Greater Recycling Advances Still Pending in Cuba

A man collects plastic containers for later sale in the municipality of Playa, in Havana. The lack of a more solid culture of reuse brings all types of waste to the containers, unclassified, which is why the recyclable product loses value and its recovery is very difficult. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

By Luis Brizuela  (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Cuba has an opportunity to save foreign currency, increase revenue and reduce the pollutant load with recycling, but it needs more proactive strategies that boost efficient waste management, improve infrastructure and encourage greater civic culture about the issue.

The circular economy is a production and consumption model focused on reducing, recycling and reusing materials and products. As a well as being a challenge, embracing its principles becomes a necessity for this developing country that lacks natural resources as well as fuel, minerals, and jungle, etc.

The domestic economic crisis is the first obstacle standing in the way of introducing a modern infrastructure that efficiently and sustainably selects and sorts raw materials with a new opportunity for use.

Maybe there needs to be more tax breaks and other incentives to attract foreign capital in this sector.

“Lots of corners are mini-dumps. It takes a long time for garbage to be collected because there’s a shortage of trucks and/or fuel,” Omayda Velazquez, a teacher living in Cerro – one of Havana’s 15 municipalities – told IPS.

“People throw soda cans or paper on the street without thinking about it. Everything goes into the garbage containers, without separating cardboard, plastic or glass. In recent years, I see more people and groups concerned with environmental cleanups, but there isn’t a widespread culture of recycling at home,” Vazquez weighed in.

Only 40% of garbage collection equipment is working in the Cuban capital, due to a shortage of batteries and tires, according to official information disclosed in August.

Equipment breaking down means that garbage collection services are not regular, with all of the build-up of waste on Havana’s streets that this entails.

This city of 2.2 million inhabitants generates 23,815 m3 of waste every day, 69% of which come from the services sector and domestic waste, and the remaining third is rubble and other waste.

Right now, the city is only recovering 40% of waste, Jorge Luis Tamayo, president of the state-led Recycling Business Group, confirmed on a TV show, on October 12th.

Once the recyclable product is mixed with garbage “it loses value, and it’s very  hard to recover,” the official stressed.

A group of people cleans an area of the coast of Havana. A part of the recycled material in Cuba comes from the cleaning of coasts, beaches and parks, in many cases promoted by civil projects. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Lack of infrastructure

Rosa Maria Reyes, director of the Raw Materials Recovery Company in Havana, also highlighted on the same show that “the capital doesn’t have the best infrastructure to do this classification, from waste recycled at home.”

Reyes talked about the 55 fixed… recycling points, places where waste is bought from citizens, which she admitted was “insufficient.”

“Lots of the time, people say these points are full and they can’t accept any more material because there isn’t any transport, or because they don’t have money. Or they accept some materials and not others, or prices vary,” Ramon Oliva, a resident in the Central Havana municipality said.

Oliva confessed to IPS that he’d handed in his freelance license that authorized him to collect raw materials such as beer cans, plastic packaging, glass bottles, cardboard and metal, and sell them at collection points, “because it wasn’t worth my while.”

Now, he says he looks into garbage dumpsters, streets or deserted dilapidated tenements, even if he risks a fine, and sells – especially bottles and other plastic packaging -, to private buyers or businesses “who pay them a bit better”, so they can package food (yogurt, vinegar or tomato sauce) or make things for the home.

In the first nine months of this year, fixed recycling points collected 16,400 tons and a similar quantity was collected at mobile points in neighborhoods and communities.

Smaller amounts came from actions from mass organizations, tourist areas, communal services bodies, as well as cleanups of the coast, beaches and parks, statistics show.

A digital app, Reciklando, seeks to make it easier to buy materials from your house, but they’ve only been able to answer some 300 requests so far this year, officials have pointed out.

Investments worth approximately 900,000 USD were also made, mostly in updating technological equipment for recycling. In the meantime, 54 research, development and innovation projects are being pushed on the topic, they said.

A micro landfill on the corner of a street in the municipality of Diez de Octubre, in Havana. The breakdown of equipment maintains irregularities in the garbage collection service in the Cuban capital, with the consequent accumulation of waste in its streets. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Money in the garbage

These leaders admit that recycling activities have fallen after the impact of COVID-19, limitations with fuel supply, less consumption and circulation of products.

The Recycling Business Group announced that it had collected 74,000 tons of raw materials up until September, bringing in 41.6 million USD of revenue, 29 million of which were exported.

In 2021, 151,000 tons of raw materials were recycled in Cuba, statistics show.

According to reports, recyclable materials are the world’s seventh resource, after water, air, coal, oil, natural gas and minerals.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste is created every year, 45% of which aren’t properly handled.

European countries and Japan are leaders in processing most of their solid waste, including organic waste, which they use to make fertilizer and biogas. Norway and Sweden import other countries’ garbage to generate heat and electricity, different media articles report.

Latin America and the Caribbean only recycle 4.5% of their waste, compared to the global average of 13.5 %, according to the World Bank. The organization calculates that over 320,000 tons of plastic waste remains without being collected in the Caribbean, every year.

A group of girls and boys decorate glass containers during a “reciclatón”, a festival focused on recycling, at the Quinta de Los Molinos in Havana. More and more entities, civil projects and undertakings in Cuba have among their priorities the revaluation of waste in different areas. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Eyes set on a circular economy

Recycling gives “quality raw materials that are today in municipal solid waste, communities and neighborhoods and the most isn’t being made of them,” mechanical engineer Yulexis Querol argues, who is a founding member and manager at Enernova, a small private business with its head office in Cardenas, a city 150 km east of Havana.

Committed to recovering, classifying and selling recovered packaging, non-iron and non-metallic raw materials, and a 23-person team – 15 of whom are women -, Enernova was one of the first 35 micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) authorized to be created in Cuba in 2021.

In a conversation with IPS, Querol believed that reusing materials is beneficial because “it stops us from extracting additional natural resources.”

He added that, from an economic point of view, “this is where the income is for people who recycle and producers, because reusing materials drives raw material costs down.”

“We have to seek a circular economy in waste management until we finally reach a point when every material is made the most of. The environment would benefit the most, because it’d stop suffering the onslaught of the human race,” the entrepeneur said.

Calculations indicate that 2 million tons of recyclable waste, including municipal solid waste, is created every year.

However, “only 11% of waste created is recovered,” Querol said based on his research about insuffficient waste exploitation.

Part of Enernova’s social and environmental responsibility is to promote educational workshops for children, teenagers and young people; it also creates public awareness campaigns – in partnership with community projects and other bodies -, so that people can learn about the proper way to handle solid waste at home.

The first edition of Festival Recicla was scheduled for Friday October 27th with Enernova, an initiative that focuses on recovering materials that can be reused in homes and in other places.

In Querol’s opinion, recycling in Cuba faces obstacles even in the Law itself.

“When we go to a company to make a contract, they tell us that they already have one with the Raw Materials Company, that they have a target they have to meet with them. The logical thing to do would be to choose the better option if there are many companies. I believe that this is the Law’s main limitation, forcing bodies to hand over their raw materials to the state-led company only,” he reflected.

The entrepreneur insisted that “we want to get involved in the management and recovery of raw materials. The more people managing waste and working in recycling the better.”

Cuba has a Recycling Act, in force since 1975, which stipulates that every body and other State-led entity is forced to collect raw material waste, reusable products and materials that aren’t then made the most of.

The legislative timeline expects a decree-law on recycling to be passed in November 2025, which would stipulate new regulations for this activity.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.