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This article was published on February 17, 2018

Chile’s pollution problem has led to green startups

Chile’s pollution problem has led to green startups
Charis McGowan
Story by

Charis McGowan

Charis McGowan is a journalist based between Santiago, Chile and London, UK. She writes on tech, pop and politics. You can find her tweeting Charis McGowan is a journalist based between Santiago, Chile and London, UK. She writes on tech, pop and politics. You can find her tweeting against the patriarchy at @charis_mcgowan

Santiago de Chile is an understatedly cool city. Sure, it doesn’t have the classical buildings of Buenos Aires or the ageless allure of Rio, but what’s lacking in historic charm is made up for with a modernity that achieves being progressive yet unpretentious. This is especially true of its tech, an industry where Santiago’s innovations aren’t just making waves in South America, but are attracting some serious global attention.

And the best thing about Santiago’s tech? Much of it is seems pretty set on making the world just that bit better to live in.

Santiago on an unusually smogless morning.

Creative ideas are often inspired by local problems, and the Chilean capital isn’t without its flaws. Like most of its regional counterparts, Santiago is polluted. This is largely caused by an excessive amount of car fumes which get trapped above the city, resulting in an almost permanent layer of smog. Poor air quality, coupled with limited green spaces and, at times, and an excessive amount of waste on the streets, seriously threatens living standards. So, how is tech tackling the urban grime?

In a move to overcome the city’s reliance on cars, an urban cycling movement is growing. Local councils have doubled efforts to build bike paths, but heavy traffic and lack of infrastructure still makes cycling difficult and, at times, dangerous. Iván Páez Mora is a Santiago-based developer who is working on his dream to create a city where his children can safely ride their bikes to kindergarten.

He believes this can be achieved by encouraging more people to start cycling. “[T]hen drivers will be more aware of cyclists, and know how to behave when they encounter them,” he says. “So, that automatically increases safety. With safety, more people will cycle.” This then drives a demand for better infrastructure, he explains, which encourages governments to invest in urban cycling as a viable form of transportation.

To get people on their bikes, Páez Mora launched the app Kappo, a real-time biking game, in 2014. The idea was motivated the gaming trends at the time: “Around four years ago, there was constant news about Candy Crush, Farmville, Angry Birds… that millions of people were devoting hours of their time to playing these games” he says. “I thought of that if all these people spent these hours on their bike instead, the world would be totally different.”

Iván Páez Mora

Páez Mora set to work on a game that brought some fun to urban cycling. With Kappo, cyclists can track distances, earn points, and compete against one another. The concept goes further than that, too; the Kappo team work with the government by aggregating the game data to provide information on cyclist behavior, signalling what routes cyclists use by tracking their trips and movements.

This information has led to the creation of much-needed infrastructure across the city, such as the construction of an extensive bike lane which runs alongside Santiago’s central river. The game so far has 50,000 players across 50 countries, while Páez Mora is working with the data to advise governments in several countries on how to make their cities more bike-friendly.

Reciclapp is another tech initiative seeking to alleviate contamination; addressing the excess of waste caused by Chile’s lack of recycling facilities. Those who want to recycle must bring their recyclables to a designated point, which can be challenging without private transport. So, recycling isn’t a common practice — not because people don’t want to do it, but because they can’t.

“Only a minority of comunas in Chile have recycling points. People don’t recycle here because they do not have access to these places; they are just too far” says Reciclapp CEO and founder Cristian Lara.


Lara thought of Reciclapp after talking to a man he saw sifting through garbage, sourcing materials to exchange for cash at recycle points. Lara explains that there is a high number of people working in waste recycling (“recicladores”) in Chile, but they not supported by the authorities. They earn little, their job is hard, unpleasant and they earn little respect for doing it. The idea behind Reciclapp was simple: connecting the recicladores on the streets directly to the people throwing out the trash.

Businesses, institutions, and individuals can use the app, for free, to state what kind of recyclables they have, and how much they have of it, and specify the hour they would like it collected. Reciclapp then connects the order to a reciclador (each assigned to specific areas), who pick up the waste, usually on bike.

The recicladores earn the amount gained for delivering the material to recycling facilities, while the app itself makes revenue through partnerships with various organizations and local councils. It currently operates in several Chilean cities, La Paz in Bolivia, and is set to launch in Colombia and Mexico.

So, with more tech battling the smog and the litter, there should be some more space for more greenery, right? Max Delporte and Santiago Lyon, the founders of Plantsss, certainly think so. Plantsss is a beautifully designed app which provides information on local fauna and plant species, and gives gardening advice to users.

Labelled the “Shazam of Plants,” the budding app is cottoning on abroad (sorry…), and has users in 61 countries. With an extensive database on plant species, the app works in several ways; it uses geolocation to identify local fauna, it can provide a “match” for people seeking plants for specific reasons (ranging from medicinal to aphrodisiac), and allows users to interact and share cultivating tips and information based on their plant interests.

Plantsss screenshot

Delporte is also working with municipalities in the city to transform entire neighborhoods into green spaces. He believes that  it isn’t enough to just visit parks to indulge a love of plants and escape urban muck, but there is an obligation to create such spaces in the city ourselves, “there is a necessity to plant in our homes and barrios; that’s where the pollution, the noise and the dirt is,” he says.

It’s fairly obvious that pollution is a global burden that isn’t unique to Santiago. These apps were initially inspired to remedy environmental problems of the the Chilean capital, yet they offer forward-thinking solutions that encourage individuals around the world to work together and drive change.

There is a global lesson to learn here; that all citizens have a responsibility to improve our living spaces, and Chile is setting an example by showing how tech can accelerate our collaboration to achieve greener, cleaner, and just all-around nicer places to live in.

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