La Pintana, Southern Santiago Metropolitan Area

Chilean municipality has become a model of environmental management for the world

Neighbors take care of the ecosystem through waste treatment, biogas production and other initiatives.

Monday, October 19, 2009  
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Chilean architect and engineer Manuel Valencia has millions of workers under his charge who carry out their tasks outdoors, spread out over a huge area. As he inspects their work he proudly describes their sterling qualities: they work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, they do without furniture and office space, they live on nothing but waste matter, and the salaries for the entire lot of them cost him less than a dollar.

However, the head of La Pintana’s Dirección de Gestión Ambiental (Office of Environmental Management), or of DIGA, isn’t an abusive employer. Quite the contrary – their titanic task is pure enjoyment for his army of Red California earthworms. Groups of worms are distributed in beds measuring 2 x 9 meters, and each group consumes almost a ton of organic waste per week. And this is just one of the many ecological initiatives that the Municipality is driving.

Located 20 kilometers south of the capital, La Pintana is one of the most impoverished municipalities of the 37 that make up the Greater Santiago Area. Santiago in turn is Chile’s largest metropolis and, with six million inhabitants, is one of the 50 largest urban centers on the planet.

The municipality was established as an administrative unit in 1984 in order to serve as one of Santiago’s major housing development hubs. Today it has over 200,000 residents, sustained by the second-lowest municipal budget in the country – approximately US$22 million per year. Unfortunately, deficiently-articulated public policies and the disparate origins of its new residents created conditions conducive to poverty and uprootedness.

Nevertheless, in the last 15 years local authorities’ foresight and the commitment of neighborhood residents to bettering their own communities have transformed La Pintana into a model municipality that protects its environment, thus improving their quality of life. This been done by applying much-admired sustainability models that are being replicated in countries such as Sweden, using ideas that range from biodiesel production to optimal recycling of residential waste.

The programs are all sponsored by the local government and “custom designed” to meet the needs of the population, and their implementation is predicated on the residents’ participation after the benefits that will come hand-in-hand with their new obligations have been explained to them.  As Manuel Valencia, head of DIGA, indicated, all of the ideas are based on the shared and indispensable criteria of effective participation by the residents, high quality standards and the applying universal solutions to the problems addressed.

The project’s precursor was a plan for creating 25,000 square meters of green areas each year. The neighborhood residents themselves would submit projects and win a competition in order to be supplied by the municipality with the required materials. They would then work on building parks on weekends and take charge of the first six months of park maintenance.

Ideas for Export

A third of the 54,000 homes in La Pintana have joined the integrated organic waste management program.  The 30 tons of organic waste collected daily are biodegraded through worm beds or composting, carried out in a plant where the compost piles are periodically turned over.

These processes reduce up to 84% of the original mass of the household wastes.  Manuel Valencia tells us that the cost per ton is no higher than three dollars, infinitesimal compared to the cost of the traditional service, from transport to the charges of landfill sites, apart from the damage to the environment.

"It’s unimaginable in any part of the world to treat a ton of waste for less than a dollar, as we are doing here by means of earthworm breeding," the municipal official declares with pride, and adds, “The technique was studied and adopted by the Swedish firm Borlänge Energi.”

La Pintana’s programs are garnering so many admirers, says the head of DIGA, that the experiment has been shared with 5,000 visitors of various kinds who have received information on how the municipality is managed, including its urban furniture workshop and pet care center that offers very affordable services and products.

The residents are committed to these projects by reason of the obstacles that they had to overcome as a collective in order to achieve home ownership, the vibrant neighborhood ambience created by the varied occupations of its residents, and the publicity campaigns that the municipality carries out in the field or through new media such as the local television channel.

Energy Potential

La Pintana’s City Hall has its own fleet of garbage trucks whose daily fuel requirement of 450 liters could be completely covered by 2010, thanks to its own biofuel reactor that runs on used cooking oil.   The price? Less than US$0.20 per liter.

According to estimates, between the homemakers and all those employed in the food preparation sector, around 5,000 liters of cooking oil per day could be collected. By the same token, the authorities are already considering the possibility of generating electricity with leftover oil after covering the fuel consumption requirements of their heavy vehicles.

DIGA is also conserving a phytopurifying marsh that decontaminates sewage water through its microorganisms and aquatic plants. The water is then used for irrigating public parks, allowing savings of around US$100,000 each season.

Inside the management’s offices, an educational “Eco Tour” has been created with several stops that show examples of how to apply good environmental practices at home, with city vegetable gardens and an “efficient house” equipped with solar panels and other improvements.