Perspectives and experiences in waste management in Latin America, a view from sustainable transitions

Thinking & Analysis

The Latin American and Caribbean Hub of Transformative Innovation Policy resumed its series of webinars with “Perspectives and experiences in waste management in Latin America, a view from sustainable transitions” on June 2nd. This event was led by Hub member the r Alianza EFI Team (Alliance for Inclusive Formal Economy) and their guests from Argentina: Lucas Becerra from the Open Innovation Laboratory and Circular Economy LabI&EC, David Alejandro Mej√≠a and Maria Laura Guanoluisa from the National Network of Waste Pickers of Ecuador RENAREC. The webinar addressed waste management in Latin America, which is the central theme of the Alianza EFI experiment, and discussed different perspectives on the construction of a more sustainable and inclusive process for the system.

One of the most important features of the three cases is their new vision of innovation and technological development, and its capacity to face environmental and social challenges. Schot & Steinmueller (2016) emphasize the need for Innovation and Technological Development to address the social and environmental challenges of today, and not only focus on economic growth, generation of knowledge and competitiveness as conventional policy frameworks of Science, Technology and Innovation has done previously. The three experiments centre the work of waste pickers and recyclers, and seek inclusion and care mechanisms that allow for changing the socio-technical system of waste disposal. Innovation and technology play an important role in carrying out these new methods of organization and market structures, but they are an integral part of a solution that goes beyond artefacts and technique.

The complexity of the problem

Social and environmental problems are naturally complex. The waste management system is composed of multiple sources of waste generation – including homes, industries, companies, public spaces and residential groups – amounting to 4.4, 11 and 16.5 million tons of waste per year in Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina, respectively. Beyond the challenges posed by the generation of waste on this scale, encouraged by an unsustainable lifestyles and consumption, the social and market relations that dominate the current waste management system add greater complexity to the problem. There converge formal and informal actors that also are heterogeneous and with different motivations, some from the market, employability and income generation. The technological and regulatory components are essential in the mediation and operation of these relationships. As Lucas Becerra explains, the Circular Economy (EC) emerges as an alternative for waste management, moving from a linear use of natural resources for production and human consumption to a vision that aims to regenerate natural capital, optimize available resources and manage the externalities associated with economies of sharing. However, the speakers agreed that this approach is limited to address the problem, in figure 1, the analysis proposed by LabI&EC.

The limitations of CE and the advantages of the socio-technical systems approach

Amongst the greatest challenges of sustainable transitions are changing behaviour patterns and relationships that mediate everyday life practices, as well as impact at the systemic level. Multiple reflections are derived from this. The construction of new waste management schemes implies new relationships between the various actors, which may involve new technologies, valuation mechanisms and market, as well as regulatory frameworks. The first question that arises is, how the change starts? Who is leading this change? Is regulatory or policy change enough to overcome this complex problem?

The three experiences emphasize the social component as a factor for change from the base. The Alianza EFI team highlights the health and dignity component of street recyclers as a key element of change in its transformative innovation experiment, which hopes to identify new forms of relationship between the source and the recycler. On the other hand, the LabI&EC of Argentina indicates as a starting point the recognition and appreciation of practices and meanings of circularity in grassroots associative experiences. These can be systematized and allow the co-design of new forms of organization, work and waste management. From this perspective, new market players have emerged, as well as R&D opportunities for non-market materials and associated regulatory adjustments. Finally, RENAREC, in the voice of Maria Laura, a street recycler, gathers the experience of the Network of Grassroots Recyclers as a solution to the solid waste management model in Ecuador, collecting from all sources, transporting, classifying and intermediating in industry, as shown in figure 2.

The three case studies also draw attention to the importance of public policy to facilitate these changes: Ecuador’s case study being the most advanced with new, inclusive solid waste management regulation, which integrates grassroots recyclers into both its creation and operationalization.

Two of the three speakers used a research-focused approach working with the relevant communities. RENAREC applied their experience from practice, and how it can achieve a transformation of the system from their work with waste pickers and recyclers. This is important for two reasons: First, it contrasts with the more technical and technology-focused vision of the CE. Second, it shows how actors not linked to traditional institutions of knowledge generation and innovation can be protagonists in transformation processes.

How transformative are these experiences?

The case studies present a challenge and demonstrate how to achieve systemic changes in waste management, although they do not replace the system with a radically new one. This is defined as “adjust and conform” in transition processes. The primary factor of change across these experiments is inclusion, which allows for integrating, recognizing and legitimizing the practice of the grassroots recycler, reconfiguring them as an actor with an agency in the system. From this, changes are triggered in the perception of both waste pickers and their trade, as well as in the workplaces, homes and industries that validate and establish relationships with this actor. This impacts the remuneration, formalization, safety and health conditions associated with the exercise of recycling activities. New roles can then appear in the market, intermediating with the waste collection and processing companies – the formal components of the dominant system. New roles also appear associated with the valuation of new products and classified waste. These changes are reflected and consolidated in new legislation and public policy. Perhaps, it is pertinent to understand a little more when the policy “protects” and “nurtures” these initiatives and the underlying process. These are two cornerstone processes of sustainable transitions, which may be explored in a future webinar.

The video of this webinar can be found here.

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