Wednesday, January 9, 2013

GAIA : Vegetable Waste to Zero Waste in La Pintana, Chile

By Cecilia Allen

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.

GAIA : Vegetable Waste to Zero Waste in La Pintana, Chile