Sarah Lince and I, two people in a team of MIT students conducting a waste management analysis for five municipalities in the Region Autonoma del Atlantic Sur (RAAS) of Nicaragua, just returned from a tour around the city of Managua and our journey into the exciting world of the trade of recyclables in Nicaragua.
It might seem that we are working backwards, as Managua appears to be the end point for the materials traveling through our recycling stream. However, before we even begin designing a waste management system for this region, we need it see if it looks like a viable business to enter. Our project is based on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, and the materials from our pilot project on Corn Island, Nicaragua need to travel first by boat to El Rama and then continue by truck the 300 km to Managua.
What we sought to find out today was whether or not the end prices that brokers in Managua receive are able cover the transportation and labor fees of traveling such a far distance, or whether it would be better to look into other locales and options, such as sending the recyclables to Costa Rica, or setting up some other system ourselves on the Atlantic Coast.
The first stop on our tour was a small buyer of metals and plastics nearby our hostel and in the center of the city. As we expected, the prices offered were low; this buyer tends to buy in small quantities, and mainly from local informal collectors. She ends up reselling what she buys to larger brokers elsewhere in the city.
Our next stop was at a larger broker on the eastern side of the city called Maber Metals, which deals in various types of metals as well as air conditioner filters and batteries. The owner was very helpful, answering our questions in his office and giving us a tour of the operation, which included a demonstration of their aluminum can compactor. The most helpful information we received from him though was that they are already buying recyclables from El Rama, a city near the Atlantic Coast. They receive a truckload every 15 days. This was very important information because it is much easier, and more profitable, for us to plan a system that brings all the recyclables from the 5 municipalities together in El Rama, especially if there are already established brokers there.
From there we headed further out of town, visiting several other brokers. Most of them were strictly metal dealers whose operations resembled junkyards more than recyclers. Every person at each of these stops was helpful and gave us the prices at which they are currently buying, but beyond that we did not get much more information.
One key question we were trying to answer is: Where do trash and recyclables go after Managua? It seems that materials tend to get traded quite a bit through different locations in Managua, but others end up going to processing plants in El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as in the United States and China.
Finding buyers of iron, copper, and aluminum was easy. There are already metal collectors and traders on Corn Island that transport their materials to Managua. The real challenge was to find buyers of paper and plastic. The first place we found that buys paper was a place called Reciclaje D.A.S.A. When we arrived, men were feeding metal into a compactor while children relaxed in the shade in rocking chairs made from old rebar. We spoke to a woman in the office, but the management was out of the office at the time so we went to check out the other buyers in the vicinity.
Right next door to D.A.S.A. we found another smaller buyer of metals and plastics. Out front, men loaded metal into a truck while a young girl hit plastic soda bottles into a pile with a golf club and a little boy with a drawn-on beard sat with his head down in the corner. The supervisor told us that the truck they were loading was to go next door and be sold to D.A.S.A. Later we that found several other small dealers in the vicinity were doing the same thing. This phenomenon clearly illustrates economies of scale in the recycling business, as well as the need to have a large volume in order to have a profitable business.
Our final stop was at several dealers near the city dump, La Churacha. This area had many brokers, and we saw informal collectors pushing carts through the streets on every block. Here we found buyers of metal, paper, and plastic, dealing in all quantities and sizes. We stopped at the office of Renisa, a recycler who also trains the collectors that operate in the dump site that is used by the cooperative we visited yesterday, Manos Unidas, and whose colorful sign welcomed us with their motto: “Transforming Waste into Art”. We already have a meeting scheduled with them for tomorrow so we did not venture inside today, but we definitely look forward to seeing their operation.
All in all we were very pleased with how our day went and the information we found. Now that we have the prices, the next step is to estimate the quantities that can be collected on Corn Island and the municipalities we are working, as well as the transportation and labor costs in order to see if it would make sense to ship things from the RAAS to recyclers in Managua.
Post by Michael Tuori. Photos by Sarah Lince. This post is part of the Designing a Waste Management Strategy in Coastal Nicaragua series.