Having invented a technology that turns organic waste into a fertilizer that is better, cheaper, and greener than conventional alternatives, Luis Orlando Castro is deploying the technology widely and maximizing the number of quality jobs it can create in waste collection, fertilizer production, agriculture, and marketing of produce.
The New Idea
Luis Orlando Castro is turning the biodegradable components of trash from a source of contamination into a cheap and accessible resource. The technology he has invented converts organic waste into a highly effective fertilizer. He sees multiple ways that waste can translate into income-producing work for poor people and generate benefits to the land, and he is making the necessary connections among recyclers, waste-processing plants, government training institutes, farmers, buyers of farmers' produce, environmental restoration efforts, and municipal governments that control waste-disposal contracts. The municipal waste-disposal contracts are the fulcrum for spreading Luis Orlando's work. While they remain in the hands of landfill operators, they are an obstacle. But where town and city governments become convinced that Luis Orlando's approach is preferable to the status quo, the contracts open the door to profitable fertilizer production and many attendant employment and marketing opportunities. By demonstrating success at a pilot site and methodically documenting the success stories of the fertilizer–called Bioabono, abono being the Spanish word for fertilizer–Luis Orlando has been poised to seize municipal contract opportunities when he has identified them, and is ready with a tested alternative as the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for landfills to be eliminated by 2005.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average daily production of municipal solid waste in Latin America is one kilogram per person, and worldwide, as of 1990, 1.25 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste–occupying 2.5 billion cubic meters–were being produced each day. Solid waste in Colombia is not separated according to its content, largely because there is little education about trash separation. The most common method of waste management is burying it all (organic, nonorganic, and recyclable) in landfills. Garbage dumps and incinerators are common and are known to be damaging to the environment and to the people who live near them. Organic waste, in particular, contaminates as it decomposes, releasing liquids and gases that pollute bodies of water and cause health problems in humans. It is not impossible for landfills to be "sanitary," but it is costly, meaning charges of $150-180 per metric ton for garbage depositors. Conventional landfills levy charges that are a small fraction of this cost; for example, the city of Bogotá pays an average of $8 per metric ton for deposits in the Doña Juana landfill. For cost reasons, therefore, no landfill in Latin America is sanitary. The WHO has called for alternatives to be found and landfills to be phased out by 2005.The entire system of landfill disposal is based on a perception of waste as detritus to get rid of rather than a raw material that people could be gainfully employed to process into something good for the land. On average, 70 percent of solid waste is organic, according to the EPA. Agriculture is an obvious outlet for organic waste if it can be turned into good fertilizer. In some countries, it is turned into fertilizer through composting, but composting takes a long time–typically seven months–and fertilizers produced by composting usually contain gases and pathogens that make them problematic for crop production.
Out of habit and the lack of good alternatives, Colombian farmers commonly treat their crops with chemical fertilizers which have widely acknowledged environmental and health consequences, and are expensive (a metric ton of the commonly used "Triple 15" costs $185). Farmers who use chemical fertilizers also forego the opportunity to market crops as organic, which would earn them premium prices in European and US markets.Part of the problem is that landfill companies have a great deal of influence, as those with the contracts tend to have friends in the government. Autonomous Regional Corporations have authority to monitor the state of the environment, and each municipality creates its own waste disposal arrangements. Luis Orlando's first use of Bioabono resolved an environmental crisis in one municipality, which had been overrun by flies with prior waste management methods, but the Director of the Autonomous Regional Corporation declared that Luis Orlando's process did not work–contrary to the opinions of several state institutions and academics. The municipal waste-management contract was renewed with the landfill company that had caused the problem in the first place.
Luis Orlando created a technology that uses a combination of eight microorganisms to break down organic waste and turn it into a usable fertilizer product, Bioabono. His Colombian Science Foundation holds the patent for the technology. The technology processes waste without the community health concerns of incinerators, dumps, and landfills, and is much faster and cleaner than composting. The Bioabono it produces is better, cleaner, and cheaper than other fertilizers, both chemical and organic, available to farmers.
The primary market for Luis Orlando's technology are municipal governments charged with meeting environmental standards. Since the political influence of landfill operators is greatest in larger towns and cities, Luis Orlando has focused so far on small municipalities. For example, Luis Orlando established a pilot initiative in the municipality of Cocuy, in the Magdalena River watershed, with the approval of the mayor. Residents learned to separate organic from nonorganic waste, and to apply Luis Orlando's technology to the organic waste to produce Bioabono. A metric ton of organic solid waste can produce 330 kg of Bioabono in as few as thirty days. Soon, the Cocuy waste-processing unit had stocks of fertilizer that they were able to market to local farmers. To win over new customers, they initially gave out free samples. Farmers in the Cocuy area are now regularly buying the fertilizer at a price of $150 per metric ton.This is an attractive price for farmers, cheaper than conventional chemical fertilizers. The product is also better than its conventional rivals. Crops capture 96 percent of Bioabono's high level of nutrients, in contrast to the 10-20 percent capture rate from conventional fertilizers (Colombian Agriculture and Livestock Institute, 1996), and its application reduces water needs by 30 percent. Bioabono has restored soils depleted by salt and desertification, speeded reforestation in the Magdalena valley, and boosted crop production by as much as 244 percent.
Several companies that produce chemical fertilizers–including some of the largest–have evaluated Bioabono and determined it to be more effective than their own products. Compared to other organic fertilizers produced by composting, Bioabono has the advantage of being virtually free of pathogens, gases, flies, or rodents. Luis Orlando's interest doesn't stop once the farmer buys Bioabono. The Foundation provides training to Bioabono customers on growing crops for "organic" markets, using partnerships with field professors from nine Colombian universities. The Foundation also helps farmers to market their goods directly to buyers–allowing them to capture a higher proportion of the market price than the 30 percent they typically net by going through middlemen or transporting their produce to markets. For example, Luis Orlando and his colleagues facilitated an arrangement between the Cocuy farmers and a Swiss food processing company, Southern Cross. Southern Cross has guaranteed them a market for the next fifteen years, purchasing produce from the farmers at 150 percent of the daily local market value and turning it into microwave meals for European militaries. Southern Cross will also provide collateral on a mortgage for a plant in Cocuy, allowing six thousand local families to buy it over a ten year period. Before it actually builds the plant, Southern Cross wants guarantees that it will not be destroyed by guerrillas, so the farmers took the project to the Colombian Peace Negotiation Table in Cajuan.
The FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, agreed not to target the plant, and farmers are trying to secure the same commitment from the ELN, the other main guerrilla group. With the Cocuy initiative well developed, the Foundation plans to open three plants in Huila in 2001. They also won a contract for Duitama, Boyacá state. Although Luis Orlando does not expect to have as much immediate success in cities as in smaller municipalities, the Foundation has found partners in Bogotá. The city's progressive mayor has asked the Foundation to run a plant to treat the waste from the city's four largest farmers' markets, 500 metric tons a day, nearly all organic. The city will build the plant and lease it to the Foundation. In a place the scale of Bogotá, there is another link of the value chain that Luis Orlando is able to integrate into his model: the recycling industry. Although Luis Orlando would like to see a day when recyclers own the processing plants, for the time being, this cannot be a reality. For now, the Foundation's operation in Bogotá will hire recyclers from existing cooperatives. As more plants open, recyclers–who are some of Colombia's poorest citizens, most isolated from the formal economy–will become shareholders in the companies, earn salaries, and have access to social security benefits.
Recyclers' participation does not end with separating waste. Some are already receiving training on how to make marketable products out of recyclables, or have enrolled in accounting and management courses at SENA, Colombia's state training institute. A group of three women who previously worked as recyclers have created a profitable business after receiving training and eight blenders (besides blenders, recycled paper can be produced with household items: screens, cloth, rolling pins, and tubs). In their first three months of work, they earned $350 from the sale of Christmas cards made from recycled paper. The initial contact with SENA and the store that sells the cards was made by Luis Orlando, but the women have since secured their own contract with a bookstore to sell recycled paper.In three years, Luis Orlando intends to have thirty plants in Latin America, five in Europe, and one in the United States, where he has encountered interest in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. He is using contacts he has maintained with municipalities in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela, from a 1999 tour when he won the Alcatel Prize (a French award). In Europe, where there is interest in replenishing depleted soils with Bioabono, he was invited to set up a pilot plant in Spain. The proposal would involve contributing to upfront capital needs in the amount of $125,000, and Luis Orlando is considering ways of financing this.
Luis Orlando comes from a poor family. His father was an agricultural researcher who was responsible for the genetic improvement and creation of a new type of orange. Luis Orlando learned his discipline and rigorous work habits from his father and his social values from his mother. His father died when he was twelve years old. While his older brother took over the financial responsibilities of the family, Luis also felt that he should contribute to the family's expenses, so he dedicated himself to finishing his studies quickly, graduated high school at the age of thirteen, and completed a doctorate at New York University eight years later. He returned to Colombia and worked for ten years as a professor at the National University. There, Luis Orlando convinced other professors to collaborate with him to create a school for poor children, whom they supported financially with their own resources. He also supported poor children from different regions, beginning with their high school studies. The first of the children he supported is now a professor of microbiology.
In the 1980s, Luis Orlando began to research microorganisms that help to stabilize biodegradable solid waste, and he initiated tests on Bioabono in 1988. In 1990, he created the Colombian Science Foundation to promote scientific research geared toward environmental improvement through public and private partnerships. The Foundation's one hundred six members are university professors who volunteer time. Luis Orlando heads the Foundation's Biotechnology Group, which holds the patent for Bioabono, and he is also president of the Foundation. Although Luis Orlando has had several offers to buy the patent for Bioabono from companies in the U.S. and Europe, he is not interested. He has received offers from entities in countries such as Spain that would allow him and the other scientists to have well-paying jobs for life. However, Luis Orlando prefers to use the technology he developed for social benefit, rather than allowing a corporation to automate the process, thereby eliminating the possibility of contributing to local incomes. Luis Orlando is committed to this principle because he believes that "the only way for anyone's life to improve is for everyone's lives to improve."