Monday, November 24, 2014

How to Not Recycle the Bogotá Way

Don't worry. They'll soon be in an empty lot or public park near you.
Want to condemn a recycling program to failure? Try this:

Take a group of people known for limited education and zero environmental awareness but a great capacity for drinking beer and ogling women, and put them in charge of carrying out an environmental program.

The result is predictably a disaster - which is the situation Bogotá is in.

Will they catch fire?
Thank such good planning for the piles of tires on our sidewalk, and carcinogenic tire smoke in our lungs. Did you enjoy the other week's used tire fire, which turned our air gray? Count on Bogotá's environmental policy bureaucrats ensuring it happens again!

The city has no rational disposal system for the tens of thousands of used tires produced each year, which litter public parks and sidewalks. A few weeks ago, a dump containing more than 100,000 used tires caught fire, poisoning the air for days. According to, tire smoke is some 13,000 times more cancer-causing than pollution from a coal plant equipped with emissions controls.

You probably haven't heard of Bogotá's EcoPuntos program, and there are good reasons why: the city hasn't publicized it and it barely functions.

Could those tires on the sidewalk around the
corner have come from here?
Bogotá's EcoPuntos program, supposedly involves 92 spots across the city where people can drop off used tires for proper disposal or recycling. Of course, it seems that those tires just get tossed into unregulated dumps, where they breed mosquitoes and eventually catch fire. But, no matter.

And, Bogotá City Councilman Diego García, a member of the Green Alliance party, visited a dozen of those designated drop-off points and found that half didn't know about the program and others didn't have anyplace to store old tires. Only one of the dozen sites actually accepted tires. But, no matter.

The real flaw in this system is its lack of incentives.

EcoPuntos everywhere, but nobody's seen them.
How many environmental idealists do you think Bogotá has willing to lug a heavy tire across town to dispose of it correctly -  for free? And how many of those people work in tire shops?

As is evident on many Bogotá sidewalks, tire shops find it easier to toss their waste tires around the corner, where they become the public's problem.

The only solution here are economic incentives.

Consider two scenarios.

Scenario No. 1, Bogotá's existing disfunctional system: A bunch of guys are sitting around a tire shop one afternoon scratching their balls. The boss asks:
Deposit your can here, and feel good
about producing garbage.

'Hey guys, who wants to load those old tires out back into the truck and drive them across town for ecologically proper disposal?'

Tire shop employees look around awkwardly, scratch their balls and ponder the pin-up girls on the walls. They suddenly recall urgent commitments they have for that afternoon.

'Alright', says the boss, impatiently; 'We've gotta get rid of those tires. Someone load them up and get them out of my sight! Remember that dumping them in the park or on the sidewalk is against the law - but I won't ask any questions.'

Tire shop workers grumble, load up the tires and return 15 minutes later, the problem solved.

Scenario No. 2, with economic incentives: In this case, the tire industry pays a small deposit for each tire imported or manufactured in Colombia. That deposit goes into a public fund. Upon delivering the used tire for proper disposal, part of the deposit is returned.

Back in the tire shop, with used tires piling up in the corner.

350,000 bottles is a tiny proportion of the
millions used by Bogotanos each week.
Better not to have used
them at all. 
'Who wants to take these tires off to be disposed of?' the boss asks.

The shop employees stop scratching their balls and look up with interest.

'The desposit's all yours,' the boss adds.

The shop employees envision beer money, a date with their girlfriend, perhaps even buying the kids' schoolbooks. Hands shoot up all over the room.

'Hey boss! I'll take those tires away!'

The shop guys compete to load up the tires and drive them to a collection point, where an employee eagerly receives them, knowing that he'll also get a deposit for delivering them to a disposal point.

The rest of the deposit goes to subsidize some use for the old tires, such as shredding them to be used as road material or burning in a cement plant.

That same mechanic who's been using the neighborhood park as his dumping ground, has now become an environmentalist - not because he loves the planet, but because it fills his pockets.

The EcoPuntos program has another part, only slightly less perverse.

Those are reverse vending machines located in some Bogotá malls, into which people drop used beverage containers to receive 'EcoPuntos', which are supposed to be good for something. The percentage of bottles thus returned is infinitesimal. Still, hopefully, those bottles do get reused instead of ending up in the dump.

Unfortunately, however, the consumer walks away from the EcoPuntos machine with a positive feeling that he or she has done something good for the planet, when all he's done is delay the bottle's trip to the dump. Much better would have been not to use that can or bottle at all, especially since it probably contained something either useless, such as bottled water (the tap water here is perfectly potable), or a sugary soft drink which only did its drinker harm.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: