Author and consultant John Elkington says he is inspired by Albina Ruiz Rios’s passion for recycling and the environment.
John Elkington | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
Scene: a quiet gathering of Optimists Anonymous. It’s my turn to speak. So I admit it: I’m John, and I’m an optimist, though sometimes you would hardly guess it. If truth be known, I find the prospect of a world of 9 to 10 billion people sometime around mid-century terrifying, and struggle to imagine how we can shoehorn all those extra fuel-burners, meat-eaters and waste-generators into a global environment already bursting at the seams.
And then I come across someone like Albina Ruiz Rios and my pulse accelerates, my cheeks flush, my mood lifts and once again I’m a believer in the power of unreasonable people. If the reasonable man or woman adapts to the world as he or she finds it, unreasonable people strain every sinew to change the world for the better. So, as playwright George Bernard Shaw famously put it, All progress depends on the unreasonable man …or, in Rios’s case, woman.
If that sounds to you like so much rubbish, that’s indeed what all of this is about. Rios started fretting about the health and environmental problems caused by garbage in Peru when she was an industrial engineering student. Rather than walk around the stuff holding her nose, however, she came up with the idea of creating local enterprises to collect and process garbage, charging affordable fees, cutting the amount of waste going to landfills and, in the process, generating income by recycling. After promoting her concept as a consultant for 15 years, she decided to get her hands dirty, and founded Ciudad Saludable in 2001.
Today, the organization is a pioneer in cleaning up cities. Staffers work with 1,500 informal recyclers and are assisting the government in developing Peru’s first national waste-management plan. The agency has helped form 13 micro-enterprises, generating employment for more than 150 people in 20 Peruvian cities, and training authorities in no less than 60 municipalities. These enterprises benefit an estimated 3 million urban residents.
Happily, Rios extraordinary achievements have won wide international acclaim. She became an Ashoka Social Entrepreneur in 1996 and has been embraced by grant-makers like AVINA, the Schwab Foundation and the Skoll Foundation. Ultimately, notwithstanding my sometimes-gloomy forebodings about our future as a species, it’s people like Rios who ensure that I keep coming back to Optimists Anonymous to declare that despite it all, I’m one of them.
Ode’s top 25 Intelligent Optimists by John Elkington.
John Elkington, co-founder of the consulting firms SustainAbility and Volans and co-author of The Power of Unreasonable People