A while back, I posted a number of pictures about work and cultural events but have been delayed about writing blog entries to explain all of it. My main focus and most successful project has been working with waste management. Thinking about waste management is more than just telling people to stop throwing trash on the streets or burning it. First, you consider the three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle to minimize the quantity. And thinking about recycling you realize the importance of separating trash and looking at alternative uses for different categories of trash. Separating the organic trash and recyclables gives people the opportunity to use many types of trash in a productive way. Many people already save the extra food scraps to give to animals – their dogs, pigs and guinea pigs for examples. But other materials can be used for composting to use natural fertilizer for their farms or even to sell to other people. Then you consider the recyclables as another source of income generation. Although prices are low, you will gain something. Taking out the organics and recyclables you realize you have very little remaining that you need to send to bury in a landfill, isn’t that great and easy?!
In Peru, there is a lack of environmental and health consciousness when it comes to garbage. Walking through most towns you will see an abundance of trash, in some areas the accumulation of littering and in other areas informal garbage dumps “botaderos” especially in small towns/villages where there is no infrastructure for healthier landfills. That being said I have recognized that one of the biggest problems isn’t necessarily lack of awareness but due to bad habits, lack of basic infrastructure to make it easier and no enforcement of laws prohibiting littering and throwing trash in the river. Imagine walking through streets that don’t have any trash cans. Will you choose to hold onto your candy wrapper or plastic bottle all day until you return to your house to throw it into your garbage bag, or would you just make the easier decision to just drop it in the streets so you don’t have to carry it all day? That takes a person with strong convictions to make the environmentally friendly decision. Considering this, I realized quickly that it is unfair for authorities to demand and criticize if they don’t take the small step to install trash cans giving people the alternative. In many areas there has been a push to separate trash and in many cities the governments have installed a series of trash cans labeled with different types of recycling or at least between organics and inorganic. But when you look into the trash cans, you realize no one actually pays attention to the labels! I have yet to see any labeled trash can used correctly. You can blame it on lack of education but you can also blame it on leaving out an important trash can – one for the garbage that isn’t organic or recyclable. I remember the first time I encountered this situation: I stared at the garbage cans for a while embarrassed that as an Environmental Volunteer and “expert” on waste management, I couldn’t even figure out where to throw out my wrapper! Realizing that it wasn’t my fault and not wanting to litter I had to give in and randomly choose one of the cans.
So long story short trash management has been a focus of my work at site. I started with promotion of recycling. In preparation of my community diagnostic, I surveyed a number of households on various environmental issues and was surprised to see a large number of people knew about recycling and could even list examples of materials that could be recycled even though my town did not provide an opportunity to recycle.
Although I had the idea to work with the town’s municipality, my first year at site I faced an apathetic mayor and administration that in their last year in office before election year were not eager to start any new projects. Instead I decided to start working with the kids and the schools a population much more receptive and easier to work with, starting a recycling contest between the 11 grades of the middle and high school. It surprised me by how successful it was, playing into Peruvian competitiveness. The students learned to separate paper, plastic bottles and cans (mostly from the evaporated milk that pregnant women and mothers with young children receive as part of the government program “Vaso de Leche”). They collected an incredible amount: over 500 kg of cans, 300 kg of plastic bottles and about 50 kg of paper! And as the dream of any Environment Peace Corps Volunteer, I had the most rewarding experience hearing from numerous people that they observed less trash in the streets and almost no plastic bottles and cans, giving evidence that many of the kids were so enthusiastic that they were cleaning the town by collecting recyclables on the streets. I will admit that there is still trash which I can’t help but focus on, but there is something to be said that the community has not just noticed the difference but are actually attributed it to my work with promoting recycling. Very exciting!
When I first arrived the town did not have a place to process recycling, (in fact the country’s only recycling centers are located in Lima) nor were there any small businesses involved in buying and collecting to bring large quantities to Lima (the only practical way of transporting recycling without losing money as transportation costs are high and earnings on recycling are relatively low). Inspired by the idea of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, I found a solution. Why not get my town’s municipality involved as a collection center where all the individuals in my community can feasibly sell their small quantity of recyclables, earn money while reducing the contamination of garbage. And we lucked out with our location off a main highway between Cerro de Pasco (the capital of Pasco - the department north of Junín and only an hour and half hour away driving with recycling collection centers) and Lima (with recycling processing centers). Starting the end of last year (when the municipality saw how successful the school recycling contest was), I convinced the municipality to borrow a relatively small sum of money 100 soles to start a recycling system and have the recycling buyer in Cerro de Pasco buy and pick up larger quantities of recyclables on his frequent trips between Cerro de Pasco and Junín. The basic idea is the municipality first buys recyclables monthly from community members at slightly lower prices (to ensure not losing money if the prices in Cerro de Pasco change or the combined weight ends up being a little less), waiting until a large quantity is gathered and then selling it to the buyer when he passes by, avoiding the cost of transportation and logistics coordinating using the truck from the community’s cooperative. The community members are more than thrilled. In a particularly poor town in a developing country, the desire to make money will always be more appealing than actions just for the passion for saving the environment. Even though it’s clear they are more interested in the money, in my mind what really matters is they are participating and either way it will be contributing to minimizing contamination.
Apart from recycling, I started working with the new municipality on an integrated waste management project to address solve the problems of lacking infrastructure and consciousness. Since the opportunity to apply for a SPA grant was closed for the soonest cycle, I developed a project plan with my counterpart in the municipality and we presented an application to the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP). PCPP enables Peace Corps Volunteers to fund small development projects requesting donations from friends, families and any other philanthropic donators in the US. The following is a description of the project that was posted on the website. As of this date the $2320 we solicited has already been filled up through this fundraising and I would like to thank all of the people who choose to donate and support the project on behalf of myself and my community. We really appreciate your help to make it a reality!
“The proposed project will provide an opportunity for the town’s municipality to develop the infrastructure and improve their solid waste management practices. The municipality will contribute the majority of human labor costs and a portion of the materials, but as a small town it receives a small budget which is not sufficient to carry out a fully integrated solid waste management project. With the support of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, the project will allow for the construction of a new community landfill, a storage space for recyclables, installation of garbage cans, safety equipment for sanitation workers, and publicity through signs and radio spots. The project plan includes a series of educational talks and recycling campaigns to promote sustainable behavior change in the population. The development of recycling will serve as a source of income generation. The project will create a cleaner environment which will improve the community’s health (whose top two health complaints are respiratory and diarrheic illness attributed to poor trash management and hygiene), the health of the ecosystem (which is part of a nationally protected area “Reserva Nacional de Junín”) and the image of the town to promote eco-tourism.”
Now in the remaining three months of service, I am looking forward to carrying out this project!