On a Thursday morning in September, a group of 18 Sustainable Bolivia volunteers and office staff gathered in the main house for a field trip. Destination: the city dump. As part of SB’s efforts over the past several months to raise awareness, accountability, and action toward sustainability, the SB staff organized an outing to the Empresa Municipal de Servicios de Aseo (EMSA) for some insight into the waste collection and treatment system in the larger Cochabamba metropolitan area.

“I think this is an interesting opportunity for volunteers to see how the waste treatment situation in Bolivia is different from a lot of the countries they come from,” noted Erin Beasley, Assistant National Director, on coordinating the trip.

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On the waste treatment fieldtrip, the EMSA bus took a group of 18 from their admin offices to the landfill

Inside EMSA administration

The first stop of the excursion was to the EMSA administrative center. Here, a representative explained the organization’s structure (private company that is partially subsidized by the local municipality), the staffing, and the scheduling. EMSA is operational 24 hours a day, with three different shifts that do the street collecting, garbage collecting, and transporting. They coordinate a total of 22 traditional trucks and 2 newer-technology trash trucks that service a total of 840 dumpsters in Cochabamba and its outskirts.

In the administrative center, the group could see a sort of graveyard of all the dumpsters that had been damaged or destroyed and were no longer usable. The representative explained that one major expense is when citizens use the dumpsters to block the streets during political blockades. When they’re rendered unusable from such activities, it costs EMSA thousands of Bolivianos.

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The EMSA admin site is where Cochabamba’s old or broken dumpsters go to retire

Cara a Cara landfill

From the administrative center, the group took an EMSA bus on a 40-minute route to Cara a Cara, the actual landfill where waste is deposited. When the site was first selected as a landfill, it was far from urban development. Now, Cochabamba’s sprawl means that roads and buildings are encroaching on the space. People have built dwellings around and even adjacent to the landfill property lines, which has led to social tensions and public health issues.

A representative at the landfill greeted the group and explained some basics about the site. When it was first designated as a landfill, it was completely unregulated — people could come and dump however they wanted. Now, EMSA is working toward a making Cara a Cara a ‘semi-regulated landfill’ that meets a minimum differentiated collection and sanitation standards.

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At the Cara a Cara landfill, a new vermiculture initiative is in motion

Toward differentiation

The first example that EMSA demonstrated of its new ‘differentiated collection’ initiative is the composting of organic waste. Although the compost project is lacking in basic materials such as good measurement equipment, EMSA estimates that it collects around 10 cubic meters per day of compostable organic waste. From the compost piles, the group then visited the lombricultura (vermiculture) project, where worms are being used to expedite the composting process. Only two months on, the project is still in its very early stages.

Other examples of differentiated collection that EMSA demonstrated to the group were the medical waste cell, where hospital and dental clinic waste is deposited; and the hazardous waste cell, where batteries and other e-waste is isolated in a contingency cell. There is also a small forestation effort on the site to help prevent the odor from spreading.

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Sustainable Bolivia volunteers peer into the principle landfill at Cara a Cara, Cochabamba

Finally, the group headed to the landfill where all other waste is deposited after differentiation. One step that has been made to convert Cara a Cara into a ‘semi-regulated’ landfill is a drainage system that separates the waste’s liquid runoff and contains it in pools.

Yet, as the guide noted throughout the landfill tour, new systems and processes suffer from a lack of resources, and there is still a long way to go to bring Cara a Cara up to ‘semi-regulated’ and eventually fully-regulated standards. Its greatest needs, said the guide, are in the areas of machinery and additional territory.

Volunteer reactions

For the volunteers that attended the EMSA field trip, some had seen other waste treatment facilities in other countries, and for others, it was a new experience.

“I’d never been to a dump before, so I didn’t have much basis of comparison,” said Cory Kleinschmidt, a volunteer from the U.S. “But it was pretty much how I imagined a Bolivian landfill would be.”

Some left with stronger opinions about waste treatment. “I don’t think that burying trash is a good solution,” observed Carinne Domingos, a volunteer from Switzerland. “The trash is just hidden rather than treated.”

For Carinne, the landfill was both as expected and surprising. “I had seen photos before, so it was about how I imagined. What amazed me was the proximity of people’s houses.”