How can we create waste management systems that are less, well, wasteful? This is a challenge of global proportions. But solving it requires a thorough grasp of its manifestation at the local level. This is the task that the UNDP Accelerator Lab, along with the "Asuncion Green City of the Americas – Pathways to Sustainability" (Asunción Sustentable) project, are tackling with the support of NESTA, through a Collective Intelligence Design Studio training and mentoring program. What’s the scope and urgency of the problem? What have we learned so far? And where do we plan to go from here?. Read on to find the answers to all these questions in this blogpost. 


Asuncion’s Recycling Ecosystem: A Case of Wasted Opportunities

It is estimated that only 2% of recyclable waste in the Asuncion metro area is actually recycled . Household and business waste sorting is extremely low. And what little waste is recycled is generally exported as semi-processed raw materials, squandering opportunities to enhance the added value of local industries. At the same time, manufacturers like the FPV bottle plant import recycled glass to meet unmet demand for recycled raw materials. FPV alone is estimated to import 1,500 tons of recycled glass per month.

Currently, informal waste-pickers from impoverished communities are among the only actors addressing this issue. Yet this network of informal actors doesn’t possess adequate facilities for waste transportation, processing, and storage. Because these actors lack investment capacity to upgrade their operations, they are stuck in a low-productivity, low-income rut.


Piloting the way to increased Efficiency, Sustainability, and Productivity

Faced with this context, the Acceleration Lab and the Asuncion Sustentable team have designed a series of sorting and recycling pilot projects to test innovative, socially-inclusive solutions.

The first pilot is centered on cleaning, restoring and monitoring over 30 hectares of the Banco San Miguel environmental preservation area. The second pilot project focuses on increasing the productivity of informal-waste pickers in the “garbage-shed” of Asunción’s San Francisco neighborhood. And the third pilot is intended to focus on added-value recycling at the main municipal landfill via initiatives such as a participatory market co-design process and building a makerspace for waste pickers.

The first step of the San Francisco project has been understanding the social and geographic structure of the current waste management system in the neighborhood’s "garbage-shed", where the recycling and sorting facility will be located.

In the coming months, we will apply these findings to the participatory design of the recycling facility and the logistics of the waste pickers association that will make use of this facility, which will also include a space for producing recycled plastic lumber. We envision this effort as a step toward building higher-value-added recycling enterprises in Paraguay, which is the intended focus of the subsequent recycling pilot project in the municipal landfill.

Before the Covid-19 crisis interrupted the project’s progress, we visited the San Francisco neighborhood and conducted interviews with residents, local authorities, NGOs social workers,  and the waste pickers of the neighborhood. We followed up with which waste-pickers from the association explored the detail of one “day in their lives”, to begin mapping out their schedules, resources, the geographic scope of their activities, and the challenges they face.

A large proportion of San Francisco residents were relocated to this new housing development from flood-prone areas closer to the city center, where some of them continue to work as waste pickers. While residents’ housing situation may have improved, their livelihoods are still precarious. Moreover, due to the increased distance between their homes and their waste-picking routes, as well as their lack of key resources, many waste pickers face high barriers to increasing the volume of recyclables that they can physically collect. In particular, they rely on monopsonistic intermediaries, thus undercutting their capacity to develop their informal activities into more productive and efficient micro-enterprises.



The interviews also uncovered low levels of trust and cooperation among waste-pickers—a key cleavage being between those who have organized into a self-formed association and those outside the group—and between waste-pickers and city residents. As one of them noted, residents rarely separate their trash yet often become upset when informal waste-pickers touch the bags they’ve put out for municipal waste collection.

Based on these early findings, we hypothesize that a) increased trust between waste-pickers and residents and b) increased trust and cooperation between waste-pickers themselves could lead to increased demand for their services as well as a more efficient collection logistics. These changes combined could drive a significant improvement in waste-pickers’ productivity.


Where to From Here

#AccLabPY is determined to carry on with this project, even as we adjust to the exigencies of the current health crisis. In the coming weeks, with the support of a local mapping and urban design and consulting team, we will resume the first phase of the San Francisco pilot— mapping the geographic and social structure of the current waste management system. To this end, we will employ participatory mapping approaches, open source software, and participatory design activities to document the varieties of recyclables available, the routes used by informal waste collectors, the location of intermediaries, the final destination of the variety of recyclable and waste goods leaving the community, among other things that can help to better understand the experience of waste-pickers and the challenges they face.



Next, having identified low trust among waste-pickers and between the waste-pickers and households as a key barrier to their increased productivity, we will use previously validated trust surveys in combination with a series or “trust games” as a way to measure and quantify the current levels of existing interpersonal and organizational trust. First, to measure trust among waste-pickers (both members and non-members of the local Association),  we will use a quasi-experimental design that quantifies interpersonal and organizational trust  during and after the participatory mapping, market co-design, and logistics optimization interventions. Second, we are designing a Nimble RCT that will test the effects of new brokered interactions and relationships (using, for example, applications such as ReciApp) between waste-pickers and households on the levels of trust between these groups. We will target this experiment on a random subset of city-blocks that form part of waste-pickers daily routes, comparing the results with a random control group.

These experiments represent the first set of interventions of our emergent portfolio of experimentation focussed on the role of social capital and trust in increasing productivity, facilitating economic formalization and creating access to social protection. We will develop solutions related to trust and social capital  that cut across both of Paraguay’s newly identified frontier challenges: transparency and citizens participation and innovation and enterprise formalization. Stay tuned for a future blogpost where we will describe the process of portfolio sensemaking we used to arrive at these challenges. 


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