San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Changing Minds About Trash in C.R.

First in a four-part series on waste management in Costa Rica


For decades, countries have been grappling with policies and plans to improve waste management streams. Some strategies concentrate on enhancing technology at waste collection centers and others seek laws that mandate recycling.

Because different countries have unique needs and capacities when it comes to dealing with waste, it is difficult to pinpoint one policy that works better than others. Still, one common thread stands out when it comes to waste management – a change in philosophy.

Since January 2007, officials have been pushing an ambitious plan to help curve Costa Rica’s perspective on waste. The Solid Waste Plan (PRESOL) is a 15-year plan that aims to reduce the amount of waste the country produces through a series of initiatives.

The government first declared the problem of garbage disposal a national emergency in 1991. And while the national plan was created to tackle the problem, it never gained any ground because it lacked representation from crucial sectors.

PRESOL, on the other hand, is much improved from the thin 1991 plan and contains 31 strategic actions organized into five different fields, which coordinate legal, organizational and educational sectors, among others.

“It’s a 180-degree turn in what we are doing with waste,” said Lucrecia Navarro, director of the Competitiveness and Environment Program (CYMA) of the Health Ministry, which is coordinating the plan. “The idea is to get everyone working together in shared responsibility for waste management.”

As a part of the plan, a bill – the Integrated Waste Management Bill (GIR) – is making its way through the Legislative Assembly. If passed, the bill would require municipalities to create waste management plans, policies that many local governments lack.

Officials from the Legislative Assembly’s Environment Commission drafted the first version of the bill in June 2005. The draft received criticism because it did not include the input of various organizations that would be affected.

The commission rewrote and renamed the bill in 2007. This time around, its proponents seem confident it will hold its ground.

“This new version is an umbrella plan. We’ve included everyone,” said Andrea Muñoz, a spokeswoman for the assembly’s Environment Commission.

The new version includes official representation from the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM) and the Health Ministry. Muñoz said the commission also consulted with universities and other private institutions to gather advice and support.

The bill is in discussion on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, and the Executive Branch is pushing for its approval.

The nine lawmakers who make up the Environment Commission have already signed the bill. Though she couldn’t be sure whether or not the bill will pass two rounds of voting in the legislature, Muñoz said, “It hasn’t been rejected by one member of the assembly yet.”

And while legislators are busy working on the legal aspects of the plan, Navarro is striving for society-wide makeover in how waste is viewed.

“We are changing the perception of what trash is,” she said.

A major problem with waste, she said, is that people are often unaware of which materials can be recycled. Items such as glass, cardboard, paper and metals are consistently thrown in trash bins and sent to


The plan encourages education programs that would teach children at an early age which materials are reusable.

Costa Rica produces 11,000 metric tons of waste everyday, of which about 9,000 metric tons are recyclable. Because of this unnecessary waste, landfills fill up, and their lifespan shortens.

On average, Costa Rica’s landfills last about 20 years before they must be shut down. While PRESOL doesn’t include a goal for what quantity of recyclable items it wants to divert from landfills, Navarro thinks the plan will reroute a significant amount of recyclables from the dump.

“These landfills could last 30 or 40 years, or maybe even more if we divert things that can be recycled,” she said.

Part of the reason Costa Rica’s landfills are overwhelmed with recyclable items is because trash is not separated from recyclable materials. While some institutions and municipalities have voluntary plans, the majority lacks the resources for such plans.

No overarching policy has existed in the country to regulate separation or collection. As a result, the demand for waste separation and recycling facilities has been fairly low.

As of August 2007, the country had 42 registered community collection centers, according to the Costa Rican solid waste database, most of which are in San José.

Because collection centers are expensive to build and maintain, few people open such businesses in Costa Rica. Navarro said some foreign companies have expressed interest in building centers here, but the country’s small size doesn’t provide an attractive market for investors.

Rolando Castro, an attorney with the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center (CEDARENA) who helped write the plan, thinks mandating recycling in municipalities would boost demand for these centers.

“One of the aims of the plan is to create new businesses and new jobs by properly treating waste,” he said.

The plan contains fiscal incentives to attract collection and separation centers, such as access to easily attainable loans. The GIR law would also penalize people and municipalities for improper disposal of waste. Penalties range from fines to 15-year prison sentences, although jail time is only for serious offenses such as contamination of rivers.

Castro admitted, though, that collection centers can only accomplish so much. “Separation is great, but not producing waste is best,” he said.

The plan advocates the idea of using “green procurement products,” or products that are easily reused. If people use only these recyclable items, Castro reasoned, no waste can be produced.

“We are producing waste like a rich country, but we don’t have the resources to treat waste like a rich country,” he said. “The idea is to eliminate the waste.” Navarro agrees.

“In reality, waste doesn’t have to exist if we use materials that have alternative value,” she said. “We need to change people’s minds. We need to create a culture around recycling.”

Next week: A look at efforts by municipal governments to clean up waste in their areas.


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