by Pedro Joaquin Chamorro
Nicaragua faces a chronic garbage problem. As tourism in the country increases, the problem is compounded: more tourism means more waste, and without effective and efficient methods of dealing with the garbage, it tends to pile up, resulting in an environmental problem and an eyesore for locals and visitors alike. This, in turn, threatens the wellbeing of both the country and its tourism industry. The lack of widespread waste treatment and recycling programs has pushed some socially responsible corporations on Ometepe and elsewhere to implement their own innovative solutions to the problem.
Plastic is a widespread environmental problem throughout the country, but especially in the limited confines of islands, such as Ometepe and Little Corn Island, both visited annually by thousands of tourists. Getting products to an island is relatively easy, but getting disposable packaging and other waste out is a complicated and expensive logistical nightmare.
In recent years, the increase in the arrival of tourists to these vulnerable destinations has been exponential, as has been the garbage generated by them, particularly non-biodegradable plastic containers.
Álvaro Molina, owner of Hotel Hacienda Mérida, in the Maderas Volcano National Park, has devised an innovative response to the problem of plastic. He transforms the plastic into “ecobricks” and uses them to build the classrooms at a bilingual school that he has built on the premises of his picturesque backpackers’ hotel, once the Mérida coffee hacienda of former dictator Anastasio Somoza García.
Molina offers 15 córdobas, or $.50, for each eco-brick the residents of Mérida and surrounding localities bring to the hacienda. An eco-brick is a 1.5 liter “Fuente Pura” bottle stuffed with an average of 400 grams, or almost 1 pound, of compacted plastic trash. Hacienda Mérida collects an average of 500 bottles of compacted plastic litter per year and has managed to gather a total of about 28,000 eco-bricks. They have also recently started buying 2-liter “bricks” of stuffed Pepsi and Coca Cola bottles.
Instead of burning the plastic and polluting the air of this rich Island Biosphere Reserve, or letting it be carried away by the wind to contaminate our beautiful lake, Molina has mixed the ecobricks with concrete to build the walls of five classrooms of the free-of-charge Ometepe Bilingual School, as well as 40 round tables, each with 8 stools, throughout the island. It is estimated that Hacienda Merida has managed to collect 24 tons of plastic garbage which would otherwise be polluting the environment. Hacienda Mérida’s innovative method involves layering the ecobricks to form the structure of the tables, stools and buildings before pouring concrete over them, effectively isolating the plastic waste from the environment and significantly reducing material costs.
Molina’s example has been emulated, with a variant, by the tourist entrepreneur, ex-mayor of Altagracia, and owner of the hotel Finca Santo Domingo, Alcides Flores. Flores and his employees fill bottles with sand from the beach using a funnel and then meld them with concrete in molds, resulting in “eco-blocks,” similar to the quarry stone comprising the walls of warehouses and buildings.
More than 40,000 tourists visit the island of Ometepe annually and consume thousands of bottles of water and soft drinks. Both Hacienda Mérida and Finca Santo Domingo have developed a constructive use for the trash that would otherwise be polluting their island. As a collateral effect, most tourists enthusiastically support these initiatives and spread the good word, helping to bring in donations and the patronage of environmentally conscious travelers.
When oil prices skyrocketed, recycling companies bought plastic at an attractive price, and the Compañía Cervecera Nacional (CCN) and the Mayor’s Office of Altagracia subsidized the transportation of plastic from the island to recycling plants. But with the recent drop in oil prices, the recycling companies now pay less than one córdoba per pound of garbage, a tiny incentive for poor people to pick up the mess.
The CCN even financed the purchase of two plastic compactors for US$14,000 for the two municipalities in Ometepe, but they were never put to use. The CCN also funds a program whereby local school students pick up garbage and receive a kit with school supplies for every 40 empty plastic bottles the student collects.
On Little Corn Island, Ashvin Kumar, manager of the Yemaya Resort Hotel, says they are taking a number of measures to responsibly dispose of garbage. All organic waste is used as fertilizer on the hotel farm, the paper is burned under supervision, and recyclable plastic and glass is packed in sacks and sent every 2 or 3 months to a recycling plant on El Rama. The wastewater generated by the hotel is treated in a “piranha” plant before being evacuated to the subsoil.
Nicaragua as a whole is in urgent need of a widespread, systemic and innovative solution to its chronic garbage problem. The creative approaches taken by socially responsible businesses like those on Ometepe and the CCN are a start, but the country requires more businesses willing to allocate a portion of their earnings to resolve an issue no one here can escape.
The author is a nicaraguan journalist, former minister and ex-Nicaraguan Congressman.
This article, originally published in La Prensa daily on July 12th 2017 has been translated by Alvaro Molina.
The original spanish version can be found here: http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2017/07/12/columna-del-dia/2261452-usando-la-basura-para-construir-en-ometepe