Recycling for Life and Family in the Mexican Countryside

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

I have a confession to make: I love to browse Kiva borrower profiles – even occasionally without any actual intention to make a loan. I believe that reading the stories of borrowers from all over the world and knowing their dreams tells me more about a country and the mentality of its people than even the best of all travel guidebooks. And knowing some of the challenges they are facing in their lives and how they are surmounting them, being aware of the long hours they work every day and their dedication to their families – all this inspires me deeply and on a very personal level: if people can thrive under difficult circumstances thanks to incredibly hard work and a dream, then I should and will be able to do something meaningful and lasting with my own life as well! My Kiva lender profile reads: “I loan because… Kiva borrowers never cease to inspire me with their courage, talent, and dedication!”

A simple rented garage space that incorporates the dreams of an entire family – the family of Ma, her husband, and her five children.

That strong sense of inspiration that speaks to me out of every Kiva borrower’s history has been multiplied during my time in the field as a Kiva Fellow in the course of many personal meetings with borrowers. I have met literally dozens of borrowers – first in Ecuador when working with Banco D-MIRO, then in Mexico while contributing to the great work of Fundacion Realidad or FRAC (which is soon to be called: Vision Fund Mexico) – all of whom have left an indelible mark in my heart and mind. But recently I have met a borrower who is so extraordinary and unusual that even I – one of the more seasoned Kiva Fellows – was blown away. Her name is Ma de los Angeles and this blog entry tells the story of her work and her success:

I met Ma in late April in order to interview her about her experience as a borrower of Fundacion Realidad and the extent to which FRAC had complied with the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Principles when giving her a Kiva-funded loan. I expected our meeting to be an interesting 20 minute chat – but once Ma began to tell me about her life and work, I could not stop listening and asking her more and more questions…

The seemingly chaotic garage interior, with Ma in the foreground.

FRAC’s Kiva-interviewer and story writer Hortensia and I found Ma at her workplace: a garage space next to a busy traffic road, about one hour outside of the small Mexican city San Felipe del Progreso. I am embarrassed to admit that my first thought when stepping into the garage was: “What an incredible mess of trash is this!” Good I kept it to myself and let Ma tell me her story as it would change my entire perception. As it turned out, Ma is making a living for herself and her five children by collecting what seems like garbage. As Ma proudly told me: “Look outside of the garage, look at my village! It’s all clean! There are no plastic bags anywhere! No damaged car parts! No PET bottles on the side of the road! No tin cans lying around in the fields! This is thanks to my business!” But is Ma herself actually searching the fields and roadsides for these materials?  She laughs at my question: “Not at all! I am staying in this garage space all day to attend my clients – children, villagers, everybody who finds trash on their way! They bring it all to me and I pay them a small but fair price for it!” She points to the hand-written price list on the wall.

For one pound of cardboard, Ma pays half a peso (about 4 cents); for one pound of empty PET bottles, she pays 1.5 pesos (about 12 cents); one pound of empty beer cans are worth 5.5 pesos (40 cents); for “old iron” she pays 1.90 pesos (15 cents) per pound; and one pound of plastic bags can be turned in for 1 pesos (8 cents) by the neighborhood kids.

The handwritten price list on the wall of Ma’s garage.

I am stunned: “But what are you doing with these materials, once you buy them from the villagers?” “I sell them to large recycling plants!” she answers. “For example, plastic bags I buy for 1 peso per pound, but I sell them for 1.5 pesos to a large recycling firm in San Felipe. This firm then turns them into new, ecological plastic bags.  The same with the empty aluminum cans that people bring me: I collect them and deliver them once a month to a huge recycling plant that melts them down and turns them into nails and wire. Regular paper is being turned into cardboard. And white paper becomes toilet paper! “ Ma gets more passionate: “But my favorite recyclable product are PET bottles. Companies in Japan,China, and Canada will grind them and ultimately turn them into shoes, bath towels, and finger rings!” She is beaming with pride!

I barely know where to begin asking, there’s so much in her work that surprises me: “How long have you worked as a full-time professional recyclist?” “For one year.” – “And how did you get the idea for this work?” “From my husband; he’s working for one of the recycling plants in San Felipe and told me that there could be a business opportunity for me.” – “And how much do you earn per month by buying and reselling recyclables?” “I reach a net profit of between 1,000 and 1,500 pesos (80-135 US$). This, combined with my husband’s income, is enough for us to get our five children through school!” – “And how many bottles and materials do you collect in a normal month?” “Well, usually I get around half a ton of PET bottles…” “Half a ton?!” “Yes, easily. Yesterday alone I received about 140 pounds of PET bottles! And 28 pounds of old books! In fact, everything that you see in the garage is the result of 2 days of collecting!” I take a new look at the different piles of materials in her garage: it definitely doesn’t look like trash anymore to me! Spectacular – materials from just two days of work! This is the livelihood for an entire family!

The garage interior, filled with materials that were collected by Ma within just the last two days. The large scale on the right is what Ma has used her Kiva loan for.

When asked how she is using her Kiva loan, Ma points to the heavy scale that stands next to the entrance: “I use my 7,000 peso loan (550 US$) to pay the rent for this scale.” Being familiar with FRAC’s policy of increasing loan amounts for its borrowers on consecutive loans, provided they are always paying back on time, I ask Ma about her future borrowing plans: “I hope that my next loan will be on 10,000 pesos (800 US$) so that I can actually buy the scale and don’t have to use money to rent it.” And the loan after that? “I am dreaming of getting a 25,000 peso (2,000 US$) loan in the future which would be enough for me to buy the truck that I rent every month for 500 pesos (40 US$) to transport my recyclables to the different recycling plants.” As I am reflecting on the numbers, I become aware that without the truck rental fee, Ma’s monthly net income would rise by close to 50 percent! One hour later, as I leave’s Ma’s humble garage space, I feel like shouting out loud to the whole world, so that everybody can hear it: “Yes, it’s true! I loan because Kiva borrowers never cease to inspire me with their courage, talent, and dedication! So amazing!”

Emmanuel M. von Arx is a Kiva Fellow working with Vision Fund Mexico (FRAC) in Mexico City.  FRAC provides innovative financial and non-financial services to families and groups that do not have access to formal banking services in rural and semi-urban regions and communities in 12 Mexican States. To learn more, please visit FRAC’s partner page on Kiva or join the Friends of Fundacion Realidad. 

About the author

Emmanuel von Arx