Education: Key to the success of Chile’s historic recycling law

The country has adopted landmark legislation to cut down on waste and encourage sustainability. Now comes the hard part: Getting citizens on board.

In May 2016, Chile passed an environmental milestone, becoming the first country in Latin America to adopt a Recycling and Extended Producer Liability Law. The legislation aims to reduce the amount of waste produced and sent to landfills, notably by making producers and importers responsible for the disposal of their products at the end of their product life.

The Extended Producer Liability (EPL) concerns five sectors: lubricant oils, electrical and electronic appliances, batteries, packaging and tyres. The idea is for consumers to turn these used products over to a middleman, who then sends them back to the original manufacturer or distributor for recycling. “It is everyone’s responsibility to protect the environment, fight climate change and protect ourselves against its most harmful effects because they threaten our future,” said President Michelle Bachelet.

The law gives new responsibilities not only to businesses but also to the Ministry of the Environment, which is required to finance projects, programmes and actions intended to combat waste generation and encourage reuse, recycling and other recovery methods. Some $3.4 million has been earmarked for this purpose during the next five years.

The law has not yet gone into effect (various regulations are still being ironed out), but once it does, the first hurdle will be to change Chilean mentalities. Household recycling rates are currently less than 2 per cent, yet this law is predicated on the assumption that Chileans will sort their waste, both at home and in the workplace. According to a study conducted by the Chilean National Environmental Commission in 2009, 33 per cent of domestic waste is potentially recoverable material.

Municipalities and regions are rolling out campaigns to help educate the public. The Región Metropolitana de Santiago, for example, is investing $1.6 million in a two-year pilot programme designed to teach people about the importance of sorting household trash.

City governments, which now bear the financial responsibility for waste disposal, have everything to gain by turning their citizens into enthusiastic recyclers — every time a computer or battery or microwave oven is recycled rather than thrown away, the city saves money.

Municipalities are also tasked with managing grassroots recyclers and authorising recycling centres. Jorge Canals, undersecretary of the Ministry of the Environment, pointed out that the National Job Skills Certification System has created a new accreditation for recyclers to ensure that they work in conformity with the Recycling Law.

A number of corporations, meanwhile, are working to raise consumer awareness. Fernando Jaña, Project Manager at Proyectos e Innovación de Coca-Cola Andina, says his company has a department dedicated solely to waste and EPL. “We have implemented recycling programmes in 37 schools in the communities of Renca, Maipú and Puente Alto,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to incorporate the concept into curriculums.”

For its part, the telecommunications company Entel boasts initiatives such as “Electronic Recycling for Chile” and “100 Waste Containers for Chile,” both of which work with Fundación Recyclápolis, a non-profit founded in 2012 to promote the development of sustainable communities in Chile. “Our responsibility must go further than our own operations, now that we have committed to connecting people to a cleaner and better world,” said a company spokesperson.

But reducing waste is not only good corporate citizenship — it can also be good business. Chilean industry generates 16.9 million tonnes of waste annually; households produce another 7.4 million tonnes (an average of 1.1 kg a day per person). Yet, according to the Ministry of Environment, only 10 per cent of the country’s waste is recycled. Has this been a missed business opportunity?

The Chilean Plastics Association (ASIPLA) seems to think so. It was in fact one of the driving forces behind the new legislation, working hand-in-hand with the Ministry of the Environment to draft the law (“packaging and containers” is one of the categories covered by EPL).

According to the organisation, the plastic recycling industry (PE, PP, PET) is moderately profitable, with volumes approaching 1 million tonnes annually. It is sustained in part by vertical integration. “However, it is necessary for these volumes to be quite large in order for the recycling market to consolidate,” said Nicolás Bär, the organisation’s executive director. “In developed countries, recycling rates can reach three times that of Chile, as high as 35 to 40 per cent.”

Experts believe that progress will require a genuine shift in cultural attitudes. Within the home, this means an awareness of the importance of separating waste in preparation for recycling. Outside the home, it could mean measures such as the introduction of a large number of recycling points in highly populated areas across the country.

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