Monday, May 4, 2009

I Want This Town to Make it Work.

I want this town to make it work.

The town is San Andreas Ixtapa, Guatemala. It's 45 minutes from Antigua. Its population is 19,000 (including the nine surrounding villages).

A man, Luis, runs a waste collection business in San Andreas Ixtapa. He goes from house to house, two times per week, and picks up the trash with his ridiculously strong assistant, Hilverto (photo, right). One day, as Hilverto picked up the trash, I ran up to the truck and asked if I could take pictures. Luis said okay. I then asked if I could see their operation. After trying to put me off (no, I don´t mind flies. no, I don´t mind smells), he agreed to bring me to his dump site. Here is what transpired.

After making his collection rounds through town, Luis drives us in his big, white truck (full of waste) out to his farm ten minutes to the south side of town. There, I watch as his son throws bags of trash out the back of the truck. Luis and Hilverto tear the bags apart, pulling out plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal, and other bulky items. The piles of stuff around the farm indicate other gleanings: big plastic jugs strung together; an old banner casting shade next to the tin shack; I even see a stack of cardboard egg crates smooshed together.

It is the usual trash scene: Flies buzz. The dogs nose through open bags. I ask Luis the hardest part of the job. He replies with his finger, pointing to a bag of raw chicken thrown away by vendors in the market. Looking into a bag of rotting flesh, I agree: this is gross. (And no, Luis and Hilverto are not wearing gloves or any semblance of safety gear.) Anything that does not get gleaned out of the bags of trash gets raked into the ravine behind the trash pile.

Once upon a time, Luis went to the effort of segregating organic materials and throwing them in a hole. He climbs into some bushes and brings out a handful of rich earth, and explains how compost works. His hole of compost is filled, and he no longer segregates organics.

I wrap up the tour. Luis washes his hands and escorts me to the bottom of the hill. As we walk, we talk about his options. Luis charges 20 Q ($2.40 USD) per month for this service. He feels he cannot increase his charges because people will either switch to the other service in town (the municipality, which doesn´t even acknowledge his presence), or households will begin to dump their waste directly in the river.

He is a committed dude, trying to get the recyclables out of the waste stream, but he has been doing this work -- by hand -- for ten years. I think he is tired. Commited, but tired. I mention that in some cities, trash collection costs money while recycling is free.

What if... (his eyes lit up and he continued the thought for me)...

...he increased costs to 25 Q per month for people who continued to throw trash away, but offered ¨reduced¨ charges of 20 Q a month for people that segregated recycling? That would not only keep his revenue generation steady (or increased), but would also yield greater segregation rates at the front end.

My mind was spinning with visions.

This town could be the poster child for recycling in Central America. He could paint his truck with "we recycle" and have a mural depicting the different recycled materials. The city could host waste management conferences. The town could take pride in having clean rivers. Kids could participate in neighborhood cleanups every month. They could apply math skills by participating in a waste sort (where they would separate and weigh the waste stream, then create pie charts representing the waste composition). Antigua, 45 minutes away, full of well-meaning do-good travelers; they would eat it up (ie: ¨Tour The Town That Recycles for Ten Dollars¨). Residents would like living in a cleaner city that had clean rivers (see photo, right, showing the current state of the river, chock full of plastics and trash). Crops would grow better with locally produced compost.

Oh this could be good.

But it just needs someone to bring it all together.

There's a Peace Corps Volunteer in San Andreas Ixtapa. She's motivated (she just started her first worm bin). She's got her hands full with a lot of other projects (Sustainable Agriculture Marketing). But maybe this waste management angle will develop. I wrote up ten pages of notes and ideas. Like any good community project, the driving force can't be her; it has to be the community. Whether they want cleaner rivers, more eco-tourism, or lower fees, this town could make it work.... if the town wants to make it work.

G´luck, Sara. G´luck, Luis. G´luck San Andreas Ixtapa. Keep me posted.

1 comment:

Joanne said...

Loving your blogs. Keep up the good work!