BUENOS AIRES Yard shovels, conveyor belts, sprinklers and dump trucks all work in involuntary concert on a five-story, six-hectare recycling plant in central Buenos Aires. This is the Villa Soldati plant, which treats — and imaginatively recycles — 40% of all the trash produced in Argentina's sprawling capital.

The city produces some 6,700 tons of trash a day, according to official figures. Of that, approximately 2,500 tons are treated at Villa Soldati and returned to industry as raw materials, or to parks as fertilizer. As Clarín learned on a recent visit, the facility processes a wide variety of waste, from restaurant remains to leftover building materials, pruned branches and everything thrown into the green containers.

Its organics floor treats 10 tons of organic waste a day arriving through an exclusive collection system fed from 80 sources such as restaurants, hotels and hospitals. And thanks to a special airflow system, the smell is surprisingly tolerable.

Operatives sift through the waste material on a belt, and organic material then decomposes for 12 days in a bioreactor. It is then left to ripen for a further three or four weeks before being used as fertilizer for parks and public grounds. Pruned branches — anywhere from 50 tons per day to 100 tons — are treated separately and turned into wood chip products and pellets for use in parks or as compost.

The first part of the plant to go into operation, in 2013, was the recycling floor for building rubble. This is where all dump trucks in the city must empty their loads — on average about 2,400 tons a day. The rubble is then turned into usable material for public works or raw material for cement. There is also a floor for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. On average it treats some eight tons of plastic per day, turning the containers into flakes that can be used as a primary material for new bottles, brushes or even coats and anoraks.

Thanks to a special airflow system, the smell is surprisingly tolerable.

"Collectors usually give priority to paper and cardboard, because it has the highest value in the market. And so we try here to make them value and collect PET too," says Pablo Rodríguez, the director of the recycling center.

Our last stop is the Automated Green Center equipped with MRF (Material Recovery Facility) machinery. This mechanizes the process of recovering 30 tons of recyclables daily, gathered from recycling containers across the city or brought in by the Alelí cooperative in the city's Commune 4. The city now wants to install MRF equipment in two other waste plants.

Room for improvement

The city government recognizes both the advances made in recycling and the work that remains to be done. Recycling and waste-picker associations are able to inform it of logistical problems throughout the process of collecting and processing trash.

In Argentina, people only separate wet and dry waste.

Alejandro Valiente, a technician from FACCyR, a picking and recycling association, says the MRF system is good, but says that because it was "designed for use in the United States," it does not sort through different types of paper. Pickers know, for example, that they can sell office paper elsewhere for good money. Valiente also notes that the system doesn't classify glass by color. "The machine grinds it all together and the resulting product is highly contaminated with the labels," he says.

Valiente says the city needs more automated plants like in Soldati. But he also urges it to provide more pickers and collectors with work contracts, uniforms and equipment.

Trash bags stuffed with collected paper and cardboard are sold by the ton to paper manufacturers — Photo: Sam Verhaert/Flickr

In cities like Rome, San Francisco and Sao Paulo, trash is separated into several, rather than just two categories. Both in homes and on the street, containers indicate what to throw in which. In Argentina, in contrast, people only separate wet and dry waste. And for now, at least, city authorities aren't planning to change the system.

"Separation grades means a larger amount of differentiated collection, as each trash type goes in a different van," says Renzo Morosi, the city's chief officer for Urban Hygiene. More categories, in other words, would cost more. "We already involve 3,000 sweepers and 2,000 truck drivers in collecting wet waste, including all the people operating the containers and washing streets," he adds.

Another problem is that even with the simple, dual model, people are not separating enough. "We need to promote the practice of separating at the source," says Andrés Nápoli, head of an environmental group called FARN. "If you look in the city's black bins, which are supposed to be just for wet waste, you'll see all kinds of recyclable items inside."


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