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Building A New Path Forward in 2020 For Impact in Argentina

December 14, 2020

By: Cristina Domecq, Senior Associate, Behavior Change

Like so many nonprofits around the world, we began 2020 with big plans and high hopes for how we would reshape environmental and social systems across the world. As we know all too well now, 2020 would instead lay a path with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Our 2020 focus: Expanding Rethinking Recycling across Buenos Aires

Our Rethinking Recycling program in Buenos Aires’ Barrio 31, locally known as ‘ATR – A Todo Reciclaje’, had closed 2019 with a proven model for sustainable recycling programs in informal settlements. Over the course of one year, we had taken the new recycling service to the doorsteps of more than 20 thousand people, reaching participation rates of over 30% and diverting more than 120 tons of recyclables and organics. We built a community-run sorting center from scratch and created the first residential organics collection service in the city of Buenos Aires. As we leaped into January 2020, our team of community leaders, waste workers and sustainability experts were focused on expanding the ‘A Todo Reciclaje’ program to more than 40,000 people across the entire Barrio 31 neighborhood.

With a playbook for sustainable waste management in informal settlements through our Barrio 31 work, our team was also preparing to prove our model in a new context: in the mid-sized city of Olavarría. With sprawling parks and a lolling river valley in Buenos Aires Province, Olavarría notably has a long heritage as the cement industry capital of the region with engaged citizens and robust public services. In this new city and alongside the municipal government as partners, we made plans to launch our new program – to transform the end-to-end municipal waste system to optimize the recovery of recyclable and compostable materials back into productive use.

A new path forward: Our pivot in the pandemic

We were on the right track. And then our lives stopped, our programs stopped. However, our will to rethink the status quo and collaborate for a better world remained unstoppable.

After being pushed off the tracks like many others during the COVID-19 crisis, we started building a new path.

Our Argentina team focused on two goals:

  • First, collaborate with our existing partner, the city of Buenos Aires government, to help the community in Barrio 31 overcome the escalating crisis by repurposing our platform to provide COVID response;
  • Second, re-launch our Barrio 31 recycling programs safely, as soon as possible.

Barrio 31 COVID Response

Like many informal settlements around the world, Coronavirus precautions like social distancing and stay-at-home quarantining are nearly impossible in Barrio 31: families live side-by-side in cramped apartments, and count on daily work for food. In April and May, as the rest of the city of Buenos Aires sheltered in place and held COVID at bay, Barrio 31 and the city’s other slums made up nearly 50% of infected cases across the city.

Our dynamic, community-based model was able to shift rapidly to provide support to those who need it most, when they need it most. Given the immediate need to support Barrio 31’s community, we re-purposed our reach in the community to quickly deploy food, PPE, and health and safety training to essential workers and vulnerable communities alongside our government partner, the Secretariat for Social and Urban Integration (SISU)

During the early days of Buenos Aires’ shelter in place policy, we continued to digitally stand by the side of waste workers, who, despite fear and uncertainty, were as committed as ever to keeping the streets clean and their neighbors safe. While the rest of the city was on lockdown Barrio 31’s waste management services continued. We leveraged the program’s reach to share messages with Barrio 31’s neighbors on how to safely manage their waste, while also virtually training more than 400 waste workers in the Barrio 31 community on COVID-19 prevention measures. This training methodology seemed unthinkable before Covid but has proven safe and efficient, and will represent a scaling method we will continue to use after the pandemic.

The digital support and tools we provided allowed us to maintain a relationship that we had worked hard to build, providing both immediate COVID care and response, while enabling a smooth relaunch of the program later in September of 2020 as if it had never stopped.

Relaunching our program in Barrio 31

Neighbors and waste-workers in Barrio 31 had stopped recycling for over half a year and we needed to come back strong in order to remind them how relevant their actions were both for sustainability and the community’s wellbeing. First, we adapted the whole recycling journey and sorting operations making sure we complied with all COVID-19 prevention measures and led reinforcement and motivation sessions with over 200 waste workers. Then, we developed a campaign that included digital communications, posters on the streets and door to door communications issuing the invitation to “get re-hooked with saving the planet” to the homes and shops of Barrio 31.

Today, we are back on track, safely expanding the program to new areas of Barrio 31. We have incorporated three more cooperatives to A Todo Reciclaje (ATR), which means that 1,500 more households and over six thousand more people have access to three stream waste collection. Meanwhile, the ATR program has sparked the interest of governments, influencers and organizations, that, despite the situation, or maybe because of it, have recognized in ATR the potential to transform communities and improve recycling.

Expansion to Olavarría

The Olavarría program, named “GIRO” (which stands for Olavarría Integrated Waste Management in Spanish), is a 3-year program that kicked off in August 2020 to roll-out a recycling program across the entire city alongside the municipal government, residents and waste workers. Against a challenging backdrop of working with a globally dispersed team and social distancing protocols, the team managed to find creative ways to conduct community research to better understand residents’ waste experience and barriers to recycling and is now designing tailored solutions, which will be piloted in various neighborhoods starting in March 2021.

Looking ahead to 2021: Reimagining what’s possible

Doing a retrospection of what we have lived this past year, we can say that, despite all the difficult and uncertain moments, we’ve grown stronger.

The whole organization has made a huge effort to support each other and remain connected inside and outside the limits of Rethinking Recycling. We have had our ups and downs, but we exit 2020 excited with our old and new partnerships and friendships, thirsty for new adventures to face together.

We have been forced to rethink – and redesign, re-plan, re-challenge – who we are and what we do, and we feel more prepared than ever for whatever 2021 holds.