Explore Stories of Zero Waste Around the World
Catalina is a member of the cooperative El Amanecer de los Cartoneros (“Sunrise of Informal Recyclers”), which organizes 3500 out of the 5300 recyclers registered in the city. She arrives in Palermo neighborhood at 6 pm with her co-workers. As people descend from the buses and get their big-bags they chat, smoke, and make jokes. Catalina is one of the oldest in the group. Her big-bag is in better shape than others, and she acknowledges that: “my colleagues save the best big-bags for me, they are very kind to me”. Armed with her big bag, Catalina makes the trek to her collecting area.
She’s been working as a recycler for 18 years. She started, as most of them, when an economic crisis hit Argentina in 2001 and led thousands of people to find a living in collecting recyclables. She began working with one of her sons and her granddaughters, but when the policies to eradicate child labour were put in place she continued by herself.
Catalina has been working in this area for four years. She speaks with every doormen who brings her the recyclables. Everyone knows her. “It’s not heavy for me because the doormen help me, they are very nice.” She says she enjoys her work, and that seems quite clear when you see her work. “I am 64 years old, I should be at home. But I like this job. I enjoy coming with my colleagues, talking with the doormen or the doorwomen. It’s not hard, and it’s not like coming and having people look down upon me.” Having a uniform, credentials and working tools represents a major change in the working conditions of informal recyclers, both in terms of safety and also for citizens to recognize them as workers.
The cooperative has agreed to a new system with the government that avoids using pushcarts, because the government doesn’t want to have people pushing carts on the streets. Each recycler collects materials with his or her big-bag, which is later picked up by a truck. The system is challenging, as many recyclers have seen their working area now limited to a few blocks, hence the amount of materials they can collect has reduced.
The big-bags include a label with the big-bag number, route number and name of the recycler, to register the amount of kilograms that each recycler collects, which will translate into the payment at the end of the month.
The cooperative has developed an app for each recycler to keep track of the amount of materiales they collect. There is also a dual control of the weighting process every day, both by a delegate of each recyclers group, and by a government staff.
The trucks collect all the big-bags and take them to the “green center” or materials recovery facility (MRF) for processing, (separating the different recyclables and baling them to sale to the recycling industry).
The group’s delegate participates in the weighting process and reports the data to the recyclers the following day. According to the government, there are 15 materials recovery facilities in Buenos Aires, although that number includes a variety of places. Three of them are mechanized, so the separation of the different materials is partly manual and partly through the use of technology. The Barracas “Green Center” is one of them.
260 people work there in three shifts and the place processes materials collected by 1,800 recyclers. In the plant, a multiplicity of scenes happen in parallel: as some workers -mostly women- classify materials in the belts, a supervisor looks at the machines’ performance indicators in her tablet, others organize the big bags that still need to be emptied, and in the outside yard, as a huge truck enters full of big bags, a group of three drink “mate” under the sun, and another group organizes the bales that will be sold to the recycling industry.
It is operated by the cooperative El Amanecer de los Cartoneros with assistance from the government and the company that monitors and maintains the equipment. Under this system co-managed by the government and the cooperatives, this state-of-the-art technology is not run by a private company but by the same people who found a living in collecting recyclables, and put the recycling system into motion in the first place.
The first legal recognition of the informal recyclers took place in 2002, when they were recognized as providers of a public service, and the law mandated to organize a census of informal recyclers and provide them credentials and uniforms. Since then, recyclers have developed a know-how and have a strong organizing experience that is reflected in the current system.
The system of recycling with social inclusion is framed under specific legislation and a more general “zero waste” law that sets goals to gradually reduce waste to landfill. While the laws are initially good, they haven’t been enforced and thus the current system is a result of constant conflict. In 2018, the Buenos Aires government modified the Zero Waste law – that originally banned waste incineration until 75% reduction was achieved- to include waste-to-energy incineration as a possible treatment option, which puts at risk all the progress made.
In addition to the local struggle to be recognized as formal recycling workers, the informal recyclers are part of a larger effort to defend their rights as workers in the “popular economy”. This big picture organizing is crystallized so far in two major organizations. One is the Federación Argentina de Cartoneros, Carreros y Recicladores (FACCyR, Argentine Federation of Informal Recyclers), which advocates for the sector country-wide, and promotes the implementation of public recycling systems, co-managed by the government and the informal recyclers. The other one is the Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (CTEP, or Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy), a union that represents workers who are not part of the formal economy, including street vendors, rural workers, low-scale textile workers and informal recyclers. CTEP is striving to be legally recognized as a union, just like any union of the formal economy, but representing the popular economy. El Amanecer de los Cartoneros is part of both the Federation and the Union, and has been the main driver for the organization of informal recyclers cooperatives at national level.
As described by a worker of one of the materials recovery facilities, the struggle began supporting recyclers that were put in jail for collecting recyclables, under the argument that waste was a property of the government. Although the city had no recycling system at all, it objected to people making a living from collecting recyclables, even though they were performing a critical service for the city by reducing the amount of waste being landfilled. By organizing to build collective power, the recyclers won that fight, and they were able to be formally recognized as workers and contracted by the government for their service. As one recycler put it, “If CEAMSE (the company that transports waste to the landfill and operates it) is paid, then we should get paid too.”
The inclusion of informal recyclers in Zero Waste policies is about more than just the collecting of recyclables: It’s about safeguarding the right of formal recyclers to a dignified livelihood. Thanks to the organizing work of El Amanecer de los Cartoneros, they have a contract with the government to run three child-care centers, and a training center for children of recyclers with addiction problems to finish high-school and learn jobs like carpentry, and blacksmithing.
Though the movement has made great strides in the past decades, there are still recyclers who are not part of cooperatives, and do not have access to the same rights. Now movement leaders are lending their expertise to help organize these recyclers, and are working with other municipalities to set up Zero Waste systems that center around workers rights and inclusion.
Fertile Soil: Growing the Movement for Zero Food Waste in Boston
The word “cero” in spanish means “zero,” and that’s the focus of this composting cooperative in Boston: moving the city towards zero food waste, and building stronger, more equitable communities in the process. The seeds of CERO were first planted at a meeting where local community members gathered to discuss how to improve recycling rates and create good jobs for marginalized communities. At the time Boston had an abysmal recycling and waste diversion rate of under 25%, and according to a 2015 study by the federal reserve bank of boston, white households had a median wealth of $247,500, and Dominicans and U.S. blacks had a median wealth of close to zero. CERO sought to combat that economic injustice head on by creating a diverse, bi-langual worker co-op connected with Boston’s working class and communities of color.
As worker-owner Josefina Luna says, “We started to think about green economy. The media talk[ed] all the time about green economy but we didn’t see any green jobs in our community… The first idea [was to] create jobs for the community, create better social development for the minority people, for the people who didn’t have the opportunities.” When the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection enacted a ban in 2014 that prohibits over 1,700 food businesses in the state from disposing of organic material with their trash, CERO was there to provide the solution.
The beauty of CERO is that it creates local “closed loop” systems for food, so that instead of disposing of food waste in dirty landfills that people have to live next to, they ensure that food is recycled back into soil that grows nourishing food for the community. And the model is working. So far the cooperative has prevented 11,867,122 lbs of food waste from going to landfills, and saved their customers $407,570 in trash hauling expenses!
A day in the life of a CERO worker-owner starts early. At 7am, Jonny Santos pulls up to his first customer.
Jonny is originally from the Dominican Republic and primarily speaks spanish. Of his work with CERO, Jonny explains, “It’s been 1 year and 5 months since I’ve been with CERO and since I joined the company my life—both personally and economically— has changed. At CERO I feel important and useful.”
The first stop for Santos is Mei Mei, a stylish Chinese-American restaurant that uses fresh local ingredients and is dedicated to being a good employer for the Boston community, and preventing as much food waste as possible.
Mei Mei is a family business. Meaning “Little Sister,” in Chinese, it is now run by the youngest in the family, Irene Li. From the beginning, the restaurant was on a mission. “For me, I figured that if we were going to be in this tough challenging industry, it would have to be because we were trying to make a difference,” said Li. “We didn’t want to be another average restaurant. A lot of them contribute to a lot of social problems. Can we instead use restaurants as an engine for change?”
“When I got my first restaurant job I was pretty horrified by what I saw on a more commercial scale– recycling wasn’t happening, composting definitely wasn’t happening.” So at Mei Mei they make sure to repurpose food scraps (kale stems too tough for salad become a pesto or a perogi filling), donate what they can’t use, provide free or cheap food to employees through a wholesale program, and then whatever is left over goes into CERO’s compost bin.
Mei Mei and CERO’s partnership represents a perfect food loop– Mei Mei sources some of its produce directly from the very same local farms that use compost from its food waste. CERO makes sure that all those onion peels, carrot tops and apple cores that Mei Mei puts in the bin don’t go to waste, but turn into a rich compost to help grow the next crop of local fresh food that land on Mei Mei customers’ plates.
Mei Mei’s partnership with CERO not only helps grow a local food economy, but it’s helped them keep their costs down. “Not only is that good from a financial perspective, helps us show that you can buy ingredients selectively and still have manageable costs,” says Li. Not only does it make sense financially, it just feels right. It makes Mei Mei a place where people are proud to work,” says Li. “The world makes it very hard to live in alignment with our values, so if we can offer that in any small number of ways to our team that’s providing them some kind of harmony in their lives.”
After picking up food scraps at Mei Mei it’s time to head to Green City Growers. Founded in 2008, Green City Growers is an edible landscaping and urban farming company converting unused spaces to places where food is grown, revitalizing city landscapes and inspiring self-sufficiency. They install gardens in people’s homes, at restaurants, corporate offices, and grocery stores, and other–sometimes unexpected–urban spaces, like the top of Fenway park!
The company was founded by Jessie Banhazl. Banhazl wasn’t always an urban farming extraordinaire– before she founded Green City Growers she worked in reality TV, working behind-the-scenes of shows like “Wife Swap”, “Throwdown with Bobby Flay”, and “The Hills.” But Banhazl wanted a more meaningful career, and she realized that to have a sustainable and resilient cities, they need to, quite literally, go green. As Banhazl puts it, “[Green City Growers] creat[es] opportunities to see food growing in spaces where there wasn’t. It’s proven that it’s important for human beings to be around nature, and cities have moved away from that as a priority. We want to get that back into how cities are developed and built.”
Green City Growers has a goal to create a regenerative, local food system throughout the country, and their partnership with CERO is an essential part of that system. Not only does CERO collect plant waste from over 100 Green City Growers locations, it also delivers the compost made from that waste for Green City Growers to enrich their soil with. Through its partnership with CERO, GCG has been able to compost 50,000 pounds of plant waste per year.
Green City Growers has a bit of an unusual service model. Banhazl calls it “edible landscaping.” GCG takes care of the maintenance, and their clients get to use the fruit of that labor however they like, whether for their cafeteria, restaurant, or corporate donations. Banhazl estimates that 5,000 pounds of produce a year is donated to food banks. They also provide education programs for both students and seniors, exposing city dwellers of all walks of life to the joys of growing your own food.
As Banhazl states, “The intention [of Green City Growers] is to build a business model around sustainable and regenerative agriculture.” They want to change the business culture in the region, so that sustainability “is a priority for how business takes place.”
This wastefulness is all the more shocking when paired with the fact that The Daily Table is out to solve the problem of food waste and food insecurity in the Boston area in one elegant solution– collect donated food from growers, manufacturers and retailers, and offer them at discounted prices to lower income communities.
Stronger Together: How the Waste Picker Movement Transformed Recycling in South Africa
Many years ago, in a small town called Sasolburg approximately 100km from the glitz and glam of Johannesburg, individual waste pickers worked meticulously to pluck the valuable materials from the trash piling up in the local landfill. However, because waste pickers primarily worked alone, there would sometimes be conflict over who got to keep and sell the recyclables. Recognizing that they were stronger together than apart, in 2007 waste pickers in the town decided to work in a cooperative, and now operate the model recycling centre in the country. Because of this strong waste -picker movement, the centre has become a shining example of how central waste -picker rights are to a healthy recycling system.
After successfully negotiating with the local municipality, a neighbourhood of 3000 households were given two bins each to separate their recyclable material for collection by the Vaal Park cooperative. Nationally, informal waste pickers collect 90% of the waste recycled collected from households, saving municipalities R750 million in landfilling fees.
SAWPA members have been providing this invaluable service to their communities for so long that as they make their usual rounds they are greeted as old friends– some residents even wait for their arrival to say hello.
The waste pickers doing the sorting spend most of their day going through the different materials and further separating them by type.
Moeketsi Mamoketse has been working as a waste picker in Sasolburg, Vaalpark recycling centre since September 2017. But she has been Before that she was collecting the recyclable waste on her own at her home. She is now working full time at the Vaalpark recycling centre. Even before she joined the SAWPA cooperative Moeketsi was an avid recycler, separating the waste in her own home. Now she is able to earn a good living doing something that she believes in.
However the work is by no means easy, and while there are successes the cooperative has real challenges as well. Moeketsi and her fellow waste pickers have to spend a lot of time going through materials that have no value for recycling and become destined for the landfill.
Waste branded with the tell-tale Unilever U and other multinational companies are frequent culprits that Moeketsi has to sort out on a daily basis. Moeketsi has some advice for these multi-national brands: “Companies that are producing waste that cannot be recycled should find other ways to produce material have value and will not be a threat to the environment.”
Once Moeketsi and the other recyclers finish sorting the recyclables, the materials are then put in bales and sold to recycling companies to come to the recycling centre, weigh the baled materials and pay the cooperative a rate per kilogram.
In August of this year SAWPA members gathered to celebrate ten years of tireless organizing for worker justice. Once waste pickers in South Africa had to sort the few valuables they found amongst a heap of rubbish, alone. Now because of the strength and wisdom of the SAWPA collective, waste pickers have transformed their neighborhoods, and their livelihoods.
This European City’s Message to the World: “Get Used To Reusing”
In just ten years, Slovenia has become one of the most sustainable countries in the EU. What’s the secret to the country’s meteoric rise? The country’s capital, Ljubljana, has reduced its waste disposal by 59% while keeping costs among the lowest in Europe. Winner of the European Green Capital award in 2016, through its ingenuity and dedication this city has become one of the crown jewels of the Zero Waste Cities movement in the region.
The city owes much of its success to Voka Snaga, the publicly owned company that provides waste management to the city and nine suburban municipalities (361.882 residents). Voka Snaga implemented a door-to-door collection system and a strong communications strategy focused on prevention and reuse to engage citizens.
Then Voka Snaga took a bold step, and collected garbage less often than they collected recyclables and compostables, to encourage residents to better sort their waste so less went to the landfill. At first this caused an uproar, as grumpy residents complained that their waste bins were filling up faster than Snaga was emptying them. But through continued awareness-raising, Voka Snaga showed the community that in order to avoid that full waste bin, they could waste less, and compost and recycle more. Not only did the amount of trash going to landfill plummet, but households saved money, paying 50 euros less for waste management per year compared to the rest of the country.
Although Ljubljana had great success with diverting waste from the landfill, Zero Waste goes way beyond mere waste management. With this understanding, the city has enhanced its waste prevention activities and set the ambitious target of halving its residual waste by 2025. In 2013 Voka Snaga launched a campaign called, “Get Used to Reusing,” encouraging residents not to reuse instead of buying throwaway products.
Together with multiple government agencies, Snaga opened a Reuse Center in Ljubljana, one of eight in the country.
These centers are a mecca for anything from high heeled shoes to salt and pepper shakers, and also provide a place of employment for disadvantaged populations like the elderly and the disabled.
The demand for Zero Waste alternatives has caught on in other parts of Slovenia as well, paving the way for thriving small businesses with a focus on both beauty and sustainability. Fifty kilometers north of Ljubljana in the sleepy little town of Bled nestled in the heart of the Alps, travelers will find Slovenia’s first Zero Waste hostel, Hotel Ribno.
After 10 years of bold experimentation, the city of Ljubljana has achieved some great strides towards Zero Waste. Total waste generation decreased by 15%, the recycled or composted waste average went up to 61% and the amount of waste sent to landfill decreased by 59%. Through the vision and leadership of GAIA member Zero Waste Slovenia and the ever-present support of GAIA’s Europe branch, Zero Waste Europe, the city of Ljubljana has shown that when it comes to waste, less is more.
The city once again pulsates. Where before there was gloom, now there is also hope. If you look around, you will now see smiling faces, children playing, pets roaming, people going about their daily chores—typical scenes in a typical Philippine community.
There, of course, remain some stark reminders of the super typhoon that struck the city that fateful night of November 2013, among them this ship that found itself aground inland, a few kilometers from where it was docked the night the typhoon struck.
But these days, when people talk about Tacloban City, it is no longer just about how a massive typhoon brought what was then a burgeoning city to its knees, it is also about how, in six years, people got back up on their feet; and how the community, in its bid to rise from the devastation, found its way on the road to Zero Waste.
The struggle to take the road to Zero Waste started even before Tropical Storm Yolanda (TS Yolanda) hit in 2013, as the city was already struggling to manage its waste. One major concern was the dumpsite in Barangay Santo Nino which was nearing its maximum capacity, endangering surrounding communities.
When TS Yolanda struck the city with its howling winds, strong rains, and two-storeys-high killer storm surges, the city was turned into a wasteland overnight. In the cleanups that followed, all the debris the storm left in its wake were brought to the city dumpsite, immediately filling it to the brim.
Thanks to the city’s transition to Zero Waste, early this year, the government was finally able to close the dumpsite.
In 2016, three years after the killer storm, the city continued to use the dumpsite, already swollen with the debris of the wreckage TS Yolanda. At the time, garbage collection services only covered 30% of the households, yet cost for hauling alone reached Php80 M (USD1.5M). Residents in areas without collection were left to manage their waste, which they did either by open dumping or open burning, both of which are also against the law.
As a response, Tacloban City partnered with Mother Earth Foundation, a Philippine-based non-profit organization that has been helping cities and communities reduce their waste and better manage it. Under the guidance of Mother Earth Foundation, the city implemented a Zero Waste program. They started by trying to understand the waste problem of the city by conducting surveys, baseline studies, and household waste assessment and brand audits. From the results of these assessments, the city developed strategies that would allow it to properly implement Zero Waste.
The city launched an intensive house-to-house information, education, and communication (IEC) campaign to educate the people about the importance of segregating their waste. Households were also taught about the various categories into which they needed to segregate their wastes.
To prime the barangays (villages) with the important task of implementing the program, barangay officials were capacitated and empowered to implement door-to-door collection and enforce the no-segregation, no-collection policy.
Although at first households did not readily embrace the segregation policy, thinking it was too complicated and time consuming,through continued education and the waste collectors’ resolve to strictly implement the ‘no-segregation, no-collection’ policy, the compliance level is now high.
Thanks to the city’s Zero Waste program, waste collection significantly rose, from a dismal 30% to 100%. Through the program, the amount of waste prevented from going to the landfill increased from 10% in 2017 to 55% by 2018. The city has recovered 384 tons of organic wastes and 23 tons of recyclables from the 64 barangays that have started implementing Zero Waste. Without a Zero Waste program, all these wastes would have gone to the dumpsite. The waste generation by the city likewise dropped by 31%, from 175 tons to 121 tons per day.
Tacloban City still has a long way to go. Some barangays have yet to implement Zero Waste. But buoyed by the successes of the barangays that have implemented the program, the city has committed to introducing Zero Waste in the remaining barangays in the next two years.
And with good model barangays showing the way, and government leaders committed to making it to Zero Waste, there is no stopping Tacloban City from rising from its devastated past and becoming a leader in ecological solid waste management.
If a modest city which, not so long ago, lay completely wrecked and crumbled — the picture of utter helplessness — can do it, what’s stopping the rest of the world from becoming Zero Waste?
From Buenos Aires to Boston, Sardinia to San Fernando, communities across the world are transitioning to Zero Waste. Zero Waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The plan encompasses waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits, and industrial redesign. In these case studies, you can learn "best practices" from GAIA members and partners in regions around the globe who have led their cities towards Zero Waste, and find strategies that your community can use to join the movement!
Zero Waste Resources
- My Zero Waste event guide
- Product policy: repair instructions for a true circular economy
- Community composting done right: a guide to best management practices
- Yes! In my backyard: a home composting guide for local government
- Methods to compost
- All fun and no waste: planning and executing a zero-waste wedding
- Cities Waste Assessment and Brand Audit (WABA) methodology and toolkit
- Research study on holistic indicators for waste prevention
- Plastic pollution and Zero Waste
- Plastics exposed: how waste assessments and brand audits are helping Philippine cities fight plastic pollution
- Separate collection: the path to composting
- The potential contribution of Zero Waste to a low carbon economy
- Food systems: a recipe for food waste prevention
- From waste to resource: restoring our economy with recycling careers
- Safe & sustainable recycling: protecting workers who protect the planet
- Informal economy monitoring study sector report: waste pickers