In Latin America, where recycling rates remain below 10%, grassroots circular solutions are slowly beginning to scale — thanks to growing legitimacy, education, organization and protections for informal waste workers, who remain the backbone of the region’s collection and recycling infrastructure.
As the saying goes, necessity breeds invention. In Latin America — where UNEP reports recycling rates generally remain below 10 percent — this adage is reflected by a fertile ground of bespoke solutions driven by waste pickers, who are on the frontline of the transition to a circular economy. Their ingenuity and steadfast determination can be enhanced through strategic partnerships that offer efficiencies, providing benefits that also support local communities.
“We need to capitalize on these efforts,” Carolina Mantilla tells Sustainable Brands®. As Sustainability and Recycling Director for Dow’s Plastics and Speciality Packaging business in Latin America, she has been working to find ways of unlocking the region’s waste management challenges since 2018.
A 21-year veteran of Dow, Bogotá-based Mantilla is upbeat about the opportunities to not only transform the way industries think about and use plastic packaging, but to decarbonize local economies.
“In Latin America, we have a significant challenge,” she says. “More than 40 percent of the solid waste that is generated in the region is not properly dealt with.”
But with more cities and governments implementing policies and legislation designed to address the impact of plastic waste in particular, changes are coming:
In Brazil, packaging companies must implement a reverse-logistics system for general packaging — which requires them to invest in waste-management cooperatives, sign contracts with retailers to establish voluntary waste-collection points, and make efforts to help consumers return packaging.
In Colombia, packers, fillers and importers of packaged products are required to submit waste-management plans to the government; and producers must also meet reuse targets for waste packaging.
In Chile, new packaging extended producer responsibility laws will help establish an obligatory recycling rate producers and recyclers must meet.
“We will need more smart policies to help us scale what we are doing and the solutions we’re proposing,” Mantilla says.
The region will also need the efforts of its four million informal waste workers who, historically, have been left behind and face barriers such as societal and worker discrimination, heightened health risks and more.
“We see an opportunity to work with these communities and put them at the center of any circular strategy,” Mantilla asserts. “Communities must be seen as business partners; we need them to be successful in this transformation.”
While many waste pickers and workers are part of organized cooperatives in Latin America, they are still largely part of the informal economy — creating challenges to scale their sorting and collection work into a transparent value chain and formal, global economy.
“For most of these people, their family incomes fully depend on waste management and the possibility to use waste as a valuable product. And a full transition to a circular economy could potentially unlock $4.5 trillion worldwide — a great part of that potential lies in Latin America,” Mantilla explains.
In 2019, Dow teamed up with Brazilian company Boomera and the NGO Fundación Avina to help waste pickers boost efficiency and productivity. The initiative, known as Recycling for a Change, involved five cooperatives across São Paulo and focused on improving waste-management infrastructure and providing training to increase process efficiency. It worked: In its first year, the program saw waste pickers increase sales (by volume) by 37 percent — boosting revenues by 35 percent, compared to the year before.
In Colombia, a similar project aimed to increase waste picker revenues in the tourist hotspot of Palomino. Working with Carvajal Empaques, the Traso Collective and the Innovation Lab, Dow’s Riviera Project saw 16 recyclers from the waste-pickers organization Fundarapa collect more than 100 tons of usable waste in its first year (equivalent to 36 percent of the total generated).
“By giving waste pickers the training and guidelines, we can improve their capacity, their equipment, their efficiency and their methods in a way that creates a new culture. Now, we aim to expand this to other cooperatives in other cities and countries,” Mantilla said.
While waste pickers understand the value of the waste they are collecting, there is now a need to create regional demand for packaging materials made from recycled content — which will, in turn, increase the value of the waste being collected. Dow’s response in the region is REVOLOOP™ — a resin made from recycled plastic that is selling well across Latin America and beyond. Working with Boomera in Brazil, Enka in Colombia, and the Association of Argentine Cooperatives in Argentina, the new material is a result of technology which enables high-quality, post-consumer recycled content (PCR) to be incorporated into everyday plastic packaging — firmly closing the loop on plastic waste while supporting the livelihoods of waste-picking communities.
Growing up in Bogotá, Mantilla shares that she was often mortified by her mother’s obsession with reusing, recycling, and making sure food wasn’t wasted at dinner time. Now, she recognizes how crucial educating people of all ages is in bringing about the necessary changes required for a circular economy. It’s the reason Dow has been supporting Circular Movement — a multilingual educational platform developed by Atina, designed to give people tips and advice on making sure nothing is allowed to go to waste.
“We have more than 40 partners; and after two years, we’ve impacted more than 500,000 people across Latin America, so we’re really excited,” she says. “This is critical. We can do a lot of things with technology; but as consumers, we need to change our behavior.”
Mantilla also knows how important legislation will be in maintaining circular momentum across the region. Looking to Europe for inspiration, she predicts most Latin American countries will have robust policies around plastic circularity by 2030.
“We look a lot at what is happening in Europe; but it is important to understand the challenges we face in Latin America, where we don’t have the same waste infrastructure. But policies are going to help us scale these solutions, to increase demand, and to ensure that investors are comfortable to put capital into this space.”