Turning trash into a resource in Todos Santos

While there is room for improvement when it comes to waste management in the United States, there are still fairly robust regulations on managing municipal solid waste from state to state. Recycling and composting are practical options for Americans who are interested in preventing material from being disposed in landfills or reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where Colorado State University’s Todos Santos Center is located, waste management infrastructure is lacking: in place of a landfill, there is a dump, and the community has no formal recycling or composting plan in place.

“There’s a detachment from the waste you generate as a household and how you effectively manage it,” said Dr. Christopher Bareither, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Early June, Bareither traveled with three CSU students to the Todos Santos Center to begin scoping out a waste management project that will be the focus of master’s student Andrew Carroll’s thesis. Ultimately they hope to help the community institute a sustainable waste management program, but the first step is to analyze the current system and perform a lifecycle assessment.

“We hope to change the mentality of community members, and help them understand how to more appropriately manage their garbage. Just because no one is watching doesn’t mean dumping garbage is appropriate, and we don’t want them to perpetuate their current behaviors,” said Bareither.

Proposing alternative waste management options

Currently, the Todos Santos community has no formal recycling plan, and their garbage goes to a dump, which is more of a hole in the desert, rather than a proper landfill. The lack of a formal facility could lead to groundwater contamination and runoff issues, and water is already scarce in the general area. Approximately 5,000 people live in Todos Santos and use the dumping grounds, with other neighboring communities also bringing their waste to the same site.

Todos Santos landfill
Andy Carroll, Chris Bareither, and team observe the Todos Santos landfill.

“We want to help the community understand waste as more of a resource, instead of as a burden. It’s not just something that has to be dealt with – there are beneficial ways to make use of it,” said Carroll.

Using the lifecycle assessment, Bareither and Carroll will analyze both environmental and economic impacts of the current waste management system in Todos Santos, as well as potential alternative strategies. To bring the alternative strategies from conceptualization to implementation, however, they must earn buy in from stakeholders, including the local government and community, as well as potential employees of a new and improved system.

“I don’t want the community to feel like we’re thrusting change upon them, but rather give them options for improvements, provide them with cost estimates and potential benefits, and let them decide which solutions to adopt,” said Carroll.

Future improvements in Todos Santos

Carroll will begin putting together the lifecycle assessment this fall, aiming to complete it by May 2018, when he is scheduled to graduate with a master’s degree in civil engineering. Bareither hopes to then return to Todos Santos in June to gather feedback from stakeholders in order to make a recommendation for the updated waste management system.

“This is a great opportunity to engage with the community in Todos Santos, and we’re fortunate to have a facility in the area that we can mobilize from. I hope through projects like this one, people will slowly gain faith in the mission of the Todos Santos Center as we continue with our work there,” said Bareither.