Silvio Ruiz is improving conditions for Colombia's informal recyclers by organizing them into a national association which presses for laws to recognize and regulate of their work, as well as benefits to enable them to compete with corporate waste management firms.
The New Idea
Silvio is working to legitimize and professionalize the work of recyclers so that they come to be recognized and respected as a productive component of society. This informal sector contributes to the economy and protection of the environment, while at the same time providing 250,000 people in Colombia alone with the means to earn a living by collecting and sorting waste products which can be re-used, saving costs to businesses, conserving the environment, and contributing to cleaner cities. Yet society does not respect their work, and favors replacing them with private garbage collectors and expensive waste-management technologies. By organizing recyclers at the local and national level, Silvio is creating a strong group able to pressure the government to legalize and regulate their work. A national law granting legalization of their work will protect the rights of the recyclers and offer safeguards like minimum wage, health benefits, and garbage collection contracts, as well as access to credit, housing, education and social security -- benefits which are currently not available to those who work in the informal sector. As public services are increasingly privatized, Silvio is demonstrating that organized recyclers can compete with private companies contracted to manage garbage, by recycling and disposing of garbage in a more cost-effective and labor-intensive way. Silvio's proposal for solid waste management focuses on individual recyclers and the use of human labor as part of the solution for waste management, instead of relying on expensive technologies. Projects in Brazil have promoted improvement on the business side of the recyclers' work, yet they do not incorporate the same organization, nor the work towards legalizing and regulating the recycling sector, that Silvio has promoted in Colombia. Silvio's model and his national association of recyclers was recognized by the United Nations as one of the 25 best and most innovative environmental practices in the world.
In the developed world, projects for waste management utilize costly technology not widely accessible to poorer countries. These technologies require great quantities of resources which are increasingly scarce, and replace of the labor of human beings. According to Silvio, Colombians produce 25,900 tons of trash each day and more than 9 million tons of solid waste each year, the equivalent of 255 kilograms per inhabitant annually. More than 7 million tons, or 75%, are products, such as paper, glass, and plastics, which can be recycled. Yet Colombians recycle only 14% of all the waste they produce. Government policies do not promote sustainable solutions over the long run to deal with increasing amounts of garbage as the citizenry grows. Instead, trash is dumped in rivers and waterways, covered with dirt, or burned. Because of their inefficient waste management programs, less developed countries such as Colombia must comply with requirements of international aid agencies to privatize public works such as garbage collection services in order to qualify for assistance. With the arrival of new technologies in the context of economic opening and the privatizing of this industry, individual recyclers are not given the chance to compete with private businesses. Recently in Bogota, five small collection centers from which thousands of recyclers were making a living were shut down to build one large privatized station. This new center not only took away the subsistence earnings of thousands of recyclers living nearby, but also left pollution and a stench throughout the area where it was located. Recyclers have been doing their work in Colombia in an informal and marginalized manner for decades, yet their efforts are not legally recognized. Although more than 250,000 people engage in this unregulated activity across the country, recyclers are not considered an economic sector and therefore are not included in the country's social and economic development programs. They receive no health, housing, social security, or education benefits. Many Colombians consider recyclers to be dirty nuisances, and even delinquents, rather than productive members of society. Nor do Colombians recognize their responsibility to recycle, as only 3% of the population separates waste products to be recycled. The rest of the population simply deposits their garbage in a can and places it in the street, where they consider their responsibilities to end.
Silvio's first goal is the organization of a strong union of recyclers to defend their interests, negotiate with state and local authorities, promote recycling, and draft a national law to secure their recognition and regulation. Since creating his first local cooperative a decade ago, Silvio has been traveling across Colombia to foment the creation of similar cooperatives of recyclers and there now exist more than 30 local recycler organizations throughout the country. He works within the unions to assist them to define their interests and strategies to achieve the empowerment of recyclers. At the national level, Silvio is the motivator and spokesperson for the National Association of Recyclers (ANR), an organization which he helped to found in 1991. With leaders of the regional recycler organizations, the ANR is defining a national strategy and action plans and creating a board of local recycling representatives to elaborate the final proposal for a national law. To increase the union's strength and national cohesion, local representatives of the country's 9 regions will convene every 3 months, with nationwide meetings held annually. Local government representatives and legislators, especially those who support social and environmental programs, are invited to these meetings to support the work of recyclers and a national law for their recognition. The monthly union newspaper, The Recycler, promotes discussion on the union's agenda with respect to its proposed law, and is available to all the country's recycler associations. Silvio will use the existing organization of recyclers to define the specific interests of the union in the presentation of a national proposal for a law to defend these interests and develop the necessary lobbying to guarantee its passage. Such a law, which Silvio is pushing to get passed within the next two years, will achieve both recognition of the work of recyclers and an opportunity for them to receive benefits in housing, social security, health, credit and technology. With access to credit, recyclers will be able to improve their transportation and collection means. With improved technology, base-level recyclers will be able to compete with private enterprises for contracts to collect and recycle garbage, offering their services at lower rates than private enterprises. Silvio is currently negotiating with city authorities to be included in Bogota's Master Plan 2000-2005 for waste management services. In the recognition that industry needs materials collected and made available by recyclers, Silvio will work with the unions in strategies for commercialization to negotiate prices and contracts to guarantee better prices. From intermediary businesses who buy the recyclables, a small percentage of the sales will be used to set up a housing fund for recyclers. Silvio also plans on establishing a private recycling enterprise with uniforms, basic minimum salary, and processing stations in each region. An education fund with mandatory contributions from the recyclers' unions will enable young recyclers to attend high school and college so that they can become the future leaders of the movement. Achieving a national law is not the end of Silvio's goals. He wants to reach a larger public and change attitudes towards recycling and waste management across Latin America. He is developing a process of mass communication to sensitize and educate society to recycle, promote the separation of recyclables, and get popular support for the sector's development and legalization through heightened awareness. He has already begun a consciousness-raising program for schools, offices, neighborhoods, and environmental groups to promote knowledge of the importance of the work of recyclers. Silvio designed and presented a course entitled "Organization of Recyclers" at the National University to sensitize students on the need for recycling. He also launched a six-month campaign in Bogota to promote neighborhood-level separation of garbage and the importance of returning recyclables to the chain of production, using flyers, car speakers, public meetings and marches. Each Wednesday Silvio meets with another six partners of Triumph Cooperative in a program of residential recycling, in which the inhabitants of a pilot zone in the city separate recyclables and donate them to the cooperative. In the long term Silvio wants nothing less than to create a worldwide network of recyclers, to continue improving their working and living conditions and to legitimize their profession. The Inter-American Development Bank financed a trip to Uruguay for him to begin the creation of a similar association of recyclers there. During the World Cities Summit, the United Nations recognized his model as one of the 25 best environmental practices in the world for managing waste products, promoting recycling, and organizing recyclers. Silvio presented his model in Brazil during the week for the environment, organized the first international encounter of recyclers, attended USAID's Latin American Conference of NGOs working to improve urban environments, and was invited by the Ministry on the Environment to present the experience of Colombian recyclers nationwide. Within the next five years, Silvio hopes to have formed a union of recyclers at the continental level, with consolidated recycler associations in each Latin American country and a strong network between them.
Silvio's father abandoned him and his family when he was 10 years old. When his mother became ill and was no longer able to work, Silvio was forced to quit school in the fourth grade to put food on the table for both of them. He began sorting through the garbage, picking out food and clothing for himself and his mother, and later earning a living through his recycling work. He began to imagine different work conditions for others like himself, as these conditions generated ideas to rebel against the prevailing system and achieve social acceptance for people forced to work with garbage. In 1985, when only 14 years old, Silvio and other recyclers created a cooperative. As the only founding partner under the legal age required by Colombia's law on the formation of cooperatives, Silvio played a central role in facilitating the admission of younger members with the signature of an older representative. Through the education committee Silvio was able to travel around Colombia to meet other struggling recyclers and share his experiences, motivating the organization of cooperatives throughout the country. In 1991, recyclers from 16 local cooperatives realized their first national meeting and began to work as a sector at the national level. Silvio was elected the association's national President. Silvio continues to collect garbage three nights each week, for economic reasons (to supplement his meager earnings with the association), but also to stay in touch with the people on whose behalf he is working. He is utterly committed to the recyclers and has passed up more lucrative positions to continue his work with them. He is very concerned with the changes that are taking place in the waste management industry and wants to make sure that recycling remains an option for many who have no other alternatives. Silvio credits recycling with saving his own and his mother's lives, and wants to make sure that others can still make a dignified living from it. He is studying at night to complete his high school diploma, and would ultimately like to go to college to study environmental engineering or law.