Communities Field Note

Slow but Steady Progress: A Look at Waste Management in Medellin

Abstract: Have you ever wondered where your trash goes? Have you ever thought about what would happen if the garbage truck didn’t come by each week? This week, I explored how trash is collected in Medellin and was shocked at some of my discoveries!

Introduction: How do nations meet their communities’ needs?

Every nation is faced with the task of managing their communities’ solid waste.   In a city like Medellin, which is home to over 3 million habitants, so much trash is produced every day. Finding a way to clean up after all of the city’s inhabitants isn’t an easy task!

What community need did I learn about?

Many of the communities in Medellin struggle with solid waste management. Although businesses and apartment buildings are required to recycle by a law that was passed in 2009, recycling from home is very uncommon. Homes are not fined if they don’t recycle and littering is common in the city. The need for an effective at-home recycling program is urgent! Although it is estimated that 30 percent of all waste that ends up in landfills is recyclable, only 12 percent of this waste ends up being recycled (El Colombiano).

In order to give you a broader understanding of the recycling problem in Medellin, I have included the following statistics. How does Medellin compare to your community in New York?

Trash cans located on public streets: YES
Individual homes recycle trash: NO
Grocery stores charge money for plastic bags:  NO
Grocery items are heavily packaged with plastic: YES
People drink tap water:  NO

Why does the community have this need?

Just like New York City, Medellin uses a curbside garbage program. That means that in most neighborhoods in the city, garbage is collected outside of homes two to four days out of the week. However, the system is flawed in a number of ways. For one, the curbside garbage program doesn´t distinguish recyclable material from unrecyclable waste. That means that all garbage that is put out on the curb will end up in a landfill, regardless of whether it is recyclable or not. The city does not operate a system to transport recyclable waste to recycling plants.

Furthermore, another obstacle to solid waste management in Medellin is the lack of education about waste disposal. In some communities, it is not uncommon to see large amounts of black garbage bags lining the street. Everyone in the community contributes to the problem. Because there is not a strong recycling culture and few people are educated on how to dispose of waste properly, some streets in Medellin are routinely used as places to dump garbage.

When speaking to city residents about recycling from home, many of the responses I received reflected a weak environmental conscience. Though many reported recycling from work and in places like the mall, where recycling cans are abundant, they reported that they did not recycle from home. One woman I spoke to even told me that she doesn’t believe that recycling is very important in comparison with the city´s other problems. Referencing the city´s high rate of poverty, she said that “recycling is one of the city´s least important issues.”

Is this need being met? How?

Although the woman who I spoke to claimed that addressing poverty is more important than addressing recycling, she failed to see how waste management can be used to alleviate the city´s poverty.  Indeed, since the 1960´s, people in Medellin have been using recycling as a means to earn a living! These people, who are unkindly called scavengers, sorted through garbage left in landfills and on the street in order to recover recyclable material that they could later sell to junkyards. In an era in which recycling was almost unheard of, ‘scavengers’ were the only people who were finding ways to reuse and reduce waste! (The World´s Scavengers)

How to compost effectively : A campaign in Medellin

Whats your role?

Today, the same people who were once referred to as scavengers are now called recicladores, or recyclers. They currently form part of Colombia´s official waste disposal program. In March of this year, Colombia´s capital recognized the recyclers as “providers of a public service” and they are now paid by the city to bring recyclable material to official recycling plants (IPS News). In my neighborhood in Loma de Los Bernal, recyclers arrive every day to sort the recyclable material from the unrecyclable material.  Now forming a part of the city´s official waste management program, these people no longer have to work in dangerous conditions on the street, but are recognized as city employees that are entitled to pensions and health benefits.

The decision to include the recicladores in the city´s waste management system was considered so innovative that this year´s Goldman environmental prize, a $150,000 cash prize given to international environmental solutions, was given to a Colombian organizer who fought for the rights of the recicladores (LA Times). However, this is not the only innovative solutions that Colombians are finding to address recycling. Other innovative solutions include educational campaigns. In particular, official recycling centers fund campaigns called Cual es tu papel, or “What’s your Role”, in which employees go from door to door educating proper waste disposal techniques to citizens.

Another way that people are finding better ways to dispose of their garbage is by decomposing organic waste. (El Colombiano). By decomposing organic waste like food leftovers, communities are able to create fertilizer that they can use to either create gardens or to sell for a profit. Have you ever heard of the phrase that one person´s trash is another person´s treasure? By using waste to grow fertilizer, communities are finding ways to turn garbage into something productive and profitable!

Although Medellin may not have the world´s best recycling program, it is considered a leader in Colombia for its relatively high rates of effective waste disposal. In comparison with Medellin, what is your community doing to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills?

Not enough people take out their trash on the right day

Works Cited

Kraul, Chris. (2013, April 12). Colombian activist´s work earns environmental prize. The LA Times. Retrieved from,0,1221738.story

Valencia Gil, Juan Carlos. (2013, Jan. 5). Medellin, lejos de la meta ideal en reciclaje de residuos solidos. El Colombiano. Retrieved from

Valencia Gil, Juan Carlos. (2013, Jan. 5). Con composteras, comunidades convierten sobras en abono. El Colombiano. Retrieved from

Vieira, Constanza. (2013, May 2). Recicladores de Colombia ganar el reconocimiento formal. IPS News. Retrieved from

Medina, Martin. (2007) The World´s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production. Available from


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