environmental benefits of recycling and sustainability. And most importantly, people who can’t read and limited job experience now have a new opportunity to make money and provide for their families.
This week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and on the three-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, I’m happy to tell you that SRS has cleaned over 3.5 million pounds of plastic (PET and HDPE) off the streets in Port Au Prince and surrounding cities. We employ 30 people and do business with roughly 4000 regular collectors. Savvy plastic collectors have even banded together on their own–separate from SRS–and created mini businesses underneath ours, driving collection routes and bringing plastic from cities further away. And we have created a sustainable, profitable solution that will clean up the streets, help fight disease, and put people to work in a country where this help is most in need, and very well-deserved. Most important of all, I have seen the powerful character of the people there–people who work hard and share a wonderful entrepreneurial spirit.
I look forward to occasionally sharing my experiences with SRS here. If you feel inspired to leave a positive message for the folks in Haiti, feel free to do so in the comments section below.