CoLab Project Spotlight: Recycling Cooperatives in South and Central America

CoLab Project Spotlight: Recycling Cooperatives in South and Central America

The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is a center for planning and development within MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help improve livelihoods and strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice.

This blog will periodically feature CoLab project spotlights in an effort to increase idea exchange and collaboration on these projects.

CoLab’s Libby McDonald and MIT students work with local recycling experts on Corn Island in Nicaragua to do a waste sort as part of data collection for determining how to reform Corn Island’s trash collection route.

"I went to a meeting of business owners and government officials in Sao Paulo," says CoLab’s Libby McDonald, "and the businesses were saying, 'We can’t really figure out how to work with the wastepicking cooperatives. How do we ensure that they do regular pick ups? How do we know if they'll even come when they say they will?' And then right after, I went to a meeting with the Sao Paulo Union of Catadores (Wastepickers), and they said, "How are we going to handle the additional tonnage coming from these companies?'"

Brazil recently passed a law mandating that businesses recycle a certain percentage of their waste. The government strongly encouraged businesses to hire informal recycling cooperatives to get the job done.

McDonald coordinates the Green Grease project in Brazil and a similar project in Nicaragua with these informal recycling cooperatives. Working in partnership with them, she assembles teams of students from various MIT departments to research the issues in question and then brings the students to Brazil and Nicaragua to work on-site developing waste management plans.

The key question that these projects seek to answer is: How can informal cooperatives scale up and develop a business model that allows them to work directly with private sector companies and local governments?

McDonald identifies a few important challenges in answering that question:

  • Local governments don’t always recognize informal recycling cooperatives, which provide a legitimate public service. The cooperatives want to be recognized for the services they provide.
  • There is a capacity challenge. The same people who corner the market on local recycling knowledge may not know how to read and write; nonetheless, we need to figure out together how to best manage these businesses.
  • From the MIT end, it is difficult to raise money to cover costs associated with these projects.
  • It’s no simple challenge to figure out how to establish waste-to-energy and recycling businesses. The problem incorporates social issues, class issues, environmental issues, and a business challenge.

A key element, McDonald has discovered, is trust. In Sao Paulo, local recycling cooperatives are agile and timely in collecting household waste and processing it. But when it comes to working with hotels and other private companies, there is a disconnect. The relationships aren’t there, and although the cooperative is capable of doing the work, they are almost never hired to do it.