Freddy Antonio Méndez wakes at dawn every day to hit the streets with a plastic sack slung over his shoulder to search for saleable garbage.
Though most Granada residents never see him, Méndez, through years of sorting through curb-side garbage bags, knows who lives where and what lifestyles people lead. He knows which households consume lots of rum or bottled water, which ones buy the newspapers every day, and which have infants who eat Gerber. And he knows which households are wasteful with food.
“The Gringos are the best for garbage,” said Méndez, 38, as he and his 12-year-old son Armando sift carefully through garbage bags on Calle Real Xalteva, an hour before the garbage truck passes. “Sometimes they throw away old cell phones and chargers, or even old fans.”
Some residents who have become familiar with Méndez, a gentle and soft-spoken man who laboriously supports two children while trying to repay a small loan on the 100- 150 Córdobas ($5- $7.50) he earns each day from selling recyclables, step out of their homes to give him day-old food, a bag of extra rice, or a package of recently expired deli meat.
Méndez is the first line in what is considered Nicaragua’s “recycling program,” which has more to do with scavenging and separating garbage than actual recycling. Shortly after Méndez moves on down the street, leaving each examined garbage bag retied neatly behind him, another garbage sorter invariably passes by in search of similar valuables left behind.
The garbage is again sorted by the municipal garbage collectors, who rummage through the bags hoisted on the back of the truck and separate out any remaining cans, bottles, plastics, metals, newspapers or cardboard missed by the street pickers. Once the garbage makes it to the dump, a final wave of people sort through the mountains of trash.
In broader terms, less than half of Nicaraguan households have garbage collection service to begin with. According to one national study, some 56 percent of Nicaraguan households dispose of rubbish by burning it, burying it or throwing it in a river, arroyo or some other inappropriate dumping ground. But of the garbage that is bagged and collected, scavenging and sorting is becoming an increasingly important activity in Nicaragua’s predominantly informal and impoverished economy.
Méndez says the competition among trash-pickers in Granada has become increasingly stiff. Several years ago, he was collecting 500 Córdobas (around $28 at that time) a day worth of bottles, plastics and paper; but now he’s earning only a fifth of that, forcing him to seek alternative sources of income.
“After heavy rains I go down into the arroyos and search in the mud. Sometimes I find gold teeth, which I guess get washed down from the cemetery,” Méndez said.
The Efficiency of Poverty
As more people get involved in garbagepicking, Nicaragua’s trash is getting sorted more and more thoroughly. Two independent studies in Granada and Managua reveal that 80 to 86 percent of the garbage at the dump is organic waste that has been picked clean of all plastics, metals, glass and other inorganic recyclables.
Indeed, sources say Nicaragua’s staggering level of poverty has created a “very efficient” system for garbage separation, even leading to conflicts between people who live in the dump and those who work on the garbage trucks.
“A lot of the garbage is separated before it gets to La Chureca (Managua’s main dump), and that causes a conflict because there are a lot of people who survive on that garbage,” said Silvia Miori, international coordinator of BasManagua, an Italian-funded project that works on garbage issues in Managua.
Miori says her group is studying the possibility of creating a small composting business to convert Nicaragua’s large amount of organic waste into fertilizer. After a year and a half of working on garbage issues in Managua’s District Six, Miori laments that more hasn’t been done here to establish similar recycling initiatives.
“There really aren’t any recycling businesses here,” the Italian aid worker said.
“There are no bins for recycling, and there is no way to recycle. So we are teaching people how to reuse garbage.”
Even in the few places that do have recycling bins, such as the Mayor’s Office of Granada, the various containers are usually filled indiscriminately with mixed garbage. The real sorting doesn’t occur until the garbage bags make it the street and the trashpickers go to work.
Many of the individual trash-pickers sell to local intermediaries, who store the garbage and sell it in bulk to larger companies for cleaning, packaging and export.
Some of the larger companies, such as the Managua-based Resinas, process plastic bottles into recyclable pellets for export. But most of the companies in Nicaragua export recyclable material in bulk without any transformation.
The materials are then bought by recycling companies in Costa Rica and El Salvador and transformed into new products, which are then sold back to Nicaragua and to other markets at a value-added cost.
Kamilo Laras, executive president of Nicaragua’s misleadingly named National Recycling Forum, notes that the country’s lack of a recycling program is another example of Nicaragua exporting its primary materials so others can profit.
Last year alone, Laras said, Nicaragua exported some $38 million in paper, plastic, aluminum, copper and other metals to be recycled abroad. If Nicaragua had its own recycling programs, the value-added earnings on its exports would have been about 40 percent higher, according to industry experts.
“This could be a motor for the economy that we need to pay more attention to so that Nicaragua doesn’t continue to be an exporter of its primary materials in all areas,” Laras told The Nica Times. “Recycling would give a great opportunity to a great number of small businesses that can get involved in this type of work.”
Other countries already know that. In El Salvador, Alas Doradas, a paper recycling plant that imports large amounts of used paper from Nicaragua to process into toilet paper, notepads, and folders, employs 700 Salvadorans and sells its products throughout El Salvador and Guatemala, according to company sales representative Víctor Mejía.
Though larger recycling plants such as Alas Doradas require a substantial start-up investment, Nicaragua has enormous potential to create several smaller-scale recycling plants, sources say.
“In the mid- and long-term, we are trying to push private business and the government to invest in small recycling plants,” Laras said during last week’s first annual conference of the National Recycling Forum, which provided an important first baby step toward addressing this important issue in Nicaragua.
Laras said one of the goals of the meeting is to start to change the way Nicaragua views the issues of garbage. People who sort through trash, he said, need to be “better organized and trained” and viewed as productive members of society, rather than “indigents.”
“The idea is that these people who work in the dump and collect garbage on the streets, with time, can use that experience to become small business owners,” he said.
For people like Méndez, who’s already demonstrated his industrious work ethic and ability to adapt to new business challenges presented by other garbage pickers in Granada, running a small recycling business would probably come as second nature, if he only had a helping hand to get started.