Impact Journalism Day 2016

Enlightening in a Bottle

Closing the Cycle takes the glass that litters Mexican streets and recycles it into jewelry and even tables, while simultaneously providing training and raising environmental awareness.

Workers creating art at the Closing the Cycle nonprofit (left) and some of the finished jewelry.
Thomas Salva

The life cycle of a bottle doesn’t have to end in the garbage. Why can’t it enjoy a new life as a piece of jewelry, an ornament or as something practical? That’s the idea behind Cerrando el Ciclo (Closing the Cycle), a nonprofit set up in Mexico in 2013.

So far, it has recycled thousands of glass bottles into necklaces, earrings, cufflinks and more. Along the way, it has also provided hundreds of study grants, and hired and trained dozens of people in the heavily populated neighborhood of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, to the east of Mexico City.

Sometimes described as the world’s biggest slum, the mix of an emerging middle class and poverty is as noticeable in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl as the contrast between the newly urbanized streets and the alleys where there is still more mud than paving.

For good or bad, trash continues to build up, and it’s here that Cerrando el Ciclo can be found: encouraging people to collect glass bottles and then exchanging them for basic household provisions.

A mass of glass

The organization either recycles the glass as ornamental or practical objects, or passes it to a business that molds the glass into new products such as bottles (again) or jars.

The idea came from a desire to do something about the mass of glass that can be found on the streets of the neighborhood, just like in other big cities.

According to cofounder José Luis Pérez González, it’s estimated that every Mexican generates around 900 grams of waste per day – varying from 400 grams in rural areas to around 1.5 kilograms in urban areas – which is around 37 million tons of trash a year.

This situation forces us to take any measures, whether large or small, to combat the problem and face up to our responsibility.

The organization finds it a struggle to get people to buy into the idea, though, for while there are garbage collection centers and a growing trend toward recycling, the low cost of a glass bottle – 40 Mexican centavos (2.15 cents) – doesn’t provide much of an incentive for it to be collected.

Even so, Julia Novelo – Cerrando el Ciclo’s other cofounding partner – remains optimistic. Little by little, the organization is making progress and now it’s preparing to set up permanent outlets to sell products ranging from jewelry to trays, vases to bracelets, and even tables.

“We’ve been very well received,” she says. “Not just for our recycling project, but also socially.” According to Novelo, those who know about the project are starting to see waste as a potential means of financial assistance, and the organization is bringing environmental education to families and communities.

As a nonprofit, Cerrando el Ciclo promotes the collection, use and recycling of glass waste found in the streets to transform it into crystal jewelry. In doing so, it encourages programs that help to clean the city, with an employment and social inclusion policy that supports the more economically disadvantaged.

The group’s modus operandi is training and supporting vulnerable people to make products from urban waste, while at the same time providing the necessary support infrastructure for them. The nonprofit’s “cycle” is closed with assistance in bringing these products to market. In other words, it promotes environmental creativity with labor inclusion.

At the moment, the group has six apprentices – all single mothers – who are training and preparing for the job. Several university students on work experience also joined Cerrando el Ciclo in May, increasing the total number of employees to 15. Not bad for an organization born three years ago as a social project within a beer-manufacturing company (which no longer supports them) and which is moving toward self-sufficiency after slowly establishing itself.

Working with the vulnerable

The current statistics for Cerrando el Ciclo may look relatively insignificant, but they describe an ever-expanding activity. “We have collected 3,722 kilograms of recycled glass, trained 132 people, provided 57,709 pesos in grants and 2,417 people have felt the impact,” says the organization.

Along the way, the group has enjoyed the collaboration, sympathy or support of the local governments of Nezahualcóyotl and neighboring towns, as well as from large national and multinational companies.

The nonprofit has also given courses on recycling the ubiquitous and curved bottles of a well-known cola brand, as well as beer and wine bottles (its video clips can be seen on YouTube).

According to the organization, its structure is based on teams that focus on working with vulnerable groups, businesses and the community.

The “Vulnerable Groups” team aims to create workshops and encourage teamwork among the more disadvantaged, so they can earn a living with dignity. The “Businesses” team aims to promote collaborations with private organizations that generate regular waste. And the “Community” team aims to broadcast the benefits of what it offers and transfer them to civil society in general.

The Mexican states of Veracruz, Puebla and Quintana Roo have already expressed an interest in the group’s products and work.

The current size of Cerrando el Ciclo may not seem to match its ambitions or social impact. But its founders are sure it will grow and eventually be self-sustaining.

This article first appeared in Mexican daily Excelsior.