A graduate of HSE Faculty of Political Science in 2011 (school of business and political journalism – currently the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design), Elena worked as the chief editor of the Moscow News website. After the publication’s closure, she conceived of the Recycle project together with Dmitry Levenets, founder of several websites devoted to utilities and urban infrastructure. Recycle is devoted to an environmentally friendly lifestyle in the city.
«We are not ecologists at all —
and that’s a huge plus»
About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
The Recycle project began as an online journal about living an environmentally friendly lifestyle in the city, but in less than a year it went offline into real life. Now its staff members organize recycling collection points, give lectures at large companies and battle the myth that sustainability always has a tinge of craziness. In this edition of ‘Success Builder’, Recycle cofounder Elena Barysheva tells about people’s willingness to change, Wi-Fi enabled recycling centres and inexpensive environmentally friendly products.
Recycle sounds more like civic activism. How did this become a business project?
The project was initially conceived as an attempt to create an interesting media platform about making our everyday life as environmentally friendly as possible – from separating our waste to using energy-efficient lightbulbs to portable fans. When we began creating our materials, it became clear that this was interesting to our audience, and that the area of domestic ecology is growing and that we had something to say. We are often called activists because as journalists we quickly became logistics specialists, lecturers, and promoters. Fortunately, the idea easily went offline into real life, and we began to initiate real change in the area of environmentally friendly urban living.
We started with educational lectures, and then we had the opportunity to take part in the big Moscow Spring festival. At first, this was more like promotion than business: we stood on the Crimean Embankment for a few days, talked about how to separate waste, and carried out several promotions. For example, in exchange for conventional plastic bags we gave out canvas bags. We also handed out pens made from Tetra Pak. It was amazing, because one doesn’t need to be an environmentalist to understand how cool things can be that are made from recycled materials. So we became something more than an online resource for ideas; we became people who are embarking on a new lifestyle and who educate people and tell them that this is possible.
How was it that you moved from ideas to action?
Over the course of one summer, we gathered a decent online audience – 60,000 readers per month. This is enough to go offline and get support. Recycle took park in the Afisha Picnic and was ready to hold a large waste collection effort by organizing mobile collection points. The Gruzovichkoff company joined as a partner completely free of charge. Demand for the collection was huge; I still have people calling me and asking when we will come collect their waste. People see me as not only a journalist, but rather as someone who is responsible for advising on which waste to collect and where to take it.
Very soon, we will be opening the first Recycle collection point at the Bauman Garden. We want to make a beautiful and modern collection point that looks like a small pavilion with coffee and Wi-Fi so that nobody is bothered by waste collection. By the way, the sorted recyclables do not smell, so you can come to a nice place, have a cup of coffee, maybe even get a gift and move on. Our dream is for the waste collection process to be modern. Lifestyle is important here.
We will also be collecting waste in schools. We think working with kids is great since they respond so quickly. It is wonderful to see kids grow up understanding the importance of being environmentally friendly.
million tonnes of solid waste are generated by households in Russia each year. This is about 400 kg of waste per person per year. Only about 7-8% of it is sent for process, the rest is buried.
(Source: Comprehensive Strategy for the Treatment of Municipal Solid Waste in the Russian Federation)
Where did you get the funds to hold the festival and to carry out your project in general?
The money comes from investors. In December 2013, we turned to four investors, telling them that no one has ever written about the environment like we want to. They all agreed to different conditions, and we chose the most suitable for us. This helped us pay to create the site, and the remaining funds were used to pay freelance writers, photographers, illustrators, and journalists, as well as for equipment for the beautiful mobile waste collection points.
Large companies hire us to give lectures on eco-friendly lifestyles. As a media outlet, we plan to earn on advertising through special projects. Most importantly, we are supported by the readers themselves. For example, we wanted to create a map on the site with collection points, and thanks to our subscribers, we collected enough in two days.
Along with your other responsibilities you also do social media marketing?
When we launched the Recycle group on various social media, I didn’t understand at first how we would attract our initial followers. I simply started sending out 20 messages a day along the lines of ‘Hi, I saw you in a group on healthy lifestyles and thought you might like our project…’ I wasn’t shy, because we had a really good site. I was surprised that we didn’t have that many rejections; about 80% of the people invited liked our page. More than half responded to me: ‘It’s great that you’re here.’ Environmental activism has a dangerous tinge of craziness – when your lifestyle is too natural, when you wash your hair with roots, when you wear hemp shirts and eat artichoke powder. But we don’t impose our way of life; our work is to educate, and many find this a pleasant surprise. As Dima (Dmitry Levenets - co-founder of the Recycle project – Ed.) and I are not ecologists, I believe that this is a huge plus. We can separate ourselves from a narrow story and unify it under a large number of people. But we know good ecologists who advise us and give interviews, so we don’t have to worry about the quality of our materials.
Judging by social media, it looks like your audience is primarily young people who are mindful of the latest trends.
Young is more about a state of mind. Our mobile collection point had an entire family arrive once. The daughter read about us on Village, the mother on Facebook, and the grandma in ‘My Region’. They all brought plastic bottles, cans, and batteries and when it came to their lifestyle and outlook on life, they were all equally modern and young. But the main audience is people who are around 25-35 years, because they already understand what this is for: I have children, I have spent time abroad, I want the same here. Additionally, our audience is rather well off financially.
Of course, separating out recyclables from waste is a trend on a certain level – we call it ‘the new black’ – and many young brands and companies are following along. The Monoroom store has containers to collect batteries, and the Garage centre has recycling bins. When it comes down to it, Afisha would not have invited us to the Picnic if being environmentally friendly wasn’t in style.
It’s easy to understand about the people who are well off – environmentally friendly products are not cheap, whether you’re talking about food or designer furniture made from recycled material.
There is a choice. For example, we recently wrote about very exclusive designer eco-furniture, but there are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives out there on the market that we talk about in our special ‘Tip of the Day’ category. People have written us that we recommend buying pasta in cardboard containers and that it’s expensive. I went to Auchan and easily found pasta in cardboard boxes for 50-60 roubles, and even pasta sold by weight. Another examples is cosmetics, which there’s no need to purchase from abroad. There are Russian eco-cosmetics with an average price tag of 100 roubles per item.
Is there some kind of identification mark for products that are environmentally friendly?
In Russia, there is still no such a universal sign. For some reason manufacturers do not emphasize this, although H&M hints slightly at its Conscious collection, 30% of which is made up of old things. You're unlikely to read, for example, that this paper bag is made of recycled materials. Manufacturers, especially Russian ones, think that people are not ready. We think that they are ready. We go to manufacturers and tell them that yes, people are ready and that they should tell them that they have this.
trucks full of recyclables were collected over two months at Recycle’s mobile collection points (collection points only operated on weekends).
Are you helping corporations make an environmental coming-out?
We have a section called ‘Green Corporation’ where we share eco-friendly stories from well-known companies at home and abroad. For example, we told about how Apple pays to ship your broken gadgets to Belgium, because there is a factory there that recycles iPhones. We are interested in studying companies and in helping them get their stories out. I recently visited a Mars plant. They found a way to recycle even dirty napkins with the help of space technologies. Their office furniture is made of bottle caps. Media Markt has launched a campaign to collect batteries, and 50 stores in Russia have placed containers to collect batteries for recycling. MTS now has a similar story. This is not just about large corporations. Recently, the ‘Black Coffee Cooperative’ wrote a whole study on glass packaging. They gathered beer bottles on the street, sent them in to be disinfected and then poured their cold coffee in them. After sending them in for inspection, no sanitary violations were found. People are interested in hearing these kinds of stories.
Do Russian factories truly recycle waste rather than throw it somewhere in the forest?
There is a myth that there’s nowhere to recycle waste. This isn’t true. There are companies that have been certified to accept, sort, compress and send bricks of material to recycling plants. For example, your plastic bottle goes to the Plarus factory in Solnechnogorsk, which sells it to Pepsi as pellets for bottles. Holding it you don’t see that it’s recycled.
My favourite story is Chelyabinsk where there’s a factory that’s just learned how to recycle batteries.
Could a project like yours receive support from the government?
We have started making friends at the Department of Natural Resources Management, and they’ve been remarkably receptive, listening to us and not taking offense at criticism. Where state programmes now intersect with the environment is where consultation is needed, which we can provide. There is no direct support yet, but there are prospects. Our site has a section called ‘Experiment’ where we have large photographs of famous people’s sorted waste. It is beautiful, and we were recently offered by the city to hold an exhibition of photographs on Chistoprudny Boulevard. We did not spend a single rouble on this, and everyone was happy. For New Year’s, we have a lot of ideas on how to make eco-friendly installations and trees from recycled materials.
What about the city utilities? These agencies don’t follow trends. Have you approached them about using separate containers for waste?
We haven’t communicated with them directly – we’re waiting until they understand what they need to do. We can try to make a section for them. We have a lot of ideas, but we don’t have the resources. When the project starts to attract more financing we’ll be able to expand our staff and cover the city more fully.
What is the most popular waste product in Russia?
The plastic bag, of course. A million bags are used each second around the world. California has banned plastic bags from stores and has gotten away from them completely. Don’t be ashamed to ask a cashier at Auchan to not pack everything in the endless plastic bags. They were surprised at first, but gradually came around. People can get used to anything, especially things that are good. We want to encourage people to refuse plastic by giving fabric bags as a nice bonus, like movie tickets or free coffee.
What kind of impression did HSE make on your life?
I studied journalism, and we had a course on management where they taught us about strategies of managing and building companies. This was great. I felt that I was told that although I was a journalist I could also be a manager, editor and producer. We had very versatile instruction on a lot of issues. For my final paper I wrote an analysis of print and online audiences, but for two years I studied Silver Age literature. HSE is unbelievably lively. We interacted with our instructors on all forms of social media, met in cafes, and this energy gave a feeling of life to a serious temple of academia. I have a huge network from HSE, and we still keep in touch on various things. Recycle has freelance writers whom I studied with, and when I worked at Moscow News and RIA, there were so many HSE graduates that it seemed that I was back at the university. I always feel like nothing has been lost.