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Protecting the environment and empowering communities

UpTica weaves equality into rural Costa Rica, one recycled bag at a time

Fall 2017 | By Jenny Peek

Sign listing products at the Envision.

When faced with the environmental implications of overflowing landfills and the social impacts of gender inequality in the workforce, what’s a community to do?

For recent Nelson Institute graduate Maria Castillo and the rural region of Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica, the answer was: start a business that turns trash into treasure.

While studying abroad with Semester at Sea in 2015, Castillo and two other students, Nicol Chinchilla and Sasha Drumm, participated in the Resolution Social Venture Challenge – a competition to create innovative ways to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Castillo and her collaborators were one of two winning teams, gaining access to seed funding, advisory support and training to help get their idea off the ground.

Two years later, the result is a fully operational 501c3 nonprofit called UpTica. Through the upcycling of waste materials into new, sustainable products for sale, the organization provides rural women with training and an alternative income source.

UpTica cofounder Nicol Chinchilla, a native of Perez Zeledon, felt that empowering local women must be part of the organization’s mission. “Her mom had the opportunity to work at an orchard through United Nations and Nicol saw firsthand how her entire family benefited,” Castillo explains. “Her community is very rural, and women usually stay at home while the men work.”

The team knew they wanted to give women jobs, but how, they wondered? That’s when they turned to the environment.

“There’s a huge trash issue in rural Costa Rica. Landfills are filling up,” Castillo says. “At first, we wanted to solve all of the recycling problems – collect and recycle every material from five communities. But we realized we needed to create jobs with flexibility, jobs women could do at home.”

Rita, a community member
Rita is one of the women who ensure UpTica is empowering the community.

After speaking with members of the community, Castillo and the UpTica team decided to start with clothing and other fabrics. Many women in the community already know how to sew. Using recycled supplies, the women are able to make a variety of products to sell through the nonprofit.

“The idea was to divert fabric from going into the landfill,” says Castillo. “We found a business that was planning on throwing away a bunch of leftover fabric. After talking with the business owner – a young, dedicated woman – she saved us close to 100 pounds of fabric and we started making prototypes.”

UpTica officially launched in February at the Envision festival in Costa Rica. The organization sold almost $550 worth of handmade, recycled goods ranging from pencil bags to drawstring backpacks to market totes and more. Castillo’s hope was that the festival would demonstrate to the women participating that their products could be sold – and it did.

After their initial success, those involved in UpTica hope to grow the effort, involving more women and continuing to educate the community on why empowering women is important.

“Our goal is to have women earn the same as men do. We want to do co-ed workshops on gender training. And we want to work with high school teachers to create a solid educational program for girls and boys to change the mentality of inequality,” says Castillo.

While the project is still in its infancy, support is widespread.

Castillo applied for and received a 2016-17 Wisconsin Idea Fellowship from the Morgridge Center for Public Service at UW-Madison. And while she recently graduated, three other UW-Madison students, Kyle Powers, Anna Ostermeier and Brooke Nelson, plan to continue her work.

The trio recently received another Wisconsin Idea Fellowship for the 2017-18 school year to continue building a waste framework to procure upcycling resources, engage local young people around sustainability leadership opportunities, and create local wealth using discarded materials.

Castillo also received the 2017 Wisconsin Without Borders Peter Bosscher Award for her work with UpTica. The award honors work that demonstrates excellence in collaboration between the university and local and global communities.

As for the future, Castillo hopes to continue to invest her time and efforts toward UpTica, and she would love to expand the program to her hometown in Colombia. In Costa Rica, the country is currently considering a ban on plastic bags, which could position UpTica for a boom in sales of their tote bags.

Regardless of the route the company takes, Castillo has found navigating and running a business to be one of the best learning experiences she’s ever had.

maria castillo
Maria Castillo.

Her words of advice to those with similar ambitions: “Find a group of people who are really passionate about something, and seek out mentors and guides to help you.”

For Castillo, those mentors include Rob Beattie, a faculty associate of the Nelson Institute; Cathy Middlecamp, a Nelson Institute professor; and Natalie Rudolph, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering.

“Maria is a force of nature,” says Beattie. “She took full advantage of all the advice she got. As a result, she was able to effectively apply for grants, build partnerships and win awards. She’s got an incredibly bright future working on both the science and the social aspects of environmental protection.”

Just last spring, Castillo received the Conservation and Sustainability Award from the Office of Sustainability, recognizing students who have gone above and beyond to make UW–Madison and the broader Madison community better stewards of the environment.

With the right people and determination, Castillo believes every student can pursue their passion.

“You can do it. Young people can do great things – there are so many cool projects going on around the world.”



While Uptica works to minimize fabric waste, Maria Castillo is also tackling plastic waste headon through Transforma.

She and a team of UW-Madison students have devised a plan to help communities minimize plastic waste and make money at the same time. Drawing on their mix of engineering and environmental backgrounds, the student team designed and are now working to build a plastic recycling machine that can shred and sort plastic by type and color. The shredded plastic will then be sold to companies that utilize plastic in 3D printing. Any profits from the sales will remain in the community in Costa Rica.

The group’s mission of minimizing waste and empowering rural communities caught the attention of judges at the 2016 Wisconsin Energy and Sustainability Challenge. At the competition, Transforma won a Global Stewards Sustainability Prize, earning $1,500 toward their mission.

This summer, both the Transforma team and UpTica spent three weeks in Costa Rica building recycling machines and visiting universities and communities around the country to bolster partnerships and lay the groundwork for community workshops and long-lasting relationships.

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