The Recyclers of Orellana, safeguarding the environment and building livelihoods


Digna Valencia still remembers the days nearly 35 years ago when she first started sorting garbage on the town dump in Orellana, a city 300 kilometers from Quito in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. “It was tough work…we and our horses would have to haul everything down ourselves. People ignored us – it was the worst job.”

That was in 1977, when Valencia and five other unemployed Orellana residents saw an opportunity to support their families by sorting garbage for recycling. “When we first started, people said, ‘They’ll just exhaust themselves, they won’t succeed.’ … [But] I said ‘I do not like giving up. We’re going to show them that, Yes, we can. We can do it and move forward’,’” she says.

Indeed, the effort quickly won the approval of the municipality. Today, the Orellana Recycling Association (ARO) counts 19 partners and six employees, who collect, sort and sell tons of inorganic solid waste every month.

The project is supported by an MDG-F-funded joint UN programme which is helping to preserve the environment and improve the quality of life of communities in Ecuador’s Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, one of the world’ most biodiverse areas. With MDG-F’s support, ORA recently launched a communications campaign – over the airwaves, in schools and going door-to-door -- to sensitize Orellana’s 45,000 residents to the recycling effort.

"Before the Yasuni Program, people were not aware of how to separate their garbage, nor that it had to be recycled in separate categories,” says Palmira Mina, ARO project coordinator. “Before the campaign, we were recycling eight tons of cardboard per month, but now we’re recycling more than twice that amount.”

According to the Consortium of Municipalities of the Amazon and Galapagos, Orellana produces about 34 tonnes of waste a day, of which over five tons are recycled, mainly paper, cardboard, plastic and metals. ARO recycles nearly 80 percent of the city’s scrap metal, 40 percent of the paper and cardboard, and almost one third of the plastic, which are then sold to local companies.

"With the recovery of recycled materials, we are contributing to sanitation and helping to lower levels of pollution produced by these wastes," said the president of ARO, Maria Eugenia Torres. The organization has begun distributing 30,000 bins for Orellana residents to sort their waste, and the city has given ARO a five-hectare lot to build a storage and sorting facility.

What’s more, ARO is working to do away with the middlemen to whom it traditionally sold its recyclables, driving up the price these materials command and increasing income for its workers.

The collection process is done in three daily shifts, with the support of a tractor called a "kangaroo" and four tricycles that the ARO staff uses to travels around Orellana. "We have a log to record the places where we collect," says Valencia, who is vice-president of ARO. "I'm happy because this is giving us good results," she say with pride for a job well done.

The association and its entrepreneurs are already setting their sights higher, and are applying for a permit to transport their materials from Orellana to Quito, to sell them directly to companies in the capital.
Most importantly, though, ARO takes pride in being able to provide livelihoods to its workers. “As we expand, we can employ more people,” says Valencia. “The idea of this association is to give work to those who really need it. There are families who come here with nothing, and if we have the possibility to giving them work, all the better.”


The MDG-F works with countries to speed progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, eight targets to reduce poverty and protect the environment that the world has committed itself to achieving by 2015. In Ecuador, the MDG-F supports four joint UN programmes, working with the government and civil society to improve livelihoods and living conditions, reduce inequalities and protect the environment.

The project to support ARO is part of the “Conservation and Sustainable Management of the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve” programme, which is being carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment and UNESCO, UNDP, UN-Habitat, UN Women, WTO and FAO.

Click here to read about MDG-F's work in Ecuador.

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