December 19, 2011 | General

Creating Waste Sector Businesses In Nicaragua

BioCycle December 2011, Vol. 52, No. 12, p. 36
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab works with five municipalities on Caribbean Coast to start waste recycling enterprises.
Libby McDonald

IN October 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) asked Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) to work with five municipalities on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua to identify best strategies for creating comprehensive waste management programs that provide enterprise opportunities. MIT’s CoLab partners with waste pickers and municipalities in Central America, Brazil, and India designing integrated social and technical solutions for managing solid waste with the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating livelihood income for some of the world’s most marginalized populations.
Multidisciplinary teams of students from MIT’s CoLab, D-Lab and the Sloan School of Management work collaboratively on projects. CoLab, housed in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), specializes in social innovation, offering marginalized populations an opportunity to use their knowledge of waste management to create and implement solutions; D-Lab engineers appropriate technologies, offering a class on waste sector design called D-Lab Waste; and the Sloan Business School researches waste value systems, linking the technological advances to innovative business models.

A Day In El Rosario
In October 2011, Habitar – a Managua-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) – invited CoLab on a daytrip to El Rosario, a town of 6,317 residents that understands the value of waste, building what is reportedly the most comprehensive integrated solid waste management system in the country. Prior to 1998, El Rosario’s garbage was either burned in backyards or dumped in a riverbed and creeks, creating public health issues, including respiratory disease and diarrhea, particularly in the rainy season when the accumulating trash blocked the course of the river and flooded the village. “Before garbage collection was instituted in El Rosario, the garbage problem was quite serious,” explained Maria del Carmen Munoz, the Deputy Mayor of El Rosario. “Trash was piling up on the side of the road in every neighborhood. It wasn’t clean and people started demanding a change.”
El Rosario’s waste management system was launched in 1998 when the Managua-based NGO Centro de Estudios de Promoción Social (CEPS) partnered with four local women to implement both a door-to-door public awareness campaign that taught residents to sort recyclables and a horse and cart collection service. For two years CEPS supported the program by paying the women salaries and then, in 2002, they handed the nascent waste management program over to the municipality. El Rosario rapidly grew the program, instituting additional waste management strategies for improving their diversion rate.
El Rosario’s current system, with 13 employees, has adopted composting, small-scale agriculture and recycling initiatives. Additionally the municipality now charges a collection fee of 20 Cordobas a month (US$0.88). Families who choose to participate in the municipal collection system attach a sticker to their front door, indicating that they have paid the collection fee. Deputy Mayor Munoz reports that as of October 2011, about 86 percent of homes pay for municipal collection. Three haulers using horse drawn carts and one truck collect garbage two times a week. When they are not working for the municipal collection system, haulers are free to do other jobs, earning extra income.
Recycling And Composting
All collected waste is brought to a transfer station on the backside of the village that is lined by a tropical garden cultivated by Odel Gutiérrez, a municipal employee. Gutiérrez reports that El Rosario’s waste workers get paid minimum wage, the equivalent of $100 a month. Four men sort the garbage into piles, one for recyclables, another for organic waste and a third for garbage. El Rosario’s diversion rate is estimated at 85 percent.
Plastic is gathered in large bags and sold to Renisa, a Managua-based recycling broker that comes to El Rosario once a week to pick up approximately eight bags, paying on the average of US$18 for each 50 kilogram (110 lb) sack. Recyclables are then shipped out of the country, most of it going to China. (Renisa collects recyclables from all over Managua plus other outlying towns.) A program is being developed for 11th and 12th grade students to collect paper and cardboard, which will be sold to brokers in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Proceeds will be offered to the local high school.
As in most low-income countries, very little scrap metal makes its way to the transfer station or dumpsite. In El Rosario, scrap metal collectors or chatarreros from outside the community come periodically in cars outfitted with loud speakers, beckoning residents to come out onto the street and sell any scrap metal they have collected. “They do a very good job and we can’t compete with them,” said Munoz. “So we lose that revenue.” In fact, the market for scrap metal in Nicaragua has become so profitable that powerful gangs have formed, stealing phone cables, manholes and any kind of metal structure they can find. Last year, as a result of thievery, the high-tension electric towers nearly collapsed in Managua.
Two workers are employed to sort organics from the garbage and make compost, using a windrow composting system. On the day of CoLab’s visit there were two windrows, each about the length of a football field, and 5-feet high. The compost sells for 30 Córdobas (US$1.32) for a hundredweight sack. High-grade compost is produced as well. “We make it from horse and cow manure,” said Gutierrez. “We put worms in to do all the work.” The compost is sold to local farms for 120 Córdobas (US$5.25) for a hundredweight sack. Alongside the composting station, he cultivates a tropical garden, nourished with the compost. Seedlings are sold at markets in local towns. Any material remaining after recycling and composting is hauled to the dumpsite.
Improving Waste Management In RAAS
Although El Rosario serves as an example of how multiple strategies can be woven together to create a comprehensive, integrated and sustainable waste management system, the conditions are very different from Nicaragua’s Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur (RAAS). In Bluefields, the region’s central city that has 50,000 inhabitants, waste has severely polluted the waterways, unemployment is at 90 percent, and more than 40 women waste pickers and their children have built homes alongside the city’s Nineteenth of July Dumpsite.
In January 2011, MIT students spent two weeks in RAAS, compiling a field report that outlined current waste management strategies and potential waste sector businesses that would significantly decrease the amount of waste in dumpsites while providing enterprise opportunities for some of the poorest people in the region. In January 2012, a group of nine students from MIT’s fall course D-Lab Waste will arrive in Bluefields to work with residents to begin to help start some of these businesses, including a recycling enterprise, a composting cooperative and a biodigester. Preparation in advance of the fieldwork included creation of a common recycling route that transports waste from three municipalities to brokers in Managua (on the other side of the country) and completion of a comprehensive report analyzing biodigester technology and business models from all over the world.
While in Bluefields, students will work on several specific projects that include assisting waste pickers at the Nineteenth of July Dumpsite to create a recycling business, and partnering with the Bluefields-based NGO, blueEnergy, to draw up plans for implementation of a biodigester at the municipal slaughterhouse that will use a combined feedstock of slaughterhouse waste and organic waste from restaurants and homes. Students who have been designing a pedal-powered composter will be working directly with the Bluefields composting cooperative, researching market opportunities and potential organic waste collection strategies that will support a financially sustainable composting business. Four graduate students are then scheduled to stay on for additional time in Bluefields to build a small biodigester at the public high school. The biodigester, which will provide methane to the school cafeteria, will employ an organic waste collection system designed in partnership with the local high school students.
Libby McDonald is with the Community Innovators Lab in the Department of Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( She also manages solid waste projects in partnership with waste pickers and municipalities in Central America, Brazil and India.

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