Ashoka Fellow desde 2009   |   Uruguay

Ana Luisa Arocena

Ana Luisa Arocena is developing an integral approach to dealing with toxic waste management in Uruguay. She is creating new technologies to recycle and dispose of hazardous materials in responsible…
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En Triex, Ana Luisa ha creado un modelo de gestión y tratamiento responsable de residuos especiales tendiente a reducir los daños ambientales. Impulsa la reducción de residuos de los productores, la transparencia de la gestión, la trazabilidad, la responsabilidad social, la generación de conocimiento e innovación tecnológica para que mejoren la calidad ambiental y que sirvan de insumos para la generación de políticas. Está construyendo un nuevo entorno favorable de desarrollo del sector.

This description of Ana Luisa Arocena's work was prepared when Ana Luisa Arocena was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Ana Luisa Arocena is developing an integral approach to dealing with toxic waste management in Uruguay. She is creating new technologies to recycle and dispose of hazardous materials in responsible ways, while promoting transparency, spreading environmental and public health awareness, and creating decent jobs for waste management workers. Ana Luisa has designed Uruguay’s first toxic waste tracking technology as well as the first machines dedicated to the safe destruction of fluorescent lamps, which contain high amounts of mercury. She is negotiating to implement one for cathode ray tubes.

La idea nueva

Through the creation of MA&A in 2001, Ana Luisa developed the first efficient system in Uruguay dedicated to managing toxic waste produced by the pharmaceutical, chemical, and agricultural industries. She is building leading best practices for the first time in the sector, creating decent jobs and developing innovative technologies to recycle and dispose of hazardous products that would otherwise end up in Uruguay’s rivers and soils. Ana Luisa is contributing to a fundamental shift in Uruguay, by demonstrating that the country is capable of developing technologies and methodologies adapted to its small market scale.

MA&A is building transparency and accountability into each activity it undertakes, thus breaking away from the popular perception that waste management is a “dirty” business. Ana Luisa is putting the emphasis on the health and quality of life of its employees and of the population at large. She is also offering capacity-building opportunities to waste management businesses and citizen organizations (COs) to enable them to adopt MA&A’s innovative and responsible practices and adhere more strongly to safety regulations.

Recognizing that her organization alone would not change the waste industry as a whole, Ana Luisa began working on environmental awareness with government authorities, businesses, and universities. She works closely with informal garbage collectors as well, giving them technical and management support that helps them incorporate into the formal recycling industry with decent jobs. Moreover, Ana Luisa promoted the creation of the Chamber of Waste Management Businesses (CEGRU) in 2008 to introduce new norms of technological innovation, transparency, safety, and decent employment to this sector. She also works closely with government authorities to introduce and implement stronger toxic waste regulations.

Through MA&A, CEGRU and her work with government authorities, universities, and COs, Ana Luisa is transforming the waste management sector in Uruguay.

El problema

In the Southern Cone region, there exists no systematic and efficient way to deal with toxic waste (lead, mercury, and so on) produced by the chemical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural sectors. The government authorities responsible for toxic waste management inspections are not well trained, and national laws, when they exist, are weak and inadequately implemented. Before MA&A began its operations, no public or private institution took on the management of hazardous waste in Uruguay. Other organizations in Chile whose main objective is to address the issue of industrial waste management are still limited in their ability to handle the management of toxic waste materials. Smaller businesses attempt to manage urban waste through periodic public collection campaigns, however, these organizations work in isolation and can only manage certain types of waste produced on a small-scale. In Argentina, although the government does regulate the treatment of certain types of hazardous waste, its control mechanisms are highly inefficient.

Failing to address toxic waste and its consequences has posed serious threats to public health, environmental sustainability, and social empowerment. For example, the burial of toxic waste and its disposal in rivers have grave effects on soil and water quality that can lead to devastating health complications, which in turn have detrimental social implications. Moreover, those most affected by such careless waste management are often the poorest sectors of society who do not have access to adequate health care and cannot effectively press the government to take action. Because unemployment rates are so high in most of these areas, low-income populations become informal garbage collectors and work under unsafe and undignified conditions. Workers are poorly compensated and face daily physical threats to their health. In the 1990s, this informal industry grew rapidly in the big urban centers of Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. The life of a garbage collector involves bringing the gathered waste into his or her home in order to separate the elements that can be sold from those that can be used as animal food. Unaware of the health risks this process poses for their families and communities, the informal workers often bury the unrecyclable waste in the vicinity of their homes.

Such problems are compounded by a lack of information surrounding the quantity and toxicity of waste produced by the pharmaceutical, chemical, and agricultural industries. There is no official data reflecting the amount of toxic waste produced yearly in the region. Therefore, waste management problems remain invisible to the wider population. In addition, in countries like Uruguay that have a low population density and a good environmental standing, the common perception is that the country is practically immune to environmental problems. Formal and informal environmental education opportunities remain rare in the Southern Cone.

An uninformed public cannot effectively lobby the government to regularize waste management practices. Public and private investors, in turn, have limited incentives to invest in the development of this sector. The problem is perpetuated by the fact that businesses have no incentive to be transparent about their production of toxic waste. The absence of transparency mechanisms especially impacts the pharmaceutical industry. For example, the prevalence of drugs sold on the black market, results from the inadequate disposal of medications that have passed their expiration dates.

La estrategia

To address this range of problems, Ana Luisa created MA&A in 2001. It is the first organization of its kind in Uruguay dedicated to the responsible management of toxic waste. Through this social business, Ana Luisa is transforming the waste management sector by creating decent jobs while promoting transparency, technological innovation, public health, and environmental responsibility. She is also raising awareness about and creating best practices for toxic waste management among university students, government authorities, and waste producers and managers.

MA&A operates as a social business for various reasons. MA&A’s sustainability depends on its client’s payments for the toxic waste management services it provides. Moreover, the cost structure was developed for businesses to understand that waste is costly, a realization that creates incentives for the corporate world to become more sensitive to environmental and public health consequences. However, since COs in Uruguay are not allowed by law to charge for their services, Ana Luisa registered MA&A as a business. In addition, current government regulations do not allow COs to formally operate toxic waste management organizations. Thus, MA&A’s status as a business allows it to negotiate responsible waste management practices with corporations and the government on an equal footing.

Ana Luisa is leading the way in making safe and effective toxic waste management a reality in Uruguay, a country that for years believed it produced too little hazardous waste to justify developing systems and technologies adapted to the scale of its market. Using her background as a chemist, Ana Luisa has pursued technological innovations that diminish the harmful effects of lethal pollutants and create more efficient ways to collect, transport, recycle, and safely dispose of toxic waste. For example, she invested in the research and development of a process that turns laundry detergent contaminants into biodegradable products, and it was accepted by the composting municipal plant. Moreover, Ana Luisa designed Uruguay’s first machinery dedicated to the safe destruction of fluorescent lamps which contain high amounts of mercury. MA&A has succeeded in retrieving the mercury from 13,000 lamps (a quantity significant enough to pollute 1.5 million liters of water), thus avoiding its dispersal in the environment. Now she is leading similarly for cathode ray tubes.

MA&A is not only an outlet for environmental conservation and public health, but also provides safe and decent jobs for individuals working in the waste management industry. Previously unappreciated and underpaid garbage collectors are finally being recognized for the environmental and social benefits they provide. Ana Luisa understands the importance of valuing this profession and is creating dignified jobs and a safe work environment for toxic waste managers. MA&A provides its employees with decent salaries and invests in their health and education. All employees are required to take the same security precautions as in the pharmaceutical industry. Moreover, Ana Luisa is changing popular perceptions about the waste management industry by professionalizing MA&A’s workers through the integration of computer technologies. Decent salaries, safe working conditions, and entrance into the digital era are important elements bringing dignity and self-confidence back to a profession disdained by mainstream society.

To promote transparency and accountability within the hazardous waste management sector, Ana Luisa has developed a computerized tracking system to control the waste management process every step of the way. MA&A collects and disposes of considerable amounts of medications that are past their expiration date. However, in MA&A’s infancy, Ana Luisa realized that some of these products were stolen from her organization and sold in illegal markets in Montevideo. Conscious of the health hazards this could cause and of the responsibility she had toward her clients, Ana Luisa invested in Uruguay’s first toxic waste tracking software. Contrary to the norm in the waste management industry, Ana Luisa is creating a culture of transparency that promotes high levels of ethics and trust between her organization and her clients. This tracking system also facilitates the work of government authorities responsible for regulating and controlling the toxic waste sector.

Ana Luisa is working closely with national and departmental authorities to establish better waste regulation practices, as well as new laws relating to the safety of workers and to cross-border movements of toxic waste. Ana Luisa has collaborated with the Uruguayan Institute of Technical Norms to attain ISO certification for the safety norms she developed. She has also accompanied the Uruguay Ministry of Public Health to replace mercury thermometers with less hazardous ones.

To further spread awareness about ethical and safe waste management practices, Ana Luisa has undertaken media campaigns to emphasize the importance of addressing environmental and public health issues. As part of her strategy to educate Uruguayan society, she also teaches university students about responsible waste management. Her students are often colleagues from the waste management industry, clients of MA&A, and future government officials. This professorship is critical to her work as it allows her to spread new waste management concepts to the current and next generations of decision-makers. Former students now in government succeeded in convincing the Ministry of Housing, Land Planning and the Environment about the necessity to support toxic waste management practices and changing regulations on agrochemical waste.

Similarly, Ana Luisa is enabling the waste management sector as a whole to become increasingly transparent and innovative. She promoted the creation of CEGRU to strengthen the sector and influence public policies. Ana Luisa is beginning to disseminate her tracking methodology as well as her strong emphasis on safety and proper employment to other businesses in the sector. She works with the CEGRU idea to generate greater investor interest in the waste management sector, which would allow them to continue building innovative technologies. As a member of Montevideo’s Environmental Group (GAM), a coalition of municipal government officials, businesses, academics, and COs, Ana Luisa is also working to improve public policies in the waste management sector. Moreover, through collaboration with San Vicente, a Uruguayan CO, she is promoting new entrepreneurial undertakings among informal recyclers, such as offering capacity-building training to ensure greater safety precautions are taken and to help them become certified by government authorities.

Ana Luisa is now planning the next phase to disseminate her methodology to the Southern Cone region and beyond. Her commitment to transparency is gaining momentum in the sector: Waste management companies in Argentina and Uruguay are negotiating with MA&A. MA&A is also spreading its impact through CEGRU and is investigating replicating its model in countries with similar market scale, such as Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Angola. Ana Luisa regularly participates in various international conferences on waste management to learn from and contribute to advances in the sector.

La persona

As a child, Ana Luisa was encouraged by her mother to think critically about wasteful consumerism. Her father, a business entrepreneur and passionate civil construction engineer, pushed her to question existing paradigms and create new ones. In high school, Ana Luisa volunteered with the Catholic social movement in Uruguay, which was providing proper housing to the poorest sectors of society at a time when the military regime was especially suspicious of social programs.

Between 1981 and 1985 Ana Luisa became involved with Organización San Vicente, a CO working on urban waste management in the slums of Montevideo. She was responsible for coordinating youth groups and learned a lot about the informal collection and recycling of urban waste.

Ana Luisa went on to become a pharmaceutical chemist. From 1984 to 1996 she worked as a quality control analyst in the pharmaceutical industry. During that time two key experiences led her to deeply question the industry’s irresponsible wastefulness. On one occasion, the company she worked for decided to produce five times the volume of vitamins they normally produced, despite knowing they would be unable to sell the inventory. In the end, they had to throw out millions of vitamins, even though blocks away from the factory thousands of impoverished children were in need of dietary supplements. On another occasion, she was asked to discard toxic solutions containing lead and arsenic into a drain that fed straight into the river of a neighboring slum. A few years later, the pharmaceutical industry endured a severe crisis in Uruguay that led to the closure of various factories. Ana Luisa took this opportunity to become involved in the waste management industry through leading Business Commitment to Recycling (CEMPRE) from 1998 to 2007. During her time at CEMPRE, a CO dedicated to bringing recycling to businesses, she developed a waste management manual with a coalition of organizations and built a strong network of environmentally conscious COs and businesses. To bring awareness, since 2003 Ana Luisa has shared her knowledge on integral waste management with students. The majority of them are being prepared as ISO14000 specialists.

Ana Luisa is recognized as a leader in the toxic waste management sector in Uruguay and is disseminating new concepts through her bridging work among companies, COs, authorities, students, and others.