Working in the poor and congested northern suburbs of Lima, Albina Ruiz is building a community-based solid waste management system that is playing an increasingly important role in improving sanitation and health conditions in the area. Accompanied by a public education program and carefully coordinated with the garbage and trash removal services of public agencies, Albina's initiative is organized around a network of employment- and income-generating micro-enterprises at every stage of the waste management cycle.
The New Idea
Albina Ruiz is convinced that the inadequacy of public-sector solid waste disposal services, and the consequent accumulation of huge masses of garbage and other forms of refuse in urban areas, pose increasingly serious public health threats.
She also believes that the most promising solution to the problem is a community-based initiative that combines an integrated system of micro-enterprises engaged in the collection, storage, recycling, composting and re-use of solid waste with related public information and education programs.
Working through a nongovernmental organization that has succeeded in enlisting the cooperation of the relevant public authorities and marshaling the necessary funding from a wide variety of sources, Albina has developed, and is now expanding, a remarkably effective demonstration in poor and crowded communities in the northern outskirts of Lima. With the aid of a revolving loan fund, she has stimulated the formation of micro-enterprises that are engaged in the collection and processing of garbage and trash throughout the area. In addition to producing marked improvements in health and living conditions, the program is generating much-needed employment opportunities for community residents.
Building on the success of the current initiative, Albina intends to expand her initiative to other parts of Lima and to other major cities in Peru.
The disposal of solid waste is one of Peru's most critical public management and public health problems. Inadequate procedures for the collection, treatment and final disposal of solid waste result in the pollution of ground and drinking water, the contamination of food supplies, the spread of communicable diseases and a marked deterioration in the quality of urban life. The problem is particularly severe in poor, densely populated areas, where it is a major contributor to cholera epidemics and other major health problems.
With some seven million inhabitants (almost one-third of the country's total population), Lima is experiencing particularly serious difficulties in contending–or failing to contend–with ever-increasing waste disposition burdens. Official statistics indicate that in 1995, Lima generated approximately 3,500 metric tons of waste each day, of which only 1,300 metric tons were processed by municipal authorities. The remaining 2,200 metric tons, almost two-thirds of the total, were disposed of illegally (but with few other options) in open garbage dumps, on streets, in vacant lots and along river and ocean shores.
The solid waste problem is especially acute in Lima's Northern Cone (El Cono Norte), comprising nine districts with some 1,600,000 inhabitants. The residents and markets of this area generate approximately 600 metric tons of garbage daily, of which barely more than half is handled by the municipal garbage collection authorities. The rest accumulates in mounting piles of unseparated industrial, inorganic and organic waste alongside public roads and in otherwise vacant areas, and the inevitable consequences ensue. Foul odors rise from rotting organic matter, toxic fumes spread from burning residual wastes, and disease-carrying insects and rodents proliferate. The waste also contaminates underground and surface water supplies used by local residents, markets and businesses in the Northern Cone and in other districts along the Chillón River drainage basin.
In the Lima metropolitan area, and in other Peruvian cities as well, health problems associated with inadequate waste disposal procedures compound the misery of large numbers of people who are already disadvantaged on other counts. Those problems, in turn, impose crippling burdens on public health systems that are otherwise impaired by insufficient funding, the lack of trained personnel and management and organizational shortcomings. They also highlight the need not only for improved waste handling procedures but for concerted efforts to enhance environmental awareness and encourage practices in households, markets, offices and industrial establishments that will help bring the problem under control.
Working from her institutional base, Alternativa ("Alternative"), a nonprofit organization founded in 1989, Albina has developed a four part strategy: a multifaceted community- based waste management system, effective coordination with relevant public agencies, a vigorous public information and education campaign and the mobilization of the required financial support from a broad array of sources.
The centerpiece of Albina's strategy is a community-based solid waste management system, consisting of community-organized and effectively linked collection, recycling and disposal activities and related initiatives to control illegal dumping and eliminate illegal dump sites. Her primary tools are employment- and income-generating micro-enterprises, which she has coaxed into existence at every stage of the waste management cycle and organized into a network that assures both the efficiency of the overall operation and community participation in the planning, execution, evaluation and fine-tuning of the endeavor. Albina serves as a source of technical knowledge and advice for the network and is an avid promoter of simple and low-cost technologies, including ingeniously designed tricycles that permit workers (who live in the communities served) to separate waste while collecting it from community sites.
Albina makes a concerted effort to assure that the work of the community-based system is effectively coordinated with the garbage and trash removal services of the Northern Cone's municipalities and other government agencies. She frequently meets with elected and other public officials and administrators to enlist their support and assistance. She also uses her internationally recognized engineering expertise to help public officials identify and correct weaknesses in municipal services and to develop joint initiatives with private organizations.
Recognizing that effective longer-term solutions for solid waste problems require substantial changes in the habits of individuals and the practices of large institutions, Albina has organized a broad array of public information and education programs on waste-related environment and health themes. Much of that work is focused on women's organizations and school-aged youth, but media campaigns are also part of that effort. She has also experimented with theater as a vehicle for transmitting her messages. And she has established a four-hectare organic farm to train farmers in using compost and other materials from recycled organic waste.
Albina has succeeded in mobilizing support for these activities not only from mayors, local councils, other public officials and leaders of social organizations in the Northern Cone's nine districts but also from an impressive array of outside sources. Even though her waste management system relies on small local work groups as much as possible, it still needs substantial capital. For example, she won international support to build a large transfer station, from which wastes that cannot be recycled or treated are transported to sanitary landfills for proper disposal. Now that her model is coming together in the Northern Core, Albina is beginning to take on the major challenge of extending it to other poor neighborhoods both in Lima and beyond. She has already negotiated a revolving loan fund to provide seed capital to complement her missionary educational work and technical help.
While pursuing a university degree in industrial engineering at the National Engineering University in Lima, Albina wrote a thesis on micro-enterprises and environmental sanitation in Lima's Northern Cone. As a student, she also organized university-sponsored cleanup campaigns along Lima's rivers.
In more recent years, Albina has published several articles and books on the prevention of cholera, the cleanup of municipalities and public service and the environment, and manuals on recycling and composting. She has also talked extensively in Peru and beyond on the organization and implementation of municipal solid waste disposal systems, environmental sanitation and community organization.
The project in which Albina is now engaged builds directly on her university thesis. And not surprisingly, she maintains her commitment to the "extracurricular" activity that claimed her attention as a university student. Now accompanied by her young daughter, Albina can often be seen on Lima's beaches, engaged in yet another "cleanup" campaign.