Introducing the technique of composting in a rural municipality in Chile

Waste management in Chile

Until a few years ago there had been a lack in the supply of basic infrastructure needs like the supply of drinking water, sewage systems, electricity and communication in a lot of rural areas in Chile. With the advancing economic development further necessities have arisen. New objectives are the extended development of infrastructure, the conservation of natural resources and the introduction of concepts for waste management. The area-covering waste collection and disposal - especially in rural areas – often is still insufficient or not existent (Voigt-Weber Ingenieros and Knight-Piésold, 1997).

The idea of carrying out a project to introduce composting of organic waste - which is a very common and traditional method in Europe and North America - is based on a study conducted on the waste situation in Chile’s VI region. The results have shown that more than 70% of the domestic waste is biodegradable (Voigt-Weber Ingenieros, 1997). This shows the great potential of composting, especially when also taking into account the amount of farms and agro-industrial companies in that region. Chile’s VI region is considered to be the country’s most important producer of fruits.

In recent years, stricter environmental laws have been introduced in Chile. This requires e.g., the evaluation of the environmental impact of every new landfill which is to be built. This circumstance leads to higher costs for waste disposal - which causes problems especially for smaller communities. For them the costs for a municipal landfill might exceed the entire municipal’s budget. Therefore, there is an avid interest in minimising the quantities of refuse to be finally disposed.

Another advantage of practising composting is the fact that the product of compost is a quite valuable remedy for the enhancement of the soil texture. Especially in the semi-arid region VI there is a great need of it to fight the advancing soil erosion caused by the very intensive agriculture which needs high quantities of soil nutrients. Normally, “tierra de hojas” (soil of leaves) is used here which is the part of the forest floor rich in humus. It is collected from the woods in the mountains. The usage of “tierra de hojas” has a great negative environmental impact, because the erosion in the hills will be increased and finally the entire ecosystem may be destroyed.

Composting as a way of waste reduction

A very important aspect of composting is that it is an easy method which can be performed under almost unlimited climatic conditions and basically does not need special machines. It is necessary that the principles of the natural processes which perform the biodegradation and the possibilities for its acceleration are known. These conditions make it a perfect technique to be introduced in Chile and other southern or developing countries. The separation of the organic fraction of the municipal waste reduces the total volume of waste to be deposited in landfills. Besides this the properties of the residual waste for landfilling will be improved. The production of leachate and gaseous emissions in the landfill will be reduced that way.

A few NGOs (non-governmental organisations) already exist in the country which are working on the waste problem with regard to the basic education and are showing ways to reduce, recycle and reprocess. Even a couple of composting projects exist in the field of home composting. Based on the experiences gained from these projects it was tried to elaborate a concept which shows alternatives for an economical and ecological waste management by using composting techniques. Moreover, the information material which has been elaborated during the project shall give some more background information on important composting parameters to improve the understanding of the process. This facilitates an independent reaction to problems which might occur and an adaptation of the technique to local conditions.

The project consisted of two independent measures taken in the village of San Francisco de Mostazal (in Chile’s VI Region, about 60 km south of the capital Santiago de Chile) to show the feasibility of the technique to the future users. The first has been a collaboration with a local businessman who has available large quantities of agroindustrial waste products which have been used to conduct a pilot project of compost piles. The second activity consisted in the introduction of backyard composting to the population by bringing about various educational events in some of the poorest parts of the village.

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