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Cash from trash

Recycling is nothing new in Latin America. For as long as anyone can remember, the poorest of the poor have earned a precarious living by scavenging city dumps by day and streets by night for anything they can sell. Many of these trash pickers are children, and in some places entire families live at landfill trash dumps, sharing the garbage with vultures and rats.

But in recent years, formalized recycling programs have been established in many Latin American countries. Some seek to benefit the long-time trash pickers at city dumps. Others were created in response to educational campaigns run by local and international environmental groups. The most successful ones combine environmental objectives with the economic returns essential for making a program truly sustainable.

The programs range from small grass-roots projects to large-scale industrial enterprises. In Jambelli, a small coastal resort town in Ecuador, beautiful seaside views used to be marred by mounds of trash left by vacationers who could never find trash receptacles. With the financial support of a community-based coastal resources management program financed by the idb, beachfront businesses placed recycling barrels at strategic locations and mounted an educational campaign to encourage both tourists and residents to use them.

A similar effort has transformed attitudes towards trash in Ayora, a small mountain town in Ecuador’s Cayambe province. When the town council tired of the sloppy trash collection service provided by the nearby provincial capital, residents decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Ayora council obtained $17,000 in grants—$5,000 in idb funds channeled through the Esquel Foundation and $12,000 from the Canadian government—which it used to purchase red trash barrels and place them on street corners. Then it bought a cart and horse and inaugurated the town’s own twice-a-week garbage collection. Next, the council set up a recycling center just outside of town where metal, plastic, glass and paper are separated for resale, while organic garbage is composted into fertilizer for sale to the valley’s flower farmers. What little that remains is incinerated.

Trash collection is now a source of civic pride, particularly among children. After recycling was put on the school curriculum, kids went home and urged their parents to use the barrels for their trash.

“Change at home comes from the children,” explains Gabriel Serrano, Ayora Town Council president. “The parents have less social and cultural education than their children. They pay attention to what their children say and do.”

Recycling in Brazil, as with nearly everything else in that country, is taking place on a larger scale. Consider the example of Fortaleza, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern Ceará state. Nearly 1,000 people, including 300 children, formerly lived at the huge Jangurussú trash dump on the outskirts of this city of two million. They sifted through the city’s garbage barehanded to separate out plastic, glass, metal and wood for resale. Trucks would haul trash to the dump day and night. It was difficult and often dangerous work, particularly at night, when children were not easy to see and occasionally were hit by the trucks.
“We worked out in the open in the hot sun, in the rain, amid the noise,” remembers jangurusseira Antônia Jocinélia Pacheco Ferreira. “We lived like animals.”

In the early 1990s, the city’s sanitation company, sanefor, asked the idb to finance the expansion of the city’s sewage system and trash collection. The project included a recycling plant at the Jangurussú landfill and a plan to organize the jangurusseiros into a cooperative and build low-cost housing for them nearby. Today the plant operates three shifts and is slowly becoming self-sustaining.

“Of all sanefor projects,” says Izelda Rocha Almeida, deputy advisor for the program, “this one is the best in terms of social benefits. But it is the most difficult of all to carry out. As a cooperative, they can sell the recyclables at a better price than they used to. But it’s difficult to convince them to send their children to school, because they are used to having their children working next to them at the landfill.”

In Bragança Paulista, a city in São Paulo state, the santher tissue paper plant offers an impressive example of what could be called second-generation recycling.

The company manufactures most of its product from waste paper—100 tons of it a day. At the same time, about 80 percent of the sludge produced from its manufacturing process—some 90 tons a day—is used by nearby brick factories. The factories mix the sludge and clay at a 1-to-9 ratio to produce bricks that are lighter, stronger, and less expensive than conventional bricks. Giving away its sludge instead of paying for its disposal saves santher $30,000 a year. The company recently received financing in 1993 from the Inter-American Investment Corporation, an idb affiliate, for new machinery to expand production.

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