Ecobrick Innovation Time

STMP8707Don Alvaro’s Hacienda Merida lodge is a gold mine– of Ecobricks!  Over the last two days we’ve been exchanging innovations.  I am super impressed by the system he has developed that has cultivated a micro-economy in the community of Merida for plastics.  Likewise I have been sharing with him some of the innovations of the team.  Alvaro has a massive stockpile of several thousand Ecobricks at the hotel.  I am so excited!

While in Canada various ideas have been brewing in my mind to create yet more ways to combine ecobricks.  Alvaro has given me full reign of the bottles, tools and supplies at the hotel to experiment.  His staff (all of which are ecobrickers) have been eager to help out.  Yesterday, several guys helped me out as I made some prototype Ecobrick modular benches.  Alvaro called together all his guides and staff and in the evening I was able to tell them what a fantastic job they are doing and share our ecobrick story from the Northern Philippines.  We all left inspired.

Ecobricking with Alvaro on Ometepet

Staff Post, Ometepe Island, Lake Nicaragua, Nicaragua.
by Russell Maier, December 15th 2014

russell and alvaroI’ve connected with Alvaro Molina here on Ometepe island– another passionate ecobricker!

As I made my way towards Hacienda Merida, Alvaro’s hotel on this lush double volcano island, I would stop at the little stores along the road, take a break with farmers, or chit chat with passerbys. After some pleasantries, I would inquire about what happens to their consumed plastics and bottles.
As in the northern Philippines, there really isn’t much to do with the waste other than burn it or burry it. Most people were doing just this. Or dumping it in Lake Nicaragua– though no one admitted to that– that is one of the inevitable destinations.

However, as I neared the town of Merida, the answers started to change. Stores were segregating their waste, children explained how they took their plastics to school, and adults were… ecobriking!

Alvaro has set up an amazing system through his hotel to transform the flow of plastic that Ometepe’s tourists create. Pollution here is an ironic consequence of well intentioned ecotourists. Their visits demand a large supply of water bottles, chips wrappers, soap bottles, product packaging, restaurant utensils, lightbulbs, batteries, etc. These items simply have no where to go but the very into the very nature the tourists are here to enjoy.

Alvaro however, has managed to aikido this dynamic straight into the water bottles. Staff must present two ecobricks before they receive their monthly salary. Guides must present four ecobricks before they can be hired by the hotel’s guests on a well paid hike. Locals who want to use the WiFi must bring an ecobrick to get the password. As the staff and guides can’t always make their own ecobricks, this has resulted in a micro-economy of community ecobrick production. Those in the community with free time, have started making Ecobricks on the side. The guides and staff buy the ecobricks for side income– the price was 10 cordovas, but has recently moved up to 15 cordovas as demand for ecobricks has increased (about 0.4-0.6$ US).STMP8707

The result of several years of this evolving dynamic is that the town of Merida is the cleanest I’ve seen in Nicaragua so far. And, best of all, Alavarro has been able to build a small Ecobricks school and dozens of ecobrick tables for other schools on the island! The school provides a quality, innovative, bilingual education to the Merida children. The school is often assisted by the guests who are staying at Hacienda Merida.

Its super cool to see how without any connection Alvaro and us back in the Philippines have been able to develop such a parallel community and bottle powered solution. I’ll shortly be sharing the insights, discussions and innovations that are coming from our connection!

Recycling in Nicaragua

What happens to plastic waste in Nicaragua? While some tourists go to the beautiful beaches and volcanoes, Aura, Sara Bo and I made a trip to the local dump. The visit was super interesting. In many ways the recycling that happens here is more efficient than back in Canada– yet just as fundamentally problematic.

Big flatbed trucks pick up the completely un-segregated trash from the surrounding communities and dump it here. Like in most Latin American countries the segregation is manual. Folks with poles pour over it to find the materials currently in demand. They do a remarkably thorough job. The dumpsite photos above are of the picked-through trash. It is a lot more thoroughly picked through than the waste pile at the end of the recycling line that I swept up at the factory back in Canada.

Senora Florentia and her family live beside the dump and sell the segregated materials. I was so happy to meet fellow basureras! They were eager to share stories with Aura and I about the way it all works. Of course, all the PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) are thoroughly recycled. Cardboard, tin cans, aluminum cans, and wood also. Because of the low cost of labour, clean soft plastics ( LDPE #4) and old shoe bottoms are even recycled– back in Canada we just dump those back into the environment.

Alas, it is tough and trying work. For PET #1, the most valuable of the plastics, the family gets paid at the most 2.2 cordovas per kilogram (about 8 cents per KG). One bottle is thus worth about 0.3 cents. In the Philippines, interestingly enough, it is about 25 cents per kilogram. Because wages are so low here and there is so much unemployment, it is just possible to scavenge a living segregating the bottles and waste. Florentia’s plastic bottles are picked up by a Chinese company. They are then shipped off to Japan and China.

This is a disconcerting pattern I am beginning to notice. In anecdotes and my personal experiences US, Canada, the Northern Philippines, and now Nicaragua I am observing that recycling is not a local affair. The community, the province or even the country doesn’t use the plastic that is extracted—it is shipped out massive distances. The flow of plastic criss-crosses the world in an insanely energy intensive global web of container ships, factories, refineries and oil extration as our drinking bottles bounce around the planet. And of course, thand the inevitible dumpsites, litter and ocean waste for all the plastic that can’t be recycled anymore or just can’t be recycled (here in Nicaragua: Styrofoam, dirty containers, plastic bags, tetra paks, chip wrapers, etc)

Aura thanked Senora Florentia for her hard work “What you are doing is so important to keeping these materials out of the environment.”