Guest blogger Laura Reyes is the executive director of CEMPRE in Colombia. She utilizes her background as an Environment & Sanitary Engineer, as well as her MBA, to help build a sustainable future with leading companies. For more than 15 years, she has worked to create, test and implement circular business models for post-consumption waste. Laura is passionate about the circular economy, public policy, strategic management and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Every day, an estimated 15 million people around the world earn their living from items the rest of us toss away.
Earlier this year, Ocean Conservancy discussed informal sector waste collectors in Vietnam, highlighting their contributions to recycling and to preventing waste from flowing into our ocean. Now, we’re highlighting our engagement with informal sector waste collectors, or individuals who collect and sort plastic waste, in Colombia.
In that earlier post, we shared that members of our Trash Free Seas Alliance® decided to support some of the recommendations found in our recent report: Exploring Solutions to Ocean Plastics: Supporting Southeast Asia’s Informal Waste Sector. Those recommendations included looking at new models to incentivize informal waste sector workers to collect low-value plastics (plastics that lack end-markets in the recycling system).
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Our hope is that by empowering these workers, we not only protect our ocean but also improve workers’ social and economic well-being—a triple win.
Ocean Conservancy, along with several Trash Free Seas Alliance members, identified Vietnam and Colombia as our two target countries. We then set about building a best-in-class partnership to maximize impact. On the ground, we joined with the Center for Environment and Community Research (CECR) in Vietnam and Compromisso Empresarial para Reciclagem (CEMPRE) in Colombia. We identified a coordinating partner, Inclusive Waste Recycling Consortium (iWrc), to provide CECR and CEMPRE with strong social support and a standardized process for training and reporting. And so ASPPIRe (Advancing Solutions to Plastic Pollution through Inclusive Recycling) was born.
While we plan to share more about our work in Vietnam in future posts, today we want to highlight our in-country partner CEMPRE Colombia and our coordinating partner iWrc. For over 15 years, iWrc has focused on uplifting those in the informal sector by creating opportunities to connect directly with businesses that care about the people in their supply chains. Along the way, iWrc built an operational model that could be replicated, as well as on-the-ground capacity using the SA8000 social standards which are based on internationally-recognized standards of decent work.
CEMPRE brings decades of experience working across Colombia towards implementation of a circular economy by developing projects that result in increasing material recovery, strengthening actors across the ecosystem and engaging in waste management public policy based on sound research and knowledge management. A non-profit led by women, CEMPRE is part of a larger umbrella group that has chapters throughout Latin America.
CEMPRE identified two cities for the ASPPIRe project where they could build on an ongoing initiative called RED RECICLO, (which is focused on packaging policy) and where local actors were interested in joining forces: Cartagena, a major city popular with tourists, and Buenaventura, a rural coastal city. Within these two cities, four cooperatives (organized groups of informal recyclers) agreed to develop and pilot new models to collect plastic waste that currently lacks end-markets in the recycling system—the types of plastics that are most likely to be found in our ocean. The pilot will also aim to align cooperatives with Colombia’s legal formalization path for recyclers, as many cooperatives are not yet fully compliant with government guidance—which will ultimately provide workers with better incomes and access to social services. ASPPIRe supports the path to government compliance through targeted social and professional trainings to improve the well-being of workers, utilizing the SA8000 standard mentioned above and supported by coordinating partner, iWrc.
As the partners started working on the project, CEMPRE suggested they work together on an activity with a community focus. On July 10th, dozens of volunteers from the area around Cartagena came together with 15 informal recyclers from the local waste cooperatives to cleanup local beaches and mangroves, collecting all types of materials and handing over anything that had value to the recyclers so that they could sell it back into the recycling system. In just a few hours, the group of more than 60 people collected 1.6 tons (or 3,200 pounds) of recyclable materials.
The group wore buttons that translate to “my job protects the ocean”—an inspiring reminder that informal waste collectors and recyclers in Colombia and around the world are providing a valuable service that contributes to waste management systems and protects our natural environment.
Another cleanup activity will take place in Buenaventura this fall with the same goal: to bring together the community, including local informal recyclers, to raise awareness and connect the dots between waste management and keeping our ocean free of plastic.
“Throughout the years, we have learned that working with those with whom we share a view of the future is the foundation to build on. We respect the place each actor has forged in the dynamics of the recycling industry over the years; thus, our goal is to join and empower them through the achievement of sustainable business models that result in the circularity of materials. Sustainable businesses are the basis of a balanced society, where economic and environmental development meet and guarantee social needs and goals,” said Laura Reyes, Executive Director at CEMPRE.
Michael Maggio, President of iWrc noted, “What we’ve learned is that the key to engaging the informal sector is a consistent process. Our model has always been to engage local partners in-country to perform the social assessments and build capacity; we have been very impressed with CEMPRE and their connection to the informal sector in Colombia. We have quickly built a strong relationship between our organizations, and together identified the potential for social improvements within the cooperatives. There is a tremendous opportunity for companies to engage and get involved in creating end-markets for the material being collected.”
We look forward to sharing further updates as the project gets underway, and in the meantime, let’s all think about how our job and our actions can protect our ocean.
Want to learn more? Read about the the ASPPIRe project and the Trash Free Seas Alliance. You can also join volunteers around the world who are working for a cleaner ocean by picking up the millions of pounds of trash and contributing to our database on marine debris. Download Ocean Conservancy’s free app: CleanSwell®