Valuing the climate benefits from informal waste recycling in Bogotá, Colombia

How waste is managed – whether as a nuisance to be disposed, or as a resource to be reused – has the potential to either contribute to or help mitigate climate change, an urgent global challenge that threatens human security and the stability of our biome [Bogner et al 2007]. Material recycling decreases the amount of waste that must be disposed and offers the potential to mitigate many environmental burden by decreasing the demand for raw materials and energy. Developing cities remain centers of material recovery and reuse through the participation of people who scavenge goods from city waste and resell the materials to manufacturers. Waste management systems in developing nations face pressure from increased urbanization and waste generation, the quest for “modernization,” prompting some to view the informal waste sector “as an impediment to development” [Mitchell 2008], and a push towards landfill-centered waste management by the Clean Development Mechanism, a fund that finances climate change abating projects in the Global South and tends to fund landfills [Wilson 2007]. The climate-mitigating benefits of informal recycling have not been quantified [Gutberlet 2008; McDougall 2001] but must be; doing so would allow for its comparison with formal waste technologies and would facilitate the integration of this sector into socially and environmentally responsible waste management plans. In collaboration with the Association of Recyclers of Bogotá (ARB), I use an Industrial Ecology framework to map the waste flows in Bogotá, home of the “the most dynamic scavenger cooperative movement in the world” [Medina 2000]. Though preliminary results show that informal recycling in Bogotá is responsible for the diversion of 17% of the waste stream [Gomez 2004], I recognize that waste flows are dynamic, and understanding the driving forces behind the recycling of certain materials, and how the location of waste production affects its fate is key to understanding the environmental impacts of informal recycling. This project is the first that seeks to quantify the environmental services from informal waste recycling, and also provides a methodology that is replicable in other locations.

Lead Investigator: