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MIT students bring Waste Management Solutions to Bluefields

By Angela Cacciola - Right now, they don’t move any plastic out of Bluefields… or very little. Instead of localizing their garbage, people often toss empty packets of chips or cookies, bags used in commercial exchanges, soda and juice bottles and other miscellaneous items in the streets. Mud-smeared trash, piled up everywhere and stinking, does not compliment the wild array of colored houses that could potentially attract tourists, or more importantly, help create sanitary conditions in a town where trash and sewage saturate the same ground that supplies drinking water.

To address this issue, dressed in homemade newspaper skirts and hats littered with trash, students from MIT enthusiastically introduced the idea of sorting household garbage to a curious crowd at the main park in Bluefields. The event of song, dance, and candy kicked off what they hope continues to be a community campaign promoting their projects that will allow Bluefields to begin to approach zero waste.

MIT composting team talks with the composteras
For the fifteen students, these projects are the culmination of a fall semester class, D-Lab waste, which offers them the opportunity to explore and create solutions for waste management in low and middle-income countries. For their professor, Libby McDonald, the two weeks spent in Nicaragua with her students is part of a project with the UNDP, Bluefields municipality and blueEnergy, which began almost a year and a half ago.

While this culturally diverse group hails from all ages and professions, all arrived in Bluefields with three common goals: to create an independent worker cooperative with the local waste pickers, to plan for the expansion of the existing compost program and to design a biodiogester that creates methane and fertilizer from waste at the slaughterhouse. The students worked all semester but for many of the urban planners in the class, the Bluefields experience was, “boot camp for international development.” However, Libby emphasized, “the really important moment is when the student can go from the bottom, being despondent and feeling like they have nothing to give, to realizing that indeed, they have worked hard to understand the situation and have recommendations that are worth sharing.”

Alex connecting pipe on a biodigester
“Originally, I felt nervous going into peoples’ houses and neighborhoods,” said MIT student Alex Marks. “I expected a certain level of distain, one based in bitterness caused by contrasting economic means.”  Soon he realized that, “there’s no plumbing here, no hot water, but people still live happy and healthy…and they don’t hate me.” Furthermore, after his experience in Bluefields, Alex, who initially said he had no background in development and, “no inkling towards it either” wants to continue in the development sector, "where you can really have a contribution to growth."

In the end, the group was able to do just that… have a contribution to the growth of Bluefields and its waste management system. Through meetings coordinated by blueEnergy with locals ranging in profession from garbage pickers to the city mayor, the students were able to understand the dilemmas posed by working in a marginalized community. After two weeks, they gave a public presentation on the problems they identified in the municipality and their recommendations for improvement. Furthermore, on February 1st, each of the three groups will present a formal report on these finding to the municipality. To learn more extensively about their experience and recommendations, please visit the CO-Lab Radio blog which is still being updated, Waste Management Strategies in Coastal Nicaragua.

Over the next two years, blueEnergy looks forward to a continued collaboration with MIT and Professor Libby McDonald, who plans on bringing more students down to continue building the projects and hopefully creating the beautiful city Bluefields has the potential to be.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job from MIT students its really helpful to waste management team. Thanks for sharing.