Public Lab Research note

Mapping (in)formal and formal recycling sites and flows: Nicaragua to Boston

by mollydanielsson | October 10, 2014 01:27 10 Oct 01:27 | #11256 | #11256

This is an article by Eliana Blaine for Grassroots Mapping Issue #6 on Waste. Buy a copy here.

I was first introduced to Public Laboratory in through work with the Community Innovators Lab and with D Lab at MIT. I was excited by the possibilities of using kite mapping at landfill sites in Atlantic coastal municipalities in Nicaragua. I was working with Libby McDonald at MIT to develop a regional recycling chain among five municipalities in the RAAS (Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region).

Part of my role was to work in El Rama, Nicaragua, with individuals that create economic opportunities for themselves and their families through recycling (in)formally. We were intent on gauging the feasibility and interest of people locally in creating a cooperative business(es) to collect source-separated plastic bottles directly from large generation points in the town – primarily businesses (bars, restaurants, hotels) down town.

A key component of this work was to gain a better understanding of how recyclables and trash flowed through the town of El Rama. We were interested in the value chain economics of the materials and the social dynamics around processes of collection, selling, and transporting recyclables, primarily the low-value plastic bottles.

We mapped both formal and (in)formal networks. We wanted a participatory process, and with limited time in Rama, we were drawn to two techniques: 1) aerial mapping with a kite at the existing landfill, and 2) using laminated aerial maps of the town and neighborhoods from Bing and ArcGIS. In the latter method, I used ArcGIS to download map data from Bing, printed out and laminated 3’x4’ maps with enough detail to see individual buildings and streets.

We led participatory workshops with two audiences 1) government officials that run the formal trash collection route, and 2) (in)formal recyclers to map businesses with “high generation” of plastic bottles and a future bike-powered recycling collection route. Kite mapping allowed us greater hands-on involvement with recyclers, the landfill’s scope and material content, and impact on the surrounding wetland.

I’m now working with Save That Stuff, Inc. in Boston, MA. STS is an independently owned recycling and resource management company, whose founder began collecting cardboard in the back of his VW Half Cab (half bus and half pickup truck). I have seen how recycling network, and competition, has grown dramatically in the past 25 years, in line with national and international trends. The transition to single stream recycling from dual stream diminishes the commodity value to smaller (formal) haulers from the recycling volumes collected, and companies are pushed to diversify their service provision to stay afloat.

At Save That Stuff, I’m involved with understanding technologies entering the recycling and waste management marketplace. One is TRUX technology, a program for managing accounts, collected materials, and dispatching, and helps us optimize collection and route efficiency. Another is a Finish company’s Enevo One technology. It is a sensor that can be installed in dumpsters that emits sonar to monitor the fullness of the container. The capacity percentage is streamed online for the hauler and customer to track, and optimize collections accordingly. Enevo ONe sensors are primarily useful at large institutions with multiple pickup locations, such as universities and hospitals.

I am still most motivated by and see a place for increased research on the intersection and impacts of (in)formal and formal bottle/can recycling in Boston, specifically of plastic, glass, and aluminum cans. I want to bring similar thinking from El Rama to mapping and understanding the (in)formal and (in)visible recycling economies and social networks around Boston, and the flows of gleaned bottles and cans that have a deposit. I care to know more about the people involved, their recycling expertise, their connections and conflicts, stories, and how they move throughout the city and negotiate claims on space and materials.


Hi, Molly - if you tag this post with "with:eblaine", you'll give Elli co-author credit!

Reply to this comment...

I've tagged it with "response:6815" to link it to her original research note, too.

Reply to this comment...

Login to comment.