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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

South African Waste Pickers on a Zero Waste Tour

 South African Waste Pickers are amongst those organized communities that have turned the tide of their role in the waste management systems. Since the creation of their national organization SAWPA – the South African Waste Pickers Association with the support of groundWork in 2009, their empowerment as the de facto recycling system in South Africa has reached important political milestones and it keeps expanding. Their latest step: undertaking a Zero Waste Tour in Europe to learn about organic waste treatment, visiting the Zero Waste Best Practices in Gipuzkoa (Basque Country, Spain) and sharing their story of collective organizing with the informal recyclers in Barcelona.

Management of organics, a key pillar for zero waste success

The Zero Waste Tour started in Donosti with the International Training Course on Organics Management, which addressed the management of the organic fractions of waste, including collection and treatment. It also included a site-visit to the door-to-door collection system of Hernani and a composting facility plant. As it was pointed out by one of the trainees Enzo Favoino, Chair of the Zero Waste Europe Scientific Committee, specific collection and treatment of biowaste is a must to move towards zero waste.

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SAWPA delegation visited the community composting facilities in Hernani, Basque Country. Photo: María Durán

“With recycling of packaging we only go halfway”, Favoino argued. Biowaste still makes a significant part of the total municipal solid waste and therefore ambitious zero waste plans cannot be reached by collecting and treating only dry waste. “SAWPA supports a zero waste approach as it creates jobs, saves public money, and it combats climate change”, said Simon Mbata, national spokesperson for SAWPA. “Organic waste is a critical waste stream within a zero waste approach but it’s not included in the South Africa’s Waste Act (2008), so coming to this training it’s been really useful to start developing organic waste strategies back home,” he added.

 

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The training was organized by Zero Waste Europe and the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa and it gathered zero waste groups from all over Europe, a representative from China Zero Waste Alliance and SAWPA. Photo: María Durán.

 

First international meeting of waste pickers in Barcelona

Moving on to Catalonia, one of the most striking activities of the Zero Waste Tour was the meeting with the local waste pickers in Barcelona, most of them involved in the Cal Africa Moving cooperative. This was the first time that an international delegation of waste pickers visited Barcelona and so it was a key opportunity to exchange notes on working conditions and strategies for collective organizing to improve and demand recognition for their valuable work. Together with researchers from Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA), Research & Degrowth, Zero Waste Europe and GAIA, representatives from SAWPA and Cal Africa Moving joined for a whole day of strategy talks culminating in the public event “Informal recycling: ecological alternatives and socials rights” that opened up the debate in Barcelona about the inclusion of recyclers in the waste management system in the city.

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The meeting of SAWPA with informal recyclers in Barcelona was an opportunity to discuss strategies for collective organizing and recognize the social, economical and environmental contribution of recyclers.

Those conversations stressed the need to recognise the environmental and social contribution of recyclers to resource recovery and job creation. They collect, sort, clean and in some cases, process the recyclables, returning them to industry as an inexpensive and low-carbon raw material. Essentially, their work represents a huge opportunity to save resources and reduce GHG emissions through increased recycling rates, if given the proper recognition and support.

Precisely, one of the obstacles for the expansion of recyclers’ activities that were discussed in the meeting was the role of the intermediate positions in the trade channels of resources (commonly known as the ‘middle men’), which in Barcelona corresponds to some enterprises that maintain a privileged position over the street waste pickers and the scrap market. Moreover, for many recyclers in Barcelona, this obstacle is aggravated by their migrant situation and lack of resident or working permit, running the risk to be detained and deported.

“In South Africa we have received many brothers and sisters from our neighbouring countries and we have welcomed everyone in our organization, which in turn it’s linked to many other waste pickers cooperatives around the world,” said Simon Mbata. “Our Global Alliance of Waste Pickers is a key space to strengthen the international coordination and solidarity amongst waste pickers”, he added.

Cartel GAIA ING

 

The public event celebrated in Can Batlló was a chance to bring these conversations on to the open space, giving a chance to bring forward many interested suggestions such as generating a census of recyclers in Barcelona and providing identity cards to enable their formalisation. The Fundació Catalana per a la Prevenció de Residus i Consum pointed out the challenge posed by the recycling of e-waste and the need for quality standards to improve the recyclability of products. Other participants lamented that the administration has implemented an extremely expensive waste management system, considering the low recycling rates in the city, and the consumer misinformation that hinders recycling at source and other good practices. Ultimately, there seemed to be much support to integrate the informal recycling into the formal system and take that as an opportunity to re-evaluate and transform the way of handling waste in Barcelona.

Audio of the public event available here: https://soundcloud.com/bcallen/mesa-de-debate-el-reciclaje-informal

 

 

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The event ‘Informal recycling: ecological alternative and social rights´took place in Can Batlló. Photo: Blanca Callén

 

Last but not least, SAWPA met with a Barcelona City Council-led working group that is coordinating the start-up of a cooperative of recyclers in the city. Apart from learning the details of the project, it was a useful chance to exchange experiences and local knowledge. On the basis of their experience in the field, SAWPA warned about the potential division amongst communities of waste pickers if the new cooperative would not involve all of them and suggested the direct inclusion of waste pickers in all the phases of development of the project. On this point, SAWPA and Zero Waste Europe agreed it’s fundamental to create a working group with all the relevant stakeholders that can accompany this process.

All in all, it was a very productive and fruitful week, taking another step forward towards the transformation of our society with more inclusive, sustainable, toxic-free and resource-efficient waste management systems.

 


Reporting the International Training on Organics Management


The International Training Course on Organics Management took place last 13-14 October in Donosti (Basque Country, Spain) and it was an excellent opportunity to address the management of the organic fractions of waste, including collection and treatment. The course intended to empower policy makers, waste managers and activists by providing them with relevant tools and knowledge on biowaste management. The course counted with participation of waste or other environmental NGO activists, representatives of local authorities and policy makers from the Basque country, the rest of Spain, France, Italy, South Africa and China.

Three trainers Dr Marco Ricci, Dr Enzo Favoino and Dr Alberto Confalonieri, from the Scuola Agraria del Parco di Monza provided relevant knowledge and illustrative examples of separate collection and treatment of biowaste in Italy and Europe. Besides, the course included a site-visit to Hernani, and one to a centralised compost site.

 

The importance of treating the organic fraction separately

Enzo Favoino showed that a specific collection and treatment of biowaste is a must to move towards zero waste: “With packaging recycling we only go halfway”, he argued. Biowaste still makes a significant part of the total municipal solid waste and, so ambitious zero waste plans cannot be reached by collecting and treating only dry waste.

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Organic waste is one of the most challenging waste streams due to its polluting capacity when mixed with other waste streams. Yet it offers a great potential to become a solution to climate change and soil degradation if separated, collected and treated properly.

 

The main advantages of treating biowaste that are mostly linked to climate change: GHG emission reduction as a result of less landfilling or incinerating biowaste, the possibility of sequestrating carbon in the soil and of preventing the degradation of the soil. At the same time, treating biowaste specifically was shown to be the best way to meet EU objectives of landfill diversion, while proves that incineration is not needed.

One of the current best practices in Europe is found in the Contarina district in Northern Italy, the European champion of separate collection and residual waste reduction. On the contrary, the case of Majorca, claiming to have the biggest incineration facility of Southern Europe, showed the implications of having an incinerator that needs to be fed. Other bad examples arose from the public, such as that of Tenerife or South Africa, where incineration plants are planned.

 

Separate collection schemes: the simpler, the better.

Dr Marco Ricci-Jürgensen’s session dealt with the elements to be considered when designing separate collection schemes: the main elements to be taken into account and the pros and the cons of each of them, including different collection systems and policy instruments to implement biowaste collection.

Among these instruments, the door-to-door collection system was argued to be the most efficient because it raises the share of separate collection and reduces significantly the presence of contaminant elements in the different fractions. Other policy instruments underlined were the pay-as-you-throw schemes (PAYT), permitting to establish a direct link between waste production and the cost of the service. The session concluded that on the light of the different implementation options, seems clear that the simpler, the better it tends to work.

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Dr Marco Ricci, Dr Enzo Favoino and Dr Alberto Confalonieri, from the Scuola Agraria del Parco di Monza provided relevant knowledge and illustrative examples of separate collection and treatment of biowaste in Italy and Europe. Photo: Mariel Vilella

 

 

“There is no perfect solution and any system must be adapted to the local situation” said Marco Ricci. “However, it is crucial to have stakeholders involved to make the transition towards zero waste work. In this sense, environmental NGOs, agricultural sectors and citizens (waste producers) must be involved and informed of the changes.”

Milan was presented as one successful example of implementation of biowaste collection. The city with 1,5 million inhabitants and densely inhabited, has recently introduced door-to-door collection of biowaste and has reached its objectives after 6 weeks. Another different and interesting example was Castelbuono, an old town with medieval structure in Sicily, where the logistics of collecting biowaste were complicated and they started collecting biowaste with donkeys. After all, it was proven that no matter what challenges are faced by any given municipality, there is always a feasible way to collect biowaste.

 

Garden waste: a chance for community compost.

Garden waste is also an important waste stream within the general biowaste. The session led by Dr Favoino focused on home and community composting and the reality of these systems across Europe.

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Hernani zero waste strategy has a strong emphasis in promoting community composting. Household participating in the scheme receive up to 40% reduction in their tax bill. Photo: María Durán.

 

Community composting is usually a parallel element to public management, but it may be also a very good substitute to collection in isolated or remote areas, as it has no cost of collection and treatment. However, the fact of changing the ownership of the discards may challenge the existing legislation. For instance, in Bulgaria they have adapted their legislation and included community composting as “decentralized composting” with no need of administrative approval, as long as it does not exceed 10m3 annual compost.

 

 

Site-visit to Hernani

The group also had a chance to visit the Zero Waste Best Practices of Hernani, one of the forefront towns in the Zero Waste movement in Gipuzkoa. Hernani decided in 2010 to implement a door-to-door collection system with specific collection of biowaste, but it was not until 2013 when the community composting in urban areas was launched. According to the civil servant in charge of waste, the system is working and they have succeeded in reducing residual waste by 60%. They are still committed to keep on improving and they are looking for the ways of overcoming the 90% separate collection. The system in Hernani has proved to be successful and has today 14 employees, when it had 3 in 2010. This is also a part of the success story in a country with high unemployment rates. See the full case study here.

 

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The site visit to Hernani was a useful opportunity to see the successful implementation of a door-to-door collection system with special emphasis on domestic and community composting facilities. Photo: Diana Osuna.

 

The nitty-gritty details of composting

The following sessions got down to the nitty-gritty elements of composting, covering the biological process of transforming biowaste into compost and the main technologies for composting, as well as the options for treating odours.

Again, it was stressed that the best technique is the one defined for a precise situation and specific needs. “Composting is in fact a very versatile process so, it permits small-scale low-tech facilities to large industrialized and centralized facilities, said Dr Alberto Contalonieri. For example, weather conditions or the fact of being a rural or an urban area may affect the decision of having an open or a closed systems or a dynamic or a static one.

Dr Enzo Favoino talked about the use of compost as a natural fertilizer, explaining the positive effects of compost both for the soil and for the vegetables produced. The presence of organic matter reduces the soil loss by one third, while increases substantially the presence of earthworms. These work as a natural indicator of the health of the soils. At the same time, the use of compost as natural fertilizer reduces the percentage of vegetables with diseases at their roots. With half of Europe suffering from a situation of pre-desertification in terms of the presence of organic matter in the soil, the use of compost is a very good way to close the loop and tackle this situation. Dr Favoino underlined other benefits of compost, such as its slow-release of Nitrogen, which permits to avoid Nitrogen losses during heavy rainfalls and that an eventually excess derives into nitrates.

 

Site-visit to Lapatx centralised composting facility

The afternoon we visited the Lapatx centralised composting facility, in the Aizpeitia municipality. The director of the plant along with the director of the provincial waste consortium in charge of it presented the different problems they had with the plant. It was an excellent way of applying the concepts learned in the morning to the decision-making process and to see why the facility was not properly designed. In this sense, while they were supposed to cover the demand of the whole province, the former government expected to collect a small amount of organic waste because they intended to build an incineration facility. However, the change of government stopped the incinerator and required of adapting the Lapatx composting centre to allocate larger amounts of biowaste.

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Site-visit to Lapatx composting facility Aizpeitia municipality. Photo: María Durán.

 

Today Lapatx works in full performance but suffers from the problems of an initial bad design: it is very small and has an inappropriate shape; the upload of biowaste takes place in a slope; the machine opening the bags was originally designed to open packaging, etc. However, in the near future, two new facilities will be opened in Gipuzkoa with the duty of complementing Lapatx.

 

An experience to be repeated!

This training course was the first of its kind within the Zero Waste Europe and it proved to be a perfect opportunity to learn the rationale behind separation of organic waste at source, and the logistics and economics of separate collection of biowaste systems. The site-visits allowed the direct observation of how a zero waste system can work, with full details of the main challenges and opportunities. The participants were very satisfied of this experience and look forward to further training programmes.