World's most sustainable innovation in 2014: Pedal-powered recycling

A recycling initiative that uses zero-emissions transport and enables low-income communities to make money out of their waste wins this year’s Sustainia Award

wecyclers win
Nigeria's Wecyclers is an innovative urban waste management system, which uses bicycles to collect recyclable waste in the country's capital, Lagos, and offers incentives to families in exchange for the collected garbage. Image: Wecyclers via CNN

Clearing up waste piling up in the streets using a zero-emissions vehicle, encouraging recycling, and providing jobs to low income communities are just some features of Nigerian initiative Wecyclers, which was crowned the top winner at this year’s Sustainia Award.

The innovative enterprise received the ‘Best Sustainability Solution’ award at the Sustainia Award ceremony in Copenhagen last October 30.

The international award, which honours sustainability solutions that have significant potential to help build a more sustainable future, was initiated by Denmark-based sustainable innovations think tank Sustainia in 2012.

Wecyclers showcases an innovative, but very simple urban waste management system that is scalable and can be easily replicated especially in densely-populated cities around the world.

It deploys a fleet of cargo bicycles to collect recyclable waste such as plastic bottles, plastic sachets and aluminum cans in low-income communities in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos.

They show us that communities can create local solutions to waste and recycling issues, which are not only more sustainable but also improve public health and create new jobs and businesses

Arnold Schwarzenegger, chair of Sustainia Award

Apart from providing jobs, Wecyclers also encourages recycling habits from low-income families through an SMS-based incentive programme. Families who are subscribed to the initiative earn points sent to their mobile phone numbers in exchange for every kilogramme of garbage, which can then be redeemed later for a variety of goods such as call time in their mobile phone, food items and household goods.

Sustainia saw the initiative as an innovative response to local waste issues in Lagos, where only 40 per cent of the city’s garbage is collected.

Laura Storm, director of Sustainia, said that solutions to the threats of climate change do not come only in the form of high-tech innovations that reduce carbon emissions or create infrastructure and efficiency.

“Wecyclers is a leading example of a solution that empowers its community to lead healthier, wealthier and more sustainable lives. It offers very clear incentives for all players to get on board and that’s exactly what can help this solution succeed,” she added.

The pedal-powered recycling initiative has a following of more than 5,000 households and are planning to expand to other cities throughout Nigeria. It partners with recycling companies, which buys its sorted waste for re-processing into products such as mattresses, pillows and trash bags, among other things.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, the chief executive of Wecyclers, who also previously worked at United States technology firm IBM Corporation as a software engineer, commented: “I have always thought of our initiative as low-tech but high-impact… I believe that many other cities can help their communities in similar ways and provide healthier and cleaner surroundings for their citizens. This award gives us a great opportunity to share our work.”

Wecyclers emerged from the top 10 finalists chosen from more than 900 submissions for this year’s award.

The nine other notable innovations were:

  • Building: United States-based Adventix’s salt-water air-conditioners
  • Food: Israel-based Netafim’s gravity-powered drip irrigation technology
  • Transportation: Canada-based 8D Technologies’s bike-sharing app
  • Fashion: Switzerland-based I:CO’s take-back system to recycle textiles
  • Information Technology: Netherlands-based Fairphone’s ethical smartphone
  • Health: US-based We Care Solar’s life-saving solar suitcases
  • Resources: US-based Newlight Technologies’s carbon-negative plastic
  • Education: Bangladesh-based Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s solar powered floating classrooms
  • Energy: US-based Opower’s personalised energy efficiency software

Hollywood actor and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is also the chair of Sustainia Award, said: “I am very inspired by this year’s Sustainia Award winner, Wecyclers. They show us that communities can create local solutions to waste and recycling issues, which are not only more sustainable but also improve public health and create new jobs and businesses.

“By coming together and acting in new ways, we can create positive and sustainable change in our communities and inspire cities around the world to do the same,” he added.

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