Mkhitar Avetisyan’s (MEIESM ‘17) Childhood Dream as a Road to Innovative Solutions5 min read
AUA alumnus Mkhitar Avetisyan (MEIESM ‘17) is the president and co-founder of ISSD – Innovative Solutions for Sustainable Development of Communities, a non-governmental organization that breaks through stereotypes promoting innovative solutions in the fields of waste management, environmental protection, rural development, and other activities that support the sustainable development of Armenia. Mkhitar also is a youth ambassador at Earthday.org working for global causes, and a trustee at Awesome Foundation Yerevan that supports various projects that advance innovation. In this interview, Mkhitar shares his story of founding the ISSD by way of uncovering the motivation to lead. He also speaks about completed and ongoing projects and offers advice to youth interested in innovative solutions and environmental protection.
ISSD was established in 2017, the same year you graduated from AUA’s Industrial Engineering and Systems Management (IESM) program. How did you come up with the idea of founding an NGO? What motivated you? What was the role of the MEIESM program in that decision?
In 2017, together with two friends, Gevorg Guloyan, my classmate from the IESM program, and Irina Mkrtchyan, a graduate of Sheffield University, we established the ISSD non-governmental organization aimed at fostering sustainable development in both rural and urban areas of Armenia. Together we decided to implement innovative projects in our country.
However, my initial motivation for creating this venture goes back to my childhood. I grew up in a rural community, Yervandashat, where the community experienced a lot of problems related to access to health services, quality education, waste management, unemployment, and so on. I have long had a dream to establish an organization, which would mitigate such problems especially in rural areas. The AUA MEIESM program provided me with the knowledge, along with the academic, professional, and networking skills, and the right tools to achieve that dream. AUA gave me a lot in terms of reasoning, thinking through issues, understanding the importance of value creation, and realizing positive behavioral change that leads to sustainable development.
The mission of ISSD encompasses various goals dealing with waste management, agriculture, education, business, etc. What has been your most memorable project/effort so far?
The first thing that immediately comes to my mind, whenever I am asked this question, is our very first project. It was a really small project that we implemented back in 2017. During the Areni Wine Festival, we installed around 25 waste bins for paper, metal, glass, and plastic. At the time we had just started, a lot of people were telling us: “Guys, what are you doing? We are Armenians, waste management is not for us. You are wasting your time. Go do something else. This is meaningless!” To everyone’s surprise, the results were amazing by the end of the festival. We were able to change people’s mindsets. Many people started to think about waste management.
This first project was like a catalyst for another successful project, “Recycle It.” We started that in 2018 with the goal of fostering in Armenia a culture of waste reduction, recycling and reuse. Within the framework of the project, we planned to install waste sorting bins in 50 organizations within one year. However, we ended up installing waste sorting bins in over 150 organizations. Now, over 500 organizations have joined our recycling initiative, including governmental agencies, educational institutions, and business organizations.
How did you first get interested in waste management?
When I was studying at AUA, I had a course in green building. During that course, we used to discuss environmental issues. This is when I started to think about environmental protection and waste management. Then I also had a seven-month course on environmental protection in Germany at Dresden Technical University. Later, I had a chance to attend courses in the United Kingdom, Japan, Latvia, and Belgium. But my initial motivation came from AUA’s MEIESM program; the projects that we did for our classes helped me a lot in terms of starting to implement innovative projects and developing my ideas after establishing ISSD.
Just recently, you participated in Expo 2020 Dubai, a world expo showcasing the best of collaboration and innovation from around the world. What products did you present at the expo? Tell us, please, about your experience.
This expo, which takes place once every five years, was our first big international expo outside of Armenia. In the Armenian pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, we exhibited our products, yarn and synthetic winterizer that we get from recycled plastic bottles. We want to show people that plastic bottles are not just waste, they can be used as a resource. This is a new project that we started at the beginning of the year. We have an experimental recycling plant in Yerevan, and we are recycling plastic into yarn and synthetic winterizer. We are already planning to improve the quality of our existing products and create new ones to take to the Expo 2025 in Japan.
What else are you currently working on in your organization? Are there any new projects or new goals that you have set to achieve in the future?
We have a wide range of ongoing projects — Recycle it, Waste Connects, Compost Academy, Grant Writing from A to Z, Loyalty Bag — just to name a few. Let me tell you about the Loyalty Bag project. Encouraging people to replace their single-use plastic bags with our recycled reusable totes barcoded Loyalty Bag, we offer a new approach to eco-friendly shopping. Supported by an interactive mobile app, our bags generate consumer benefits in partner stores. Loyalty Bag also tracks environmentally sustainable behavior, so you can measure what you’re doing to help save Armenia’s beautiful ecosystem.
Another project that I’d like to mention is Restoration of Riparian Zones in Armenia that is a COVID-19 response collaborative project implemented by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), the RA Ministry of Environment and the RA Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure and supported by ISSD and other local non-profit organizations. Around 500 people are involved in this project, cleaning riparian zones in nineteen communities of the Gegharkunik region and designated areas of Sevan National Park, doing waste sorting and recycling, as well as conducting environmental trainings, organizing meetings to augment interest and ensure the sustainability of the project, and working with local authorities.
Who are your team members and volunteers? What values are most important in your team?
As I mentioned, when we started, there were just three of us. Now, there are ten full-time employees in our team. There are also part-time employees, and many others engaged in cleanups and various volunteer efforts.
Apart from professional demeanor, there are two things that are important to uphold in our team: the freedom of creativity and the freedom of decision-making. Every member of our team has room to be as creative as he or she can be. Everybody feels a part of the team, and whenever we make decisions, we do it together, as a team.
You also work for Earthday.org, the world’s largest recruiter for the environmental movement. What do you do there?
I work on the global petition “Calling on Governments to Commit to Urgent Action on Climate and Environmental Literacy at the Conference of the Parties (Cop26) in Glasgow, UK.” Another thing that I’m engaged in through Earthday is proposing changes to the public school curriculum to underscore the importance of the environment and environmental issues. We have recently created a workbook for schools, and now we are going to send it to the RA Ministry of Education for consideration.
In your opinion, what is the biggest environmental threat today and what would you advise the youth who care, but are not sure about how they can help protect the environment?
To me, the biggest threat is people’s attitude. It is not the created waste. It is the way of dealing with the waste. The people, the society, the decision-makers do not understand the graveness of environmental issues. You can see waste everywhere. There are so many landfills. We should understand that it’s time to stop. It’s time to foster a circular economy. Here in Armenia, we have that cultural barrier to innovative solutions. We need to change that mindset and become a more environmentally friendly society.
I would advise the youth to reduce their carbon and ecological footprint and serve as an example to others, to initiate startups in the field of environmental protection and sustainable waste management, to be involved in volunteer activities that increase public awareness of biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation, and to highlight the importance of a circular economy.