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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Recycling – An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Nov 10 2006 (IPS) - Schools, city governments and companies in Chile have started to recycle their solid waste, but experts say they need help from the government to replicate these initiatives all over the country.

“It would seem that the time for recycling has finally come,” Ximena Abogabir, president of the non-governmental House of Peace, told IPS. Municipalities and schools in the country are running successful recycling projects, and rubbish collectors and private firms are beginning to realise the economic potential that lies in reusing solid waste, she added.

Some of these projects were described on Nov. 8 at a national seminar on “Recycling Experiences”, organised in Santiago by the House of Peace and two other environmental institutions, under the auspices of the Social Organisations Division of the Ministry Secretariat-General of Government.

“The most urgent thing is for municipalities, when they put collection services out to tender, to offer an incentive to recycle. We think there should be a legal incentive, to minimise what gets buried in sanitary landfills,” Abogabir said.

Mass environmental education is also needed, “because so far initiatives have only been taken in schools or pre-schools, where some heroic individual on the staff takes an interest and generates enthusiasm, but once that person leaves the recycling activity usually declines,” she said.

In spite of the National Policy for Integrated Management of Solid Household Waste, “the government only responds to emergencies, and recycling is important, intelligent, timely, good for the environment and for job creation, but it isn’t in a state of crisis,” Abogabir said.

Solid waste is an enormous problem in Chile. In 1996 a little over 3.3 million tons of rubbish were produced, and in 2003 this reached nearly six million tons, an increase of 79.5 percent. Half of it came from the metropolitan region of Santiago, according to official statistics.

There are 49 illegal dumps for household waste in the capital city, 11 of which pose a high level of health risks for people living nearby. In 2005, 12.6 percent of the solid waste produced in Santiago was recycled.

The “Forgers of the Environment” project at the Profesor Ramón del Río municipal school, in the Central Station district of the capital, offers an example of what can be achieved.

It got underway in 2000, when three containers were placed in every classroom, where the children put plastic, paper and organic waste. Then a plant nursery and a vegetable garden followed, where the children could enter into direct contact with their natural environment.

The school later applied to the governmental National Environment Commission (CONAMA)’s Environment Protection Fund, to extend the project into the community. With the grant they received, they bought 18 containers and placed them at the school gates and at an apartment block nearby which houses 450 families. Information posters were printed and distributed to each apartment.

They also bought all the equipment needed to make compost, which they produce within the school grounds.

Compost is produced by the biological action of microorganisms on biodegradable material (plant matter, discarded fruit and vegetables) and is an excellent organic fertiliser for use in agriculture. The students sell bags of it to their own families and other customers.

Sebastián Araya, who is in charge of the project, said that schools that have green areas where the children can “experiment” have an advantage when it comes to environmental education. He has also seen how this kind of activity “validates” the work of the school in the eyes of the community.

“Schools and other institutions that want to carry out environmental projects think that they can only do so if they have external sources of funding, but self-generated income is also an option,” Araya told IPS.

Another initiative highlighted at the seminar is that of Manuel Torres, a cardboard crafts adviser in the poor neighbourhood of Puente Alto, on the southeast side of Santiago.

Torres started making cardboard furniture in the 1970s, and now he teaches the trade to people who make a living collecting cardboard in the area, so that they can add value to their work. A group of them, the Bajos de Mena Collectors Association, have just created a small business thanks to a grant from the government’s Solidarity and Social Investment Fund.

Wardrobes, dressers, trunks and shelves are some of the furniture that can be made out of cardboard, using up to 70 percent recycled material. “This furniture looks good, and at the same time it’s utilitarian and functional. Cardboard, properly handled and waterproofed,” is resistant to humidity and immune to fungus, Torres told IPS.

The cardboard products are easy to transport and to move around, and are 30 to 50 percent cheaper than wood furniture. “Well-off people, not those on low incomes, as would be expected, buy this kind of furniture,” said the self-taught craftsman.

The work done since 1999 by the municipality of Talcahuano, in the Bío-Bío region, 529 kilometres south of Santiago, was also highlighted at the seminar, since this is one of the most polluted areas in the country.

In Talcahuano, glass, batteries, car tyres, aluminium containers, plastic and cardboard are all separated, and an industrial-scale compost plant will be opened shortly. Environmental education has been carried out in schools, information materials have been distributed to the local populace, and, in an ingenious move, evangelical pastors have been given training, to raise people’s awareness more quickly.

The result? Between 1999 and 2005, 25,000 tons of rubbish were recycled, representing a saving of 250 million pesos (nearly 500,000 dollars) for the municipality. Guillermo Rivera, director of the environment department, pointed out that one of the keys to success is working for the long term, something that mayors do not always tend to consider.

Alex Ramos, head of social responsibility at Gerdau Aza, the largest scrap metal recycling company in the country, drew attention to the work of informal rubbish collectors, and pointed out that a University of Chile study published last year had established that 178,000 people all over the country worked at this occupation.

Informal collectors or garbage pickers make between 170,000 and 250,000 pesos (330 to 500 dollars) a month, but in general have no pension rights or any other social benefits.

“We have the policy, we have successful examples, we have the goodwill of the community, because it’s been shown that when a permanent system is in place the community cooperates. Now we need recycling to happen on a mass scale, and I think that CONAMA and the Chilean Association of Municipalities should lead that process,” Abogabir concluded.

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