Talking Trash

May 29th, 2012 by Hillary Rosner

One innovator explains how wasting waste is a missed opportunity.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Libby McDonald is a woman obsessed with garbage. McDonald works at the Community Innovators Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which combines technology and economics to help create sustainable cities. Her issue of choice is a daunting one; how we dispose of our garbage impacts our water, soil and air, which in turn affects our health. Yet around the globe, billions of people live in places with no healthy way to dispose of their waste. McDonald believes this to be a missed opportunity, in that we’re essentially wasting waste when we could be turning much of it into resources.

What compelled you to work on garbage? Have you always felt a responsibility to try to solve its problems?

I remember in the 1970s, that commercial with the crying Native American, the part where he’s canoeing upstream and spies the litter. After I saw that, I started my first neighborhood recycling campaign; I was seven. From then on, wherever I lived, I was doing some sort of composting or recycling project. I became an expert, and it really just emerged from my own passion.

We have such a need for appropriate waste management that puts people to work, as opposed to incinerating garbage – which is hard on the environment and burns the waste rather than reusing its resources. People are the best sorters, so there’s plenty of opportunity for job creation.

What goes on at the Community Innovators Lab?

We work with folks at the margins, to build enterprises, to create local wealth – jobs as well as sustainability. For instance, in the Bronx, a group from the Lab is working to get institutions to buy locally; for instance, a hospital might agree to have all of their linens laundered in the neighborhood.

In general, we work with community partners to build worker-owned cooperatives.
I work on waste issues, so the groups I most often find myself working with are waste pickers, who are often women. Waste pickers are people who have no other option but to live off waste. They’re the poorest of the poor; they’re all over the world. Their kids are often with them because there’s no daycare. There’s no reason that a woman should have to raise her children in a dumpsite.

In the places where you work – poor communities in Nicaragua, India and Brazil – there is little organized waste collection or recycling. What are the environmental costs?

Most of the waste in these municipalities is organic. Organic waste gives off greenhouse gas emissions when it’s simply tossed at a dumpsite to rot; that’s one cost. Another is that the garbage is often burned. If you’ve traveled in these kinds of communities, you know the experience of waking up early in the morning and smelling the smoke of burning garbage. And the third piece is that garbage is often dumped in waterways or can leach into the water supply.

How do you begin to tackle this problem?

My waste and recycling work at MIT links technology and innovative business models for enterprise development in low and middle-income countries. At the end of 2009, the United Nations Development Program called us in to look at five municipalities on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua that have been devastated by waste, both human and solid. The waterways are suffering; air quality is a problem because of burning trash. So I went in with a group of MIT students early this year to determine if we could build a recycling route. Working in partnership with waste workers and municipalities, we designed a plan to launch a number of waste enterprises. What’s currently being recycled in the region is only metal, because everything has to make its way to Managua, the capital, on the other side of the country. Plastic, cardboard and paper aren’t cost-effective. We’re now attempting to link the five communities, so we can create enough tonnage to pay for the transportation cost.

The project has been turned into a D-Lab class that was launched this fall at MIT. Students broke into three teams; one team is working to develop a recycling route with the garbage pickers, another is developing an initiative to turn the organic waste into compost and use it to grow food, which locals can sell. And the third team is working on technology that would make methane – natural gas that can be used for cooking – from slaughterhouse waste. Previously the slaughterhouse waste went into the bay. All three teams will be traveling to Bluefields, Nicaragua, in two weeks to meet with local partners and stakeholders, fine-tune business models, and implement a small biodigester at the high school.

You’re a dedicated swimmer who has braved the waters of lakes, rivers and oceans around the world. Do you find water pollution particularly troubling?

I’m crazy about water. I keep a wetsuit and goggles in the back of my minivan. Wherever I go, if I see water, I swim. Garbage destroys water. It’s part of what fuels my work. I will swim in almost anything, but not in that bay in Nicaragua; not in the rivers in Sao Paulo. But I hope someday that these places where I’m working will be places I can begin to swim.

Hilary Rosner’s writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Popular Science, The New York Times, Newsweek, OnEarth, and many other publications.