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March 25 2011


CoLab Project Spotlight: Recycling Cooperatives in South and Central America

The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is a center for planning and development within MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help improve livelihoods and strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice.

This blog will periodically feature CoLab project spotlights in an effort to increase idea exchange and collaboration on these projects.

CoLab’s Libby McDonald and MIT students work with local recycling experts on Corn Island in Nicaragua to do a waste sort as part of data collection for determining how to reform Corn Island’s trash collection route.

"I went to a meeting of business owners and government officials in Sao Paulo," says CoLab’s Libby McDonald, "and the businesses were saying, 'We can’t really figure out how to work with the wastepicking cooperatives. How do we ensure that they do regular pick ups? How do we know if they'll even come when they say they will?' And then right after, I went to a meeting with the Sao Paulo Union of Catadores (Wastepickers), and they said, "How are we going to handle the additional tonnage coming from these companies?'"

Brazil recently passed a law mandating that businesses recycle a certain percentage of their waste. The government strongly encouraged businesses to hire informal recycling cooperatives to get the job done.

McDonald coordinates the Green Grease project in Brazil and a similar project in Nicaragua with these informal recycling cooperatives. Working in partnership with them, she assembles teams of students from various MIT departments to research the issues in question and then brings the students to Brazil and Nicaragua to work on-site developing waste management plans.

The key question that these projects seek to answer is: How can informal cooperatives scale up and develop a business model that allows them to work directly with private sector companies and local governments?

McDonald identifies a few important challenges in answering that question:

  • Local governments don’t always recognize informal recycling cooperatives, which provide a legitimate public service. The cooperatives want to be recognized for the services they provide.
  • There is a capacity challenge. The same people who corner the market on local recycling knowledge may not know how to read and write; nonetheless, we need to figure out together how to best manage these businesses.
  • From the MIT end, it is difficult to raise money to cover costs associated with these projects.
  • It’s no simple challenge to figure out how to establish waste-to-energy and recycling businesses. The problem incorporates social issues, class issues, environmental issues, and a business challenge.

A key element, McDonald has discovered, is trust. In Sao Paulo, local recycling cooperatives are agile and timely in collecting household waste and processing it. But when it comes to working with hotels and other private companies, there is a disconnect. The relationships aren’t there, and although the cooperative is capable of doing the work, they are almost never hired to do it.

January 10 2011


Q&A: CoLab, the MIT Community Innovators Lab

The MIT Community Innovators Lab is a center for planning and development within MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice. Its vision is for domestic and international communities to be democratically governed, provide the means for residents to generate decent livelihoods, and be clean, healthy, and environmentally sound. CoLab Radio describes how that vision happens step-by-step, story by story, in communities.

1.) What does it mean to do this kind of work at MIT? Are there unique opportunities and challenges in this setting?

Dayna Cunningham (Executive Director): First, it means engaging a set of students with a particular set of ideas that we’ve defined around the intersection of three things: urban sustainability, civic engagement, and shared-wealth generation. Second, it means working with those students to help support the relationships we have with community organizations. All of that requires a particular set of skills and a set of values that we work hard to sustain and support. It means working with both our student colleagues and community colleagues around learning through this ongoing process.

2.) Who’s work at CoLab has surprised you the most?

Alexa Mills (Community Media Specialist): Program Manager Carlos Espinoza-Toro’s work has surprised me the most over the years because it’s been fascinating to watch his versatility unfold. Carlos and I graduated from the Masters in City Planning program together in 2008, so I have known him since 2006. In that time, I have seen him move from a ‘recovering architect’, as our co-worker Amy Stitely says, to someone who could organize a 30-student trip to Peru. At CoLab, Carlos started by leading a team of fifteen people in graphing the path of U.S. Stimulus Funds from the government to communities. Even their unfinished product was so powerful that a U.S. Congressman actually stole it off the wall of our community partner’s office in North Carolina. He moved on to manage the Mel King Community Fellows Program, and now is in a process to green America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. His versatility is incredible.

3.) On a scale of 9.9 to 10, how awesome is Mel King? How did the Mel King Community Fellows Program come about and what has it been up to?

Cunningham: Um, 12 and ½. No! 18.25. Mel King is extremely awesome. Mel King is in his mid 80’s. He runs a technology center in the South End, where he has lived his whole life, and this center engages young people in understanding the latest technology. So here is this man in his mid-80s who understands technology at least as well, if not better, than most young people. On top of that, this guy ran for mayor. In his life, he led a whole movement in the city of Boston around neighborhood revitalization and community participation. He’s a beloved hero, and here he is in a basement in a brownstone in the South End just pulling kids off the street to teach them about technology. It’s extraordinary.

Mel was on a plane going to D.C. and he ran into the then-president of MIT and they put together the vision for the Community Fellows Program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He ran the program for 30 years. The whole idea of the Community Fellows Program was to bring activists to the campus to give them a chance to reflect, to refresh, to be thoughtful about the work of social change, to work with MIT faculty, and to provide MIT with a window into change processes social change in marginalized communities - out in the world.

The current Mel King Community Fellows Program builds on that but in a different way. The original program which was structured as a year spent on the campus. In the current program, we don’t want to take community activists away from their work in their communities, we just want to bring them together for short periods of time over a year.

Espinoza-Toro: Over the past year, the Fellows have been having meaningful discussion the current political environment in the United States. They’ve been reflecting on their work in the communities where they operate. In order to broaden our vision, we took a trip to Cleveland to witness a cooperative development. In our next meeting, we’re planning to co-design the upcoming fellowship year with the current fellows.

- - - - - -

This post is part of a Q&A triangle between three offices at MIT: the IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge, the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), and the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Each office asked three questions of the other two offices, generating six blog posts. Check out the other posts, which will be published between January 6th and 11th, if you’re interested:

• CoLab interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEASIDEAS interviews C4FCMC4FCM interviews CoLab

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