Cedric Solms arrived in Armenia in 2015 from Leipzig, Germany, selected to attend the United World College in Dilijan. He has often mentioned his immediate attraction to the country, finding amazement in magnificent landscapes and the renowned hospitality he was exposed to. Along with his fellow UWC classmate Misha, Cedric decided to help tackle one of Armenia’s largest environmental issues - recycling. Electronic waste, plastic bottles, aluminum and other toxic materials end up in landfills leading to serious health problems. The Re-Apaga Charity Foundation was established to find solutions and has become a strong movement over the past years due to strategic partners and strong supporters.
Hello Cedric, it is a pleasure to have such initiatives started in Armenia. What is it that got you interested in the concept of waste management? Were you involved in similar projects back in Germany?
It might sound funny, but no. Back in Germany, I had never really thought about it. You don’t see it much there. It is not a problem that you find everyday. So why would I care about it? Coming to Armenia though, it was a different story. I went hiking a lot, and in places where I thought no one would ever have been before, there was waste all over. That was when I thought that this is a real issue. At this point, Misha and I began pondering ideas on what to do about this. I checked to see how they cleared this issue in Germany and wondered if the same model would work in Armenia. There are a lot of resources that are wasted with this lack of waste management, outside of the environmental problem. There are many jobs that can be created, new technologies born.
You co-founded Re-Apaga Charity Foundation with your friend Misha Zamskoy. Tell us about it.
Still in UWC, the idea was to build an electronic waste dismantling factory, where people would take apart the waste and sell those pieces. In Armenia, landfills are often burned sending toxic materials into the atmosphere, with much of it absorbed into the earth as well. We understood that we cannot set the factory up now; first we need to see the scope of the problem, gain partners and pull together human resources. Local school children were first engaged through writing competitions and workshops, classroom visits, etc. We did this for 1.5 years and finished our own schooling. Once we decided this phase was complete, we decided to start in solving the problem. We said we would stay one more year, with the idea being to build this plant. The second plant would be built. We collected plastics and electronic waste. It’s hard to source the waste.
Initially we began going from house to house, but found that it takes ages and people did not understand the idea. Then we decided that people can start collecting the bottles and we would pay them to bring it to us, but only a few people had trucks and could move the items collected. Few people would be willing to fish the bottles out of rivers and around the area, as well. So we were back to racking our brains again; waste has such low value that you cannot create a sustainable business out of it.
We decided that instead of those collecting the waste receive a few drams for it, they would receive discounts instead. Discounts are worth much more. A 10% off coupon for a washing machine can be around 20,000 AMD. So much more. We began building our model around this; we have everything on Facebook and our website now. You sign up and pay a fee. Someone will come to pick up the waste and you get access to all these discounts with coupons. The collection works like an Uber for recycling. Anyone who wants to earn money can sign up as a driver for the recycling and start working. We have over 100 people that have subscribed for one year. The cost is 8000 AMD per year, for now.
When you recycle, what do you do with it?
There are basically two ways of doing it. One is to give the plastic bottles to a facility where they make flakes out of it to sell to a Russian company, to make polyester out of that. Seven bottles become one t-shirt, for example. There is also an Armenian company which makes hangers out of recycling materials. We are looking into building bricks for houses with recycled materials. It can also be used for insulation in homes. There are many things we can do.
What are the next steps for making this large-scale?
That is the main question we have been thinking about as well. The customers we have now are the ones really interested in helping protect the environment, so much so that they are willing to pay for it. Not everybody is like that or can afford it. To make it scalable, people need to understand that they will gain a lot through the discounts; save a lot of money. Armenians don’t seem to like saving money though *laughter*. We only have 26% using these coupons now. We are thinking about implementing a “green dram” model, where you pay 8000 but receive 16000 green drams, which you can use in buying from different partner shops. Some might agree to you paying the entirety of your purchase with it, while others would allow you to pay in part. We hope to see what works in Armenia and then bring it to other countries as well.
How can people help you with your project?
The best way to help is to subscribe to regular pickups; that’s how we will grow, bringing recycling to new regions. We know there are people who want to recycle but cannot afford it. Right now, we are just breaking even. If there are people who want to give more, that’s great! Transportation costs are high right now. If we have more subscribers, transportation costs will go down and we can also think about other solutions, such as the Smart Containers as we have in Germany where you can get something back from it directly. People can start telling their neighbors to also subscribe, to recycle, to share information. After the New Year, we will be adding many more types of recycling options. Right now it’s just plastic bottles, but we want to add all plastics, paper, glass and maybe even food wastes. That’s the plan.
What do you think is the future of waste management in general, in Armenia? I know that some of the waste that is recycled still ends up in landfills. What do you say about this?
The main reason that so much waste is ending up in the landfills, is the cost of products made of recycled material and the price of new products. Recycled plastic is sometimes more expensive or only a bit cheaper than new plastic. People understand in some countries that something needs to be done about it and will go for the recycled version, especially if the price and quality of the product is the same. But you need to create a product that has the same quality at the same or lower price first. As this is a big challenge, what we are trying to do is to place the value not on the plastic but on people’s willingness to recycle and the value they create through that. A value in social and environmental cost that has been estimated to be around 20$ per kilo (vs 20ct current market price). We are allowing people today to earn the money they save for society by recycling their plastic waste today and therefore eliminating the 20$ cost per kilo in the future.
What has been the response to your work in general?
It is great to see all the positive feedback we always get from so many people and to see that there are so many people that have the same aim as we, to make Armenia green. Furthermore, The Startup culture is very strong in Armenia and strongly centered among the youth. We are getting a lot of support and people actually take us seriously. I started at the age of 17! People are still trusting us. They believe in the fact that the new entrepreneurs will grow up and develop. In Germany, you have to be over 40 years of age to be taken so seriously when developing a startup. There are multiple programs that are investing in us, believing in our work. They know that our business model might change, but they are believing in us, in our team.
What are your plans 5 or 10 years down the road?
First, when I came to Armenia, it was for two years. Then I said one more year and now I have been here for an added year and half again. It doesnt look like I am leaving Armenia any time soon. It is hard for me to say what will happen within five years. A dream would be to see everyone starting to recycle.
What should rural development look like in Armenia, in your opinion?
I feel like people are very different between Yerevan and rural Armenia. There seem to be two kinds of Armenians. The experiences are very different. Before the revolution, they did not have as much hope in rural areas and now this seems to change. Also, there are great projects going on like UWC Dilijan for example. It does not only provide great education but also serves as an economic multiplier, creating many jobs. There are also a lot of projects around tourism. People start studying tourism management because of this. It is good to see, that the projects not just help people by giving them money but they actually empower people to help themselve. Training, building homes, new jobs, everything just snowballs.
As Repat Armenia Foundation, we work with engaging and repatriating from around the world. What are your thoughts about this movement, about the value people bring with them to the country?
Yes, I am familiar with the Foundation and think it is great and very important. Diaspora Armenians are one of the biggest economic asset that Armenia has. There are a lot of connections to be gotten as well. We have found investment from repatriates for our project. A lot of our customers are diasporan Armenians and repatriates. Haik from our team is also a repatriate. We met when he posted on the Armenian Repatriates Network looking to meet people here. The Network really is helpful. Armenia is also very small and every little thing can have a big impact on the country.
So many plans at 20 years old! Thank you so much for coming. It was a pleasure.
Thanks for having me.