Many people ask why an American who grew up in a small, agricultural town would pass so many years in huge cities in India, dumpsites in Latin America, and cities across Spain, studying garbage. For me, working on waste is so exciting because it is a global local issue. By this I mean that all over the world, in every corner of the planet, communities are facing challenges with waste management.
In my own experience, I’ve visited small Nicaraguan islands suddenly flooded with plastic waste from growing tourism to Indian cities and villages where within one generation food consumption alone has gone from completely biodegradable to being filled with disposable packaging.
While the challenges are different, the core elements are the same in the United States or here in Spain: we are consuming materials faster than we can find healthy, economic, and sustainable ways to dispose of them.
While the scale of this challenge is overwhelming, the scope to find truly triple bottom line solutions is also enormous. All over the world, there are opportunities to create new jobs and environmental value in creative recycling systems and in organizations that change how and why we consume disposable materials.
Terracycle was founded in 2001 by a 20 year old college student in the US and has grown into a multinational company working with more than 100 brands to develop recycling systems for previously non-recyclable packaging by engaging their own consumers — at schools and at homes. Terracycle now has a presence in 22 countries, designing new recycling technologies and materials.
In Spain, I am inspired by the organizations already working in this space, from businesses like Prieco, which has built a successful and growing pallet recycling business, to grassroots movements like the Urban Farm Network –Red de Huertos Urbanos en Madrid–, where many farms are composting food from residents. Even given what is going on already, I see so many more opportunities for this sector to grow.
My research here has begun by exploring the existing waste management system in several cities across Spain, creating waste maps documenting where and how different types of materials are processed after use by households.
Beyond the formal flows of waste, run by and monitored by City Hall and contracted companies, I am also investigating the work of the informal sector of waste management in Spain.
As an example, less than one-third of Spain´s electrodomestic waste (including, for example, household appliances) actually make it to the European Union certified factories that are operating around Spain.
For these businesses that grew up to process this waste, the ¨leakages¨ of 70 % of this waste stream could mean closure of their facilities. On the other hand, it also means an informal sector of this waste stream is operating at a huge scale without being observed or understood.
For these businesses that grew up to process this waste, the ¨leakages¨ of 70 % of this waste stream could mean closure of their facilities.
On the other hand, it also means an informal sector of this waste stream is operating at a huge scale without being observed or understood.
The results of these waste maps of the formal and informal sector could not only facilitate collaborative processes between existing groups but could also identify opportunities for new entrepreneurs to be tackling challenging waste streams.
Moreover, I hope that my research will help give some guidance to cities, business schools, incubators, and larger waste companies to actually be supporting new entrepreneurs to fill these spaces to create more jobs where they are needed most.
My research is only beginning, but I hope it can play a role in creating truly sustainable solutions for waste management.
Community-based environmental business developer, Caroline Howe is in Spain with a Fulbright Scholar in Technical University of Madrid. See LinkedIn’s profile.
Translated to Spanish by Ana Zapatero