The Chilean community of La Pintana has found that recycling the largest segment of their waste – fruits, vegetables, and yard clippings – can save them money, produce valuable compost, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program cost very little to initiate and is already making a substantial contribution to the community’s financial and environmental sustainability.
Despite belonging to the national capital region, La Pintana is one of the poorest communities in Chile, and 80 percent of the environmental agency’s budget is allocated to the collection and disposal of solid waste. While other governments might see this as an obstacle to the incorporation of waste prevention and resource recovery strategies, La Pintana focused on making better use of its available resources.
The head of Dirección de Gestión Ambiental (Environmental Management Agency) of La Pintana explained the municipality’s decision to take a new approach to waste management with the adage, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting to achieve different results.” Recognizing, as well, the importance of continuing that which is working well, the La Pintana commune identified all the actors involved in waste management (e.g., businesses, formal and informal recyclers, citizens, government bodies) and their different levels of responsibility in waste generation. The municipality understands that discarded materials are resources, and as a result, waste is viewed as an opportunity, not as a problem to get rid of. The municipality also understands that the solutions need to be local; the further waste travels from the point of generation, the bigger a problem it becomes, and the more likely its management will be unsustainable.
Separation and Collection
In December of 2005 the municipality launched its new program. Unlike many materials recovery strategies adopted in Latin America, this one did not focus on recycling dry materials, but on recovering vegetable waste. This decision was fundamental, since vegetable waste is the largest waste stream, the one that makes recovery of recyclables more difficult, and the one that creates greenhouse gas emissions andcontaminantsin landfills. The program was built upon existing infrastructure and local financial resources. It has been steadily growing since its launch, and while it still has only modest participation rates, there is an ongoing effort to increase participation whenever the budget allows for more public education campaigns.
The government provides 35-liter bins to residents for vegetable waste. People are asked only to separate out fruits and vegetables for collection and composting—not meat or dairy products, although some end up being mixed in anyway. The consumption of meat in this poor commune is very low, however, so there is little animal product waste.
The system for collecting separated waste was organized by simply rescheduling existing routes. Consequently, neither the costs nor the number of trucks increased. One third of the city is serviced by the municipality, and the rest by a private company; both collect two waste streams: vegetable and other.
The municipality conducts a communication campaign with residents in door-to-door visits. During the visits and in the ongoing workshops held by the government, source separation is emphasized. Both direct and indirect incentives to separate waste are provided. Citizens receive free compost, and their neighborhoods are improved with the construction of public parks, planting of new trees, maintenance of sports clubs, etc., that improve their quality of life and their relationship with the environment.
So far, almost 80 percent of the households have been visited, although it is estimated that overall only 28 percent of the households are separating their vegetable waste. According to the municipality, the low participation rate is the consequence of some bad experiences with the collection service (e.g., trucks that did not meet the schedule) and a lack of space to keep two bins in multi-story buildings. Whenever it has the funds available, the municipality undertakes new communication campaigns to increase participation rates.
The Informal Sector
While the government is focused on recovering vegetable waste, a portion of dry materials is recovered through two channels. One is through “green points” built by the municipality, where non-profits place containers for people to drop off glass, plastics, and Tetra Pak containers. The non-profits manage the green points and keep the income from the sale of the materials. The other channel is through informal recyclers. The leaflets that the government hands out to encourage source separation also ask citizens to separate paper and metals and give them to informal recyclers. The informal recyclers collect these materials directly from households and then sell them for recycling.
Although the municipality does confer a degree of recognition upon the informal recyclers, it has also blocked their efforts to organize, and they still work in precarious conditions. The government’s perspective is that the municipality is willing to encourage people to hand recyclables to the recyclers but that it is ultimately a private business, so the informal recyclers need to develop and maintain their business on their own. The full inclusion of the informal sector in the formal waste management system—with payment for their service and the rights and protections of any formal worker—remains a challenge.
Recovery and Treatment
Once collected, the source separated vegetable waste is transported to a 7,500 m2 treatment plant located within the commune. The site includes a large compost site that handles 18 tons of vegetable waste per day, and a vermiculture area that treats between 18 and 20 more tons per day. Total input in this plant, including vegetable waste from households and street markets as well as yard trimmings, is 36-38 tons per day. The waste arrives very well separated, with only 0.04 percent of impurities (mostly plastic bags that some people still use in the containers). Four people work at the site, each earning a monthly salary of about US $600, which is above minimum wage and comparable to other similar jobs. The 2011 annual budget for maintenance and operations was US $31,000.
Initial investments in the program were low; the original treatment plant consisted of a small compost pile and some worms. As the program has grown over time, more piles have been added to the plant and the worms have been reproducing naturally. Total recovery of source-separated vegetable waste, including residential waste, yard trimmings from maintenance of green areas, and vegetable waste from street markets is 20.5 percent of all the waste collected in La Pintana.
In addition, about 1,000 liters of used kitchen oil are recovered daily, which are turned into biodiesel fuel for municipal collection trucks and grinders that make woodchips to use as mulch. Construction and demolition waste is managed privately by the producers. Thus, the municipal investment is confined to recovering vegetable waste and disposing of residuals.
Despite being a very poor community, La Pintana shows that a good analysis of the local situation, the setting of clear goals, and an efficient use of resources allow municipalities to do more than just put waste materials in landfills. By focusing on the largest and most problematic waste stream—organic materials—the community has reduced environmental and economic damage and used recovered materials to improve the local environment.