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Garbage collected by waste pickers becomes biogas in unique project


The idea was born in Brazilian São Paulo where waste pickers started using locally collected household waste to produce biogas. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have now helped to spread the initiative to Kenya, as a way to reduce poverty and environmental problems. One of those who participated is John Xavier who himself collected garbage since he was a child. Now he has made a movie about the project.

Every day, more than 15 million people around the world collect garbage and household waste to survive extreme poverty. Garbage collection is associated with stigma and exclusion, but it is also a breeding ground for creativity and innovation.

María José Zapata Campos, associate professor at Gothenburg Research Institute, University of Gothenburg, researches the networks that have emerged in this informal line of business:

“In our research we have been able to see that many innovations are about building up different types of systems in terms of social justice, governance, marketing.”

“For example, some groups have created some form of social insurance themselves without working in the formal economy, and can get some type of insurance in the event of illness. But it is also about technical inventions.”

Simple technology for small-scale biogas production

Such an invention has been developed in the Brazilian multi-million city of São Paulo, where Cleiton Emboava at the Nova Gleícério cooperative has created an inexpensive and simple technology to produce biogas locally with the help of collected household waste.

“It's about using local resources to solve local problems,” says María José Zapata Campos.

She is one of the researchers who has now been involved in a project aimed at spreading this method of biogas production to the Kenyan city of Kisumu, where many people survive by collecting garbage and waste. The project is funded by the Swedish Research Council and is called "Recycling Networks - Grassroots resilience tackling Climate, Environmental and Poverty Challenges".

However, the development of local biogas production was not planned, but the result of action research, she says.

Innovation at the grassroot level is spreading internationally

In 2017 and 2018, representatives of garbage dumpers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Tanzania and Kenya worked together with researchers in this transdisciplinary research project. The purpose was to investigate what challenges exist and what innovations these grassroot networks generate in the form of improved recycling and management of household waste.

In April 2018, everyone met in Kisumu in Kenya.

“In these exchanges of knowledge, participants realized that there are so many innovations that have been developed locally that can also improve the situation for garbage dumpers in other countries,” says María José Zapata Campos.

“In this way, the idea of developing certain technological innovations from Brazil and Argentina in Kenya was born. And so, we got financial support from Stena Metall, and were able to get started.”

First, the teams exchanged technological knowledge remotely with Skype and then met in April 2019 to test the prototypes.

The project also included simplifying the situation of garbage collectors by designing in Kisumu an easy-to-operate trolley to avoid carrying on waste, and also a simple manual paper press for collected paper.

Reduces stigma

One of those involved in this work is 28-year-old John Xavier from Kisumu, who has been collecting garbage since he was ten years old. John Xavier has filmed the project and made a short documentary on how the work has progressed. For him, it has meant a great deal to contribute and contribute, he says on the spot in Kisumu via Zoom.

“Financial difficulties in my family caused me to start picking garbage when I was ten years old. It is stigmatizing and many view us as thieves, he says,” and continues:

“This project has made my life better. As I have learned to film and edit, I feel hopeful. You gain power by learning a skill so that you can do something of your life.”