by Francesca Davoli
Selective waste collection is still a mirage in many regions of Maghreb. In Tunisia, for example, although there is a National Waste Management Authority (the Association Nationale de la Gestion des Déchets, or ANGED) comprising of a biogas plant and various landfills where collected waste is often not differentiated, nor effectively separated by formal collectors. In the city of Tozeur, separate waste collection is not the only mirage. The desert by which the city is surrounded, the dry heat that characterizes the summer months in the area, and the Ramadan that ended last week — pushing people to stay at home and hide from the sun — all create the typical atmosphere of misleading appearances.
However, separate collection of the organic fraction of the waste is no longer an utopian ideal in the small oasis of Dgache, under the governorate of Tozeur, or at least for a pilot neighborhood in the city made up of 250 families. In fact, it has become a tactile, successful enterprise in the last few months, thanks to an international cooperation project promoted by AICA (International Association for Environmental Communication) and financed by the Waldensian Church.
The origins of the project go back to 2010, before the Tunisian revolution, when an advisor of the Italian municipality of Coazze, Carlo Marinari, met Abdesselem Abderrazak, President of the Association for Environmental Protection and Embellishment. Their broader original idea was to share good practices, experiences, knowledge, and technologies in order to give common answers to common environmental problems.
In 2013, after various preliminary inspections (and after the revolution), the project finally began to take shape. The main activities to be implemented included the introduction of separate waste collection through the provision of specific bins to the families of the pilot neighborhood; dissemination activities to explain the benefits of separate organic collection to families and to motivate them in participating actively; the training of municipal operators in order to teach them how to properly collect separated waste; and finally, the establishment of a composting site where to take the organic fraction and produce compost that would enrich the deserted soil of Dgache.
When the project began nearly two years ago, things were not going so smoothly. The original leading partner of the project, Connecting People, unfortunately withdrew, leading efforts to be postponed for over a year after some initial steps had been taken.
Thankfully, another partner from the project’s initial phases, AICA, managed to take the lead, and reassessment over the following year proved useful for improving and adjusting various elements of the project. Relationships with local partners — especially the Mayor of Dgache, Ridha Dahou, with Mr. Abderrazak, as well as with members of the Regional Center of Research in Oasis Agriculture of Dgache — were thankfully never disturbed in the process. In fact, these partnerships grew in time in ways that bolstered hope for the project’s results.
Last month, the goal was reached. On June 12, the first compost of Dgache was produced, and the composting site itself was officially inaugurated with various institutional representatives attending to witness the mirage become reality. For the four months leading up to that date, Paolo Agostini, the project manager who oversaw the activities on-site along with Mr. Abderrazak, visited all the families involved and explained them both the purpose of the project along with the duties they were expected to perform in order to actively collaborate. The team also demonstrated how to sort organic waste from all other residual waste and provided each family with two bins of different colors to help differentiate. The families were also given leaflets containing illustrations and explanations on the separate sorting as well as a calendar containing the days in which municipal operators would have come to collect various types of waste.
In the meantime, the municipal operators assigned to waste collection were also being trained. As a partner of the project, the municipal government offered a special training course for five of its workers aimed at reorganizing waste collection on the one hand (i.e., collecting organic waste three times a week, and collecting residual waste the other two days of the week), while also instructing them how to use and maintain the composting site on the other. The training comprised of two one-and-a-half-hour classes each, along with practical demonstrations of waste sorting and cleaning and how to complete the various composting phases within the site.
Last but not least, the composting site was landscaped, equipped, and divided into four areas. The first area, called the “mixing area” welcomes the organic waste — that operators empty and “clean” in order to guarantee compost quality — that is later mixed with chopped palm leaves. The second area is the one of “fermentation,” in which the mixture is set to ferment in large composts. The third area is the one of “maturation,” where the output of fermentation was stacked up into swaths. Finally, the fourth area, the one of “preparation,” is where the compost is effectively prepared.
As the fruit of their labors, the composts of each family were separately weighed, temperatures in the site were measured, and adjustments were made. The June 12th compost turned out to be a success, despite a high level of humidity that day and an outside temperature of around 44 degrees Celsius.
So what was Dgache’s key to success? According to various participants, intimate relationships built and nourished by the people of Dgache were instrumental to the program’s results. Mr. Agostini told World Policy Journal that the hardest challenge was maintaining the verbal communication necessary to involve families. Although he had previously lived in Morocco and was fluent in Arabic, working with people that belong to a culture where “time isn’t money,” and “time is ancient, not modern,” as Mr. Agostini explained, meant having to be patient and often walking into the community ‘on tiptoes.’
“People here know how not to waste things. In a desert, there is no waste of water, no waste of food, no waste of energy. The organic fraction is composed of things that cannot be cooked such as orange peels, or vegetable waste,” said Agostini. Although food waste was not the issue, these resources were not exploited. Furthermore, producing compost in a deserted area could not only enrich the soil and generate employment, but also avoid sending more waste to landfills.
“Some of the families living in the neighborhood next to the pilot area have come to ask me why they were not part of the project,” said Dgache Mayor Dahou. “The need that we have now in order to guarantee the continuity of the project is to exploit the work done so far by asking the Ministry of Environment to extend the project to other areas and to intervene by planting new trees.”
Fahrce Saad, a pharmacist in her forties and resident in the pilot neighborhood, agrees. “It took us a while to understand how to separate waste. It seems easy, but at the beginning, we didn’t understand why we would have to throw organic waste in the brown bin and the residual waste in the green one. Shouldn’t it have been the contrary?” she explains. “However, now that we have understood, we wouldn’t go back.”
When Saad says “we,” she definitely means the women. “Us women are the only ones that do the sorting of waste, as we are the ones that take care of the kitchen. And for us, feeding our children properly is very important: we don’t want chemical fertilizers to grow our vegetable and fruit plants in the oasis.” Her children have already learned, from the youngest (7 years old) to the oldest (16), where they need to throw things when asked. In the event that the project is expanded, they will be ready to help out their peers residing in neighboring areas.
The success of this pilot phase led the Waldesnian Church to approving a second phase of the project. In the near future, separate waste collection will be extended to an additional 3,000 inhabitants of Dgache, who will be provided with updated training materials and communication tools. In order to welcome the additional organic waste, the composting site will be enlarged and empowered by new composters.
Analysis on the quality of the produced compost will be conducted throughout the project in order to best allocate the compost according to its conditioning and fertilizing properties. Of course, the greatest challenge will be keeping the motivation high and at least long enough to show how significant an impact everyone’s effort can have on the lives of everyday citizens.
Francesca Davoli has spent seven years in Latin America acquiring project and program management experience in the field of international cooperation. She currently coordinates the International Association for Environmental Communication’s (AICA) projects and activities.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]