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In Mexico and Brazil: Cities Are Closing the Loop Between Trash and Food

RP Siegel | Monday July 23rd, 2012 | 0 Comments

Janine Benyus, noted biologist and author of the book Biomimicry, describes nine laws that nature seems to consistently follow in developing sustainable ecosystems. Modern designers, in their desire to create sustainable products are increasingly becoming aware of examples from nature, which has so often displayed the most elegant solutions to problems of design. These laws include:

  • Nature runs on sunlight.
  • Nature utilizes only the energy it needs.
  • Energy fits form to function.
  • Nature rewards cooperation.
  • Nature banks on diversity.
  • Nature demands local expertise.
  • Nature curbs excess from within.
  • Nature taps the power of limits.
  • Energy recycles everything.

This last one can be rephrased to say that, in nature, all waste, either directly or indirectly, becomes food. For example, leaves falling from a tree, if they are not raked up and put in plastic bags, decompose and enrich the soil, with the help of earthworms and soil microbes, eventually feeding the tree from which it fell or perhaps a different one.

The folks in the Brazilian city of Jundiai, north of Sao Paulo, have found a unique way to apply this law. Their program, “Delicious Recycling,” provides food to residents when they bring in recycling. The food comes from a community garden which boasts more than 30,000 plants. Now, instead of streets and waterways strewn with trash, they have healthy, well-fed residents. The program, a brainchild of the city’s Municipal Utilities department, has been running successfully for ten years.

As long as we’re talking trash today, another Brazilian city, Curitiba, near the coast, has run a similar program for twice that long. This city, which won a UN Environmental Program Award in 1990, exchanges transportation passes for the recycled materials. The program, which employs shantytown people to collect the trash, uses proceeds from the sale of the recyclable material for social programs to further assist those in need.

Like the program in Curitiba, Mexico City’s program was also born out of concern about the city’s ever-increasing trash output. This city of 20 million people produces some 12,600 metric tons of trash every day. After the city closed the world’s largest landfill last year, the 927 acre Bordo Poniente, in order to cap it and collect the methane gas for electric power generation, city officials are eager to find ways of reducing trash levels. Over its 26-year lifetime, Bordo Poniente accumulated over 76 million tons of trash. It is estimated that the methane generated will reduce GHG emissions by 25 million tons.

Now the city has its own waste-to-food program, the monthly barter market, Mercado de Trueque, in Chapultepec Park, where residents can swap recyclables for fresh produce. Residents that bring in glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper and cardboard, receive green points that they can redeem at the local farmers market. The farmers are then paid by the city.

The program has been a tremendous success. At the very first market, they “sold out” of three tons of agricultural products exchanged for trash. According to the Mexican environmental agency, the program creates “a direct link between sorting and exchanging waste and a sustainable food supply.”

These programs can and should be replicated in cities all across the globe.

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[Image credit: Luiz Felipe Castro: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle. Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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