Balanza Verde: Decentralized approach to waste management system of Lota

Students of Escuela Adventista walking through piles of garbage on one of the main streets of Lota. Children – the future of Lota – are concerned with the amount of waste on the streets of their city. Photo by: Isaías Irán Barra Barra

Centralized waste management system for decentralized city

Solid waste collection and disposal in Chile are the responsibility of municipal governments. Cities must meet certain national norms or standards set by the National Health Service, an autonomous administrative unit of the Ministry of Health responsible for administering and enforcing the national public health requirements. Since 1980, municipalities have been allowed to contract out the collection, transportation, and disposal of solid wastes to private enterprises.

HIMCE waste management truck – centralized system. Photo:

Lota was able to secure a contract with Empresa HIMCE in 2008 for the removal of solid waste and its transportation to Coronel landfill 12.5 km from Lota. The contract between the municipality and the enterprise specified frequency and extent of coverage and types of waste to be collected (i.e., residential street waste, street cleaning, industrial services). These oversized trucks come into the city, collect unsorted garbage on streets that are paved and accessible, and leave to dispose of garbage in a landfill. This system breeds improper waste disposal by the citizens of Lota and the company; lack of community engagement in the cleanup process; and aggravation of the problem after the February earthquake, when even more people had to move into temporary housing.

Chatarreros perform recycling activities in Lota

Additionally, a number of people – chatarreros – make their living in the informal waste recycling sector. The groups involved include door-to-door collectors, formal waste collectors, street scavengers, and the traders and dealers in waste materials. Such recycling activities are not well integrated into the solid waste collection and disposal system of Lota. Municipality can improve the management of their solid waste through decentralizing, working at community level and integrating the informal system with the formal system.

Human society sustains itself by transforming nature into garbage

Crab in a garbage pile on the beach of Lota. Photo by: Alëna Konyk

A major challenge in Lota’s solid waste sector is that many tons of solid waste collected are improperly disposed of in open dumps that do not meet sanitary standard. In addition, there seems to be little active management over what is dumped, how it is treated, and what fees are collected.

Some of the social costs associated with improper waste disposal include the contamination of both surface and groundwater due to contact with fermented garbage, the spread of disease through handling material without sanitary precautions, proliferation of unhealthy bacteria, frequent fires, infestation of rodents, and uncontrolled population of stray animals.

A fun afternoon with children of Escuela Adventista: revisited

Interviews with the students of Escuela Adventista reflected their concern with the lack of waste management in the city. They feel powerless and lack information or incentive on proper disposal of waste. Since children will ultimately be the decision makers for the community, teaching personal responsibility for solid waste early on can only benefit Lota in later years.

Ideal City: A city without waste ("sin basura"). The question that we asked was "What is your ideal city?" Children filled two sheets of paper with many wonderful features of Lota, including its outstanding parks and beaches. However, about half of the responses featured phrases "sin contaminacion" and "sin basura". Children – the future of Lota – are concerned with the amount of waste on the streets of their city.

Piles of garbage on the streets of Lota. Photo by: Alëna Konyk

Lota: historia y fuerza que nos mueve (“History and force that moves us.”)

This phrase has been Lota’s motto for many years, and it definitely reflects the richness of culture and an inexhaustible passion, enthusiasm, and strength of its people. Despite economic challenges, Lota has great potential for resiliency. Children of Lota have a strong sense of civic and cultural pride, which is reflected in their stories and collages. The city also has great treasure chest of natural resources, which just needs to be unlocked.

Park of Lota with its abundance of greenery. Photo by: Alëna Konyk

People of Lota have a strong sense of civic and cultural pride. Photo by: Michelle Hotchin

 Biomimicry and Life’s Principles

UPD: An updated Life's Principles Circle from Biomimicry Group, 2011

In the last post describing the reasearch phase of Balanza Verde Project, I have spoken about Be locally attuned and responsive and Evolve to survive strategies. Here, it is most appropriate to talk about Adapt to changing conditions (the red segment) through the lens of my project.

Incorporate diversity

A long term-solution will employ a well organized recycling centre, bringing formal and informal waste management systems together and fostering education programs for the community. This will allow for diverse communities to self-organize, meeting one ultimate goal of sustainable waste management of the city of Lota. These include:

  • Chatarreros – people with experience and connections in the informal sector of waste management can bring much knowledge, skills, and business opportunities to the formal sector. These include proper recycling techniques, transactions with refurbishing/recycling companies, collection methods.
  • Residents of Lota – people, who are willing to participate in a pilot program, get engaged with local schools, spread the word.
  • Artists in residence – creatives, who are willing to undertake projects in transfer stations, incorporating materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. This initiative has a potential to grow into yearly festivals and community events.
  • Teachers and students – professors willing to engage their students in various projects, including composting, garden planting, school-wide old clothes/items funds, art projects.
  • Municipality – The municipal government must actively engage on all levels of waste collection, foster and support education programs, and choose an appropriate waste collection company to collaborate with on the above described initiatives (HIMCE Ltd., perhaps?)

Embody resilience through variation, redundancy, and decentralization

The development of transfer stations to decentralize the process of collecting garbage and engage the community in waste management system, must be guided by the following design principles:

  • Social, economic, and technological compatibility to the given region. These include the high standard quarters (where modern villas prevail – these are few in Lota); average standard quarters (where buildings with several apartments prevail); temporary housing quarters (where dwellings are mainly isolated houses or multi-dwelling houses – these are not built according to urban planning).
  • Motivational role in the community. This is when artists in residence program, school initiatives, and municipal engagement are absolutely vital for this program to be successful.
  • Inclusionary location in relation to the given community. Presently,  waste collection service is relatively low or nonexistent in temporary housing quarters. MSW management consists mainly of waste collection and transportation to dumpsites, the rest is dumped on the roadsides, beaches, and other unsuitable locations. The distance between houses and garbage collection sites affects domestic disposal behaviour. Depending on the housing standard of the quarter, houses can be reached only by an unpaved road or a track that become inaccessible during wet season. Access to all kinds of houses is difficult in all quarters of Lota. The transfer station should be located near the epicenter of the population to be served, and near a major route to the destination landfill or recycling facility. For areas with temporary housing, where garbage collection service is not feasible, the transfer station should be established as a service for residents, so that they do not have to carry their waste along unpaved, dangerous roads.

Maintain integrity through self-renewal

Appropriate designation of already present building to establish transfer station in may be appropriate for saving construction costs. The station may be more readily accepted by the local residents due to more organic integration into the landscape. It will also help revive the region through a purposeful healing and improvement of the system, rather than building it from scratch.

Present and suggested waste management systems for Lota. Diagram: Alëna Konyk

The next post will further unravel Life’s Principles. Specifically, Use life-friendly chemistry and be resource efficient strategies through a project I further developed with the help o the students of Escuela Adventista.