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  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000
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El Salvador

San Salvador’s Government Goes After Garbage

During his campaign, Herty Lewites, Managua’s mayor-elect, visited San Salvador’s garbage treatment project then nounced a similar project for Nicaragua’s capital. What caught his fancy?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

All over the globe, garbage is a growing daily problem. No individual, social sector or institution that wants to be taken seriously can ignore it. The problem is so troublesome that any short-term response makes a difference, but will never be enough. In no Central American capital has this problem been taken on board like it has in San Salvador. Enormous difficulties remain and there are no guarantees that the various vicious circles created by throw-away culture will be broken, but the project led by the FMLN’s Héctor Silva, mayor of the municipality of San Salvador, has much to teach us already.

Responding to tons of garbage

Today’s garbage "treatment" in almost all of Central America’s cities and towns can be compared to sweeping up garbage at home, then hiding it under the bed when no one is looking, as though this resolved the problem. Increasingly rapid and disorganized urban expansion, overcrowding, industrial growth and changing consumption patterns mean that each of us constantly produces more garbage that must be "swept up."
Throwing this garbage "away" may seem the fastest, easiest way to get rid of it, but that only piles it up somewhere else, and spreads the contamination in the process. Dumping garbage in vacant fields or ravines or alongside roads and highways contaminates the air with toxic gases, foul odors and ash, and forms focal points for diseases carried by flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and rats. Toxic substances filter into underground water, while surface water is contaminated when rain carries the garbage into rivers and lakes and leaves it littered along coastlines.

A strategic project

El Salvador as a whole produces well over 2,000 metric tons of garbage a day and the capital alone 1,500 metric tons. Over half of the latter (around 800 metric tons) is still dumped every day in some 1,500 illegal open-air dumps scattered throughout San Salvador, which both Salvadoran and foreign environmentalists consider to be the dirtiest capital in Central America. It has two legal garbage dumps: an open-air one in Mariona, north of the city, where hundreds of people eke out a miserable living by searching through the garbage in the hope of finding "recyclable"—that is sellable—scraps; and a sanitary landfill in the municipality of Nejapa, also to the north, established during Silva’s first term in office.

This landfill is one of Silva’s most strategically important projects, and is "green" in more ways than one as it is still in an initial stage. Many social, political and cultural factors must be taken into account to manage it holistically since experience shows that resolving the garbage problem depends on much more than what a single local government decides to do. It is a structural problem rooted in the country’s very conception of itself, and thus also goes beyond any government’s term in office. Amidst life’s daily ups and downs and electoral comings and goings in post-war El Salvador, a project like this is still flying on luck and a prayer.

A life or death issue

The whole country, and especially the Greater San Salvador area, still "contaminates" most of its garbage, mixing organic with inorganic garbage, biodegradable or reusable materials with non-biodegradable or toxic waste. By doing so, the opportunity is lost to recover many potentially useful materials through recycling, and the cost of recovery, reclassification and cleaning increases, thus making the recycling industry less profitable and attractive.

Nearly half of the country’s garbage is toxic waste, which harms both the environment and human health. Every month, San Salvador’s 25 hospitals produce nearly 100 metric tons of waste. Many factories dump dangerous waste in empty fields or nearby rivers or lakes. This practice is still the norm all over the country, and the response from Silva’s municipal government in Greater San Salvador barely makes a dent in the structural problem. Nonetheless, if its model extends throughout the country and makes its way into the hearts of public officials as well as environmental and neighborhood organizations, the dent would grow significantly. For a tiny, crowded country whose environment is badly deteriorated, this is a life or death challenge.

Scavengers and garbage collectors

To better understand San Salvador’s solid waste treatment project, envío climbed aboard a garbage truck and accompanied it on its rounds through several city neighborhoods and then to the sanitary landfill. To get to the landfill, the truck had to cross several of the municipalities comprising Greater San Salvador. It also had to pass through the old garbage dump in Mariona, making its way through flocks of buzzards, to fulfill one of the municipal government’s policies: if a truck makes more than one run in the day, it must dump one of its loads—some 16-17 tons—in the old dump. "This was an agreement between the local government and the scavengers, who have to make a living somehow," explained Cristóbal, the driver.

We also learned that the garbage collectors themselves are the first to be endangered by direct contact with the garbage. "They’ve always picked it up just like they’re doing today," Cristóbal explained. "The most the city’s done is give them uniforms and gloves, but the garbage slides right through the gloves, so they use their bare hands." The four young garbage collectors in the truck are exposed to all kinds of infections, but there are as yet no proposals within the environmental sanitation program to deal with this serious concrete problem.

A breakdown in information

We were also troubled to learn that there are problems with the information flow between the environmental sanitation office and the garbage collectors. Information is still largely restricted to technical staff and political circles. Talking with employees of the mayor’s office, for example, envío learned of a pilot project to separate garbage at the point at which it is first collected, but most of the workers knew nothing about it. Furthermore, the project is likely to be discontinued for lack of resources. To collect garbage separately, the general collection system would have to be transformed. Among other things, two kinds of trucks would be required, which is impossible given the city’s current economic situation.

The lack of communication channels with the workers who collect garbage explains their skepticism: they still don’t "believe" in the changes brought about by the project. They could not, for example, give any basic explanation of how the sanitary landfill functions. This is a strategic limitation, since a project that does not pull together all of those involved in it can become an imposition or be easily manipulated by the management’s technical staff or political structures.

An experienced leader

envío’s next stop was San Salvador’s city hall. There we spoke with the chief environmental sanitation technician, Pedro Benjamín Funes, head of the Department of Services and coordinator of Environmental Sanitation in the city’s central district. Funes coordinates four areas: sanitation, parks and gardens, urban renovation (basically construction) and urbanization coordination (which handles building permits, supervises private construction etc.)
Sitting in his small cubicle, Funes answered our questions while at the same time fielding petitions from the public. His cubicle borders on an area open to the public and employees in his department regularly come in without knocking; during the time he spoke with envío, they forwarded at least half a dozen concerns to him. "There shouldn’t be a schedule for hearing about problems," he said.

Funes comes from Tonacatepeque, north of San Salvador, and has worked on environmental and solid waste issues for many years. He is not a member of the FSLN or any other political party, "and the way our political system works, with its self-interests and exclusionary practices, I’ll remain independent," he says firmly; "it’s better that way."
How did he become an important official in the mayor’s office? His role today stems from his strong opposition to a plan by the previous mayor, ARENA’s Mario Valiente, to build a poorly-designed garbage dump in Funes’ home town. All of Tonacatepeque supported his leadership role in the fight against the dump. "Mario Valiente never considered the possibility of building anything other than a big open dump," Funes said. And dumps like that are major sources of contamination.

When Silva took office as the capital’s new mayor in 1997, Funes was invited to participate in the sanitary landfill project. The next year he joined the municipal environmental sanitation program as an environmental representative, specifically as head of street sweeping. "I believe in restoring the environment. I’ve been trained in this area and this is how I serve the country," he said.

Only on a national scale

Previous municipal administrations paid no real attention to the garbage problem. Their efforts were aimed exclusively at collecting the garbage; they didn’t care what happened to it afterwards.

Silva and his team decided to take a more holistic approach, although the country’s economic, human and cultural capacity would limit and condition what they could do for quite some time. When the garbage problem is dealt with this way, it becomes apparent that it is a national problem. A recycling system requires, among other things, a legal framework obliging those who produce or import recyclable products to actually recycle them, but that legislation does not yet exist. The municipal government cannot prevent the production of small plastic bags of water or the importation of aluminum pop cans, but it has to do something since El Salvador has no capacity to recycle the bags or the cans. Words printed on the cans state that they are recyclable, but it is a half-truth because they can only be recycled in countries that have the infrastructure, national policies and laws and public support, and El Salvador has none of the above. This is one of the municipal government’s main struggles with its holistic solid waste treatment project. To have any real impact, it must take place on a national scale.

San Salvador-Canada project

In putting its holistic solid waste treatment project into effect, San Salvador is way ahead of the other municipalities in the metropolitan area and the rest of the country. It is the first municipality to do time-motion studies of all collection routes, designed according to high technical norms. It is also the first to establish a sanitary landfill according to international standards, with an organic garbage treatment plant.

In his first mayoral campaign (Silva was re-elected this year), Silva promised he would build a sanitary landfill. And he did. San Salvador’s government, along with nine other municipal governments in Greater San Salvador, established a mixed private-public company with a Canadian firm to handle the whole solid waste treatment process, from collection to final disposal in the new landfill. The municipalities take their solid waste to the fill, where the Canadian company processes it.

Funes explained the solid waste treating process as though he were teaching a class: "The first thing that happens is the trucks leave the central station at 5:30 in the morning. Some pick up the garbage that has been swept up from the streets. Others go to the various neighborhoods in the capital to collect the garbage from people’s houses. Still others collect it from industrial companies, and others from shops along the streets. The trucks carry the garbage to the landfill in Nejapa, and if any truck makes several trips it deposits at least one load in the old dump, as established in an agreement between the mayor’s office and the organization of scavengers."

How the sanitary landfill operates

Because of the existing communications vacuum, workers at the landfill could not explain the process to us. All we could see were machines moving the garbage that the trucks had deposited, and several enormous tanks that collect the liquid that oozes from the garbage.

Funes explained it: "The landfill is engineered to reduce the negative environmental impact of solid waste. Embankments and membranes have been installed in its base to prevent contamination from passing into the subsoil and contaminating the water. The deepest layer is made of clay, then there is a plastic geomembrane and a layer of industrial clay. The next layer is geotextile, then another layer of pumice and finally, on the surface, a layer of earth. The landfill also has some aqueducts at the base that collect the liquid produced by the solid waste, which is transferred to special treatment plants. The garbage brought in by the trucks is spread out and a machine compacts it into a layer of earth."

Decontaminating and recycling

The landfill also has a heat sterilization treatment system for contaminated or infectious biological waste. This is where hospital waste is treated, for example, before being deposited in the fill. The separation system is a step forward in the treatment process, which decreases the contamination level in the nearly 100 tons of solid waste with infectious and cancer-causing substances generated each month by Greater San Salvador’s hospitals. The goal is that one day all waste from all sources will be properly separated: organic, recyclable, biodegradable, toxic, contaminated and non-biodegradable.

Funes explains the obstacles to recycling: "We’re very limited. The market prices for recycled materials are very low, and many recyclable products are thrown away because there aren’t enough companies to recycle them. We don’t yet have a comprehensive waste management system, just the first stage of a very complex process. Comprehensive management would include recycling reusable waste, reducing non-recyclable garbage, composting organic material—converting it into fertilizer and stable material—along with regulations for appropriate disposal and management of solid waste and public education to ensure appropriate waste management."

The challenge of participation

Funes recognizes that there is a lack of communication in the project and a need to create participatory processes among all those involved, so that decisions aren’t made by teams of technicians alone. "We’ve sent memos to Héctor Silva on the importance of the workers and staff being the first to set an example by using the resources in accord with the proposal for the use, reuse and recycling of waste. For example, we’ve proposed that norms be established on reusing the paper we work with, or using fewer disposable materials, like glasses rather than plastic cups. Yet we often forget that we have to start by putting our own house in order. Cristóbal, the driver, was right when he said there’s no policy to involve all the workers in the whole process. And this is very serious, because if we don’t start right here, how are we going to ensure that everyone in the country follows the path we envision? The proposals are good, but they come up against enormous limits. The businesses are actually the ones that have gotten involved the least; they still don’t understand that sooner or later they will benefit the most."

Support and obstacles

The strongest support for San Salvador’s garbage project comes from politically independent citizens with a growing awareness of the vital importance of protecting the country’s environment; mature environmentalists who understand that, in the country as we now find it, after a long war and so many politicized administrations, we have to learn to walk before we can run; and the FMLN members who are committed to a more equally shared country, who can see beyond strictly partisan interests and currents.

The main obstacles to the project are the many companies that believe that investing in integral waste management is a waste of money, because they stubbornly refuse to look beyond their noses and their immediate, personal interests; politicians of all stripes who have diametrically different views from the people who have put this project into effect and are as short-sighted as the businesspeople many of them criticize; and more than a few idealistic environmentalists, who criticize the sanitary landfill as not the best method. This latter group seems to take post-industrial countries, with all of their resources and technologies, as a model, offering no realistic alternative proposal to a municipality with a long tradition of corruption, a throw-away culture and few resources or technologies.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Funes is aware that the project still has a long way to go before it can have a strategic, structural impact on society, and that the municipal government will have to do much more than it is doing today to get there. "It should, for example, encourage actions that may be small but cumulatively can have a major social impact. If the project is going to influence Salvadoran society and introduce a new culture, the municipal government must begin at home. It can’t have an impact without the example of those who implement the proposals. The municipal government must take strong, decisive measures to ensure that all of its employees are clear about the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle."
Reducing means putting a stop to the problem before it begins, eliminating waste at the source so we won’t have to deal with it later. Reducing the volume of waste at the source of production itself is the true key to solving the garbage problem in the long term. By producing and consuming cleanly, we fight the problem at its root.

Reusing means understanding that what some see as garbage, others see as a resource. Many materials that are thrown out because they are no longer useful in one context can be reused for another purpose, thus extending the object’s useful life and extracting it from the waste cycle.

Recycling means transforming the materials collected into raw material for new products, which stops potentially useful materials from reaching the landfills or being burned. Recycling is the recovery system par excellence. Paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, aluminum and metals may be recycled one or more times, which helps significantly decrease the amount of waste that makes its way to final disposal sites.

Funes believes that "the municipal government should also get involved in drafting legislation that prohibits products like plastic bags of water, at least within the municipality, and in ensuring that clear regulations exist for business, unless they pledge to buy back these products after they’re thrown out."

National and Central
American agenda

The set of processes related to managing and disposing of waste from domestic, industrial, agroindustrial, commercial, hospital and other institutional activities includes everything from legislation, through reducing waste and creating separation systems at the source, to collection, recycling and final disposal in both public and private sites. Integral waste management should also involve the whole set of social actors. We all have a quota of responsibility in the generating of waste, and thus also have responsibility in its management and treatment.

It is necessary to establish environmental policies in keeping with the kinds of solid waste produced, defining the roles and responsibilities of businesspeople, public institutions, consumers, environmental organizations and other social actors. These diverse productive and social sectors in each municipality must assume their responsibilities in accord with the garbage they produce.

The private sector could benefit from adopting the idea of clean production, making full use of the raw materials involved in its production processes. Municipalities could launch projects to authorize or forbid certain economic activities, supervise their operations and provide incentives to companies and civil society groups that reward appropriate waste management and/or encourage environmentally clean activities. They could also charge for the costs of activities that do not adhere to these norms, perhaps in the form of environmental taxes that can be used to repair the resulting damages.

Seen from this holistic focus, it is a very big package for any single municipal government. Local efforts must be part of a commitment by the country and all of society. And within the policy framework of Central American integration, the issue of solid waste should be put on the regional agenda. El Salvador, and particularly Héctor Silva’s team in San Salvador, have much to contribute to this agenda.

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