Adrian Suarez takes a photo with the team and local women

Suarez takes a photo with the students of the PlasTech Ventures team and the local women who partnered with them.

Global Social Impact: Working to Reduce Plastic Waste Abroad

Adrian Suarez ’22 joins Lehigh student team over summer to help improve the environmental landscape in his native Philippines.

When Adrian Suarez ’22 learned that a recycling project with Lehigh’s Global Social Impact Fellowship would take place a mere hour from his hometown in the Philippines, he knew it was his chance to foster new skills and make an impact in a community he holds dear.

“I said, ‘you know what?’” Suarez said. “‘I don’t know anything about plastic, but I can’t pass this opportunity up.’”

Suarez joined a team of five students and three faculty members that traveled to the Philippines for three weeks in the summer of 2019 to do fieldwork as a part of the GSIF project, PlasTech Ventures.

Nanays participate in a workshop hosted by PlasTech Ventures

Nanays, the Filipino name for "mother," participate in a workshop hosted by PlasTech Ventures.

PlasTech Ventures focuses on building a network of small-scale recycling plants in the Philippines where local women can work. The goal of the project is to improve the environmental landscape of the area, provide low-income individuals with jobs, and tap into the creative side of women and empower them. While the team realizes that this network of community-scale recycling facilities would make a small contribution towards environmental impact, Suarez said he believes the project will still yield great results.

“Our machines are capable of small-scale recycling numbers. They can’t rival that large-scale recycling plant,” Suarez said. “However, that niche. If you multiply it by the different franchises, if you were to open it to the different regions in the Philippines, there was an opportunity to be had. Although we’re not going to make a significant dent in the recycling space, we could still employ hundreds of low-income individuals, while reducing plastic.”

The law in the Philippines requires that plastic waste be sorted from trash, but 80 percent of it is still thrown into landfills, said Khanjan Mehta, Lehigh’s vice provost for Creative Inquiry and director of the Mountaintop Initiative. The project hopes to change this by using the plastic that is already aggregated and creating products, such as coasters, to sell.

Recycling of plastics.

PlasTech Ventures uses recycled plastic to create marketable products in the Philippines.

Suarez knew that he had little experience with the process, but did not realize how much he would learn and how many new skills he would acquire. He is particularly proud that he was able to set up a tour of one of the biggest recycling plants in the Philippines, Manly Plastics, Inc.

“It was a learning experience,” Suarez said. “And I would not have had that realization if it were not for the real-world application and consequence of our project. We were talking with different clients and different stakeholders, one of which actually owned a billion-dollar plastic recycling center in the Philippines...I just called him from out of nowhere, before we even got to the Philippines...And he welcomed us to his office, and he actually gave us a tour of his facilities.”

Suarez, as strategic partnership lead, helped forge connections with the women who would work at the plants, the University of Philippines, plastic companies, and other organizations and businesses that made the project possible.

“I think he is an amazing people person,” Mehta said of Suarez. “[He knows] how to communicate some pretty technical concepts about how these machines work to these women, and [how to help] them build their confidence [so] that they can actually operate these machines successfully and run a small business successfully.”

The PlasTech Ventures team poses with the nanays.

The PlasTech Ventures team poses with their nanay partners.

Mehta, co-principal investigator of PlasTech Ventures, said projects that make a real impact in the world are important for myriad reasons.

“You're developing your skill sets, your mindsets and your portfolio,” Mehta said. “So when Adrian graduates [he can say], ‘Oh, I was part of a project that launched this whole community-scale recycling concept and business in the Philippines’…And that's a wonderful story to tell.”

Since the project took place so near to his home, Suarez took the opportunity to make a surprise visit to his mother, Marilette Suarez. It had been a year since the two had last seen each other.

“There are certain hugs that just...that you feel the loving kindness from a parent who misses you and wishes the best for you and sacrifices their heart and soul for you,” Suarez said.

Suarez enlisted a friend from home to pick him up from the airport and take him to a chapel that he and his mother regularly attended.

“That happened in the very chapel where me and my mom always went to pray,” Suarez said. “She was sitting in the very pew where I would go to every single day after school and during high school, just meditate and pray and talk to Jesus. For it to have happened where it happened, [there is] no logical explanation. And I believe it was a blessing. It was very miraculous, and [I am] incredibly grateful.”

Suarez and his mother keep in close contact, calling every Sunday.

“She’s a mentor, the best mentor I could possibly have, the best friend I could possibly have,” Suarez said.

Besides his studies in economics, Suarez is a Gryphon, the president of the National Society for Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), the vice president of Club Relations of the Global Union, the vice president of the Lehigh Multi-Faith Initiative, and a student representative for the University Bible Fellowship. He plans to get a master’s in economics and an MBA, to do a few years of consulting work, and to eventually open his own business.

Suarez recognized the drive and passion of the people he worked with, including students Rob Smith ’20, a finance and design double major; Andy Fugh ’21, a mechanical engineering major; Ellie Falk ’21, an IDEAS major; Devin Yeatter ’21, a political science major and faculty Khanjan Mehta, Ganesh Balasubramanian, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics; Donald Morris, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Brian Slocum, the managing director of Wilbur Powerhouse Design Labs; and Wesley Heiss, an associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Art, Architecture, and Design. Through those relationships, he believes he learned impactful lessons.

“[I learned] that to make a meaningful impact requires intense effort, a humble spirit, willingness to collaborate, and a work ethic that basically says, ‘let’s do more,’” Suarez said.

Story by Tabitha Nowak

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