Building low-cost housing with recycled plastic is as good as it sounds
Conceptos Plasticos won the global final of The Venture social entrepreneurship competition this summer, and it’s easy to see why: the idea is elegantly simple and brilliantly effective. Discarded plastic — a huge problem in developing countries — is recycled into bricks that are used to build much-needed houses that are cheap, earthquake-proof, and quick to assemble.
Now that the regional heats are beginning for next year’s Chivas-backed event, founder Oscar Mendez shares tips on how the right idea can result in a company that is a driver of positive change, and also a financial success story.
ESQ: How did your business begin?
Oscar Mendez: We began by working solely on the environmental impacts of non-recycled plastic, before deciding that we also needed to have a social impact.
My partners are a big reason behind the idea. I met Cristina Gamez when I was doing my master’s. We also met Fernando Llanos at university, who had 10 years of research behind him, which was all focussed on the same product. At this point it became obvious that we should all work together to fulfil our dreams. As you can guess, the original idea changed continuously and has evolved into our model today, which is focussed on circular economics, sustainability and responsible consumption.
Where does Conceptos Plasticos operate?
In my home country, Colombia, because it’s where we wanted to start creating an impact. However, since July we have been working on expansion to other regions. Plastic waste is a global problem, as is the housing deficit, and Conceptos Plasticos provides a solution to both of these issues. We hope to make it a global business and expand our work as far as possible. We have more than 70 countries already interested in our product.
How important was it to win at The Venture?
The final round in New York was a unique and completely enriching experience, made even more memorable by coming in first place. We received a great deal of support from Chivas throughout, and the win has resulted in a lot of companies paying more attention to what Conceptos Plasticos is doing.
On top of this, media coverage has helped to spread the news of our initiative. We want to change the world and, thanks to Chivas,
we think we can. The prize money has enabled us to improve and expand our team, increase our production capacity and given us access to international networks.
Did you ever doubt you’d succeed?
The idea has always been a worthy one but, prior to the competition, our product was on the market and we’d done a few projects but they’d not been as successful as we wanted. In attempting to have a larger impact we signed up to the competition. There were times of uncertainty, of course, but we always had the belief that we could pull the idea off.
How strong was the competition at The Venture?
The other teams were remarkable and we all made such great friends. With 26 of the world’s best social entrepreneurs, from 26 countries, it was amazing to be surrounded by exceptional people doing such positive things. To answer your question, the competition was tough because every project was so strong and had such a major impact.
Could you to do larger buildings in the future?
Not yet, although our product is in constant evolution through our research and development. We are currently working on plastic structures that support larger buildings.
What advice can you give to social entrepreneurs?
I would advise people to think big. If you have a solution to a major problem then you are going to create a major impact. Looking after others, doing business the right way and making your idea relevant will take you a long way. Also, create networks to ensure your business is moving at the same speed as the world today. Finally, never forget that people need sustainable and charitable projects and they need entrepreneurs to start them.