Creative Capacity Building for Circular Economy Design in Cochabamba, Bolivia - Part 1

One of seven teams showing the plastic shredder they designed and created during the Creative Capacity Building workshop. The team was comprised of MIT D-Lab students, Bolivian university students, and local waste pickers or ecorecolectoras. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab
One of seven teams showing the plastic shredder they designed and created during the Creative Capacity Building workshop. The team was comprised of MIT D-Lab students, Bolivian university students, and local waste pickers or ecorecolectoras. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab

In Partnership with the Universidad Mayor de San Simón and the Ecorecolectoras


In the summer of 2022, representatives from the Universidad Mayor de San Simón approached MIT D-Lab’s Inclusive Economies lead Libby McDonald to develop a circular economies project with waste pickers in Cochabamba. Bolivia. The project was included in two MIT fall classes D-Lab: Gender and Development and D-Lab: Development. Below, is part one of a two-part blog post written by students who participated in the project both at MIT and in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

In January, we set out to Cochabamba, Bolivia to kick off D-Lab’s partnership with the Universidad Mayor de San Simón and a large association of 180 waste pickers called Ecorecolectoras. In collaboration with the university, local stakeholders, and two Creative Capacity Building (CCB) certified facilitators from longtime D-Lab community partner Diversa (Bogota, Colombia), we worked to build community knowledge and environmental awareness about waste picking and recycling in Cochabamba. This included an exploration of how to create alternative income streams from waste and how to build a strong financial framework for the waste-picking community.

As the first D-Lab team to ever travel to Cochabamba, our primary focus was to build a relationship of trust and understanding with our collaborators in order to comprehend their needs and create a space of solidarity and shared common interest. Therefore, our trip consisted of two components: field research and a CCB workshop. Through both components we sought to empower the Ecorecolectoras with skills related to financial knowledge, alternative income streams, technology design, how to use power tools to build their ideas, environmental knowledge, and even an introduction to computers and web design.

Beyond building the foundation of a long-lasting partnership, the goal of this project was to encourage the Ecorecolectoras to exercise autonomy and to use the design process to develop circular economy strategies that allowed for income generation opportunities. While this blog post introduces the team and discusses our field research; a second blog post will discuss the CCB workshop that was provided to develop circular economy innovations.

Meet the team

by Lexy Zitzmann

Seven young women standing in front of a stillbody of water and a young man kneeling in front with his arms open wide.
The MIT D-Lab Bolivia 2023 student team! Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab

Our D-Lab: Development team consisted of Lexi Spinetta, a third-year MIT student majoring in Mathematics and minoring in finance. She is from Austin, Texas, and plays on the soccer team at MIT. We also had Lexy Zitzmann, a third-year MIT student from Connecticut majoring in Mathematics and minoring in entrepreneurship & innovation and German. Next, we have Hung Huynh, another third-year at MIT, majoring in mechanical engineering and Design with a minor in Environment & Sustainability. He is an active member of MIT’s Engineers Without Borders and enjoys taking landscape and documentary photography (like the one for this trip!). Finally, we have Nora Donnelly, a third-year student from MIT majoring in mathematics and finance and concentrating in Spanish. She is from Ridgewood, NJ, and plays on the lacrosse team at MIT. On this trip, the D-Lab: Development team paired up with four students from the D-Lab: Gender and Development class: mechanical engineering graduate student Sandy Walter, Alyssa Unell '23, Harvard graduate student Sana Sohoni, and Wellesely undergraduate student Marina Santos.

Field Research

by Hung Huynh

During the first of our two weeks in Bolivia, we had the opportunity to learn more about the environment of the university and the city of Cochabamba. Most notably, we learned a lot more about how the waste pickers organization, the Ecorecolectoras, operate.

On the first day, we got a tour of the Universidad Mayor de San Simón (UMSS), the community partner/facilitator that helped us work with the waste pickers. The professors and students there were incredibly hospitable and showed us around the university complex. From aluminum smelting for recycling to using bean protein as meat alternatives, UMSS has a variety of incredibly mission-driven research projects. Many of the discussions were focused around how they wanted to make the world around them better and to help those in need.

Most importantly, Marco Antonio Arancibia Miranda the professor of the electro-mechanical lab at UMSS – showed us his lab and all the tools and machinery we had at our disposal for the upcoming CCB. One of the things that Marco and the students from his lab built was a machine that could convert PET bottles into 3D printer filament. According to Marco, this would greatly upvalue the PET that they collect if it were to be resold in this manner. However, finding a market for this still remains unclear to our team. Beyond this machine, Marco’s lab had a whole machine shop that included a variety of incredibly valuable tools. These tools included a drill press, angle grinders, lathe, drills, hand tools, welding equipment, and more.

On the second day, the first thing we did in the morning was meet up with a couple of waste pickers and walk with them along their route to better understand how they operate. What they told us was that there were different modes of operation depending on where the trash is located. At this point in time, the Ecorecolectoras as an organization is still waiting on paperwork to clear before they become officially recognized. However, they are still operating by going on routes to pick through waste in garbage cans. Sometimes, businesses call them and ask them to pick up their waste by giving them the location of their waste.

One of the bottlenecks for the waste pickers, however, is that they have a hard time transporting all the waste that they collect. They can only go through two to three middlemen who have trucks that can pick up their waste and sell it on their behalf. According to what they told us, they sell 1 kg of PET plastic for 2 Bolivianos (BOB) and the middlemen who buy it from them for 2 BOB aggregate enough of the plastic that they can then resell it in greater quantities to plastic processing companies for 3 BOB per kilogram. Due to the transportation bottleneck, the waste pickers also expressed an interest in ways to compact their recyclables so they can transport more of it. In the subsequent week, Marco found out that if the bottles could be pelletized somehow, they could sell the pellets of plastic for 20 to 30 BOB per kg instead of 2 to 3 BOB.

After spending the morning following the pair of waste pickers around, we went to the small office space that they are currently renting and sat down to hear a bit more about the history of the Ecorecolectoras. This organization was formed roughly half a decade ago and started out with just about a dozen people. Today, the organization is made up of over 100 families who engage in the waste picking business.

After the office visit, we went to what the waste pickers call “puntos naranjas” or orange points. These are locations with giant orange dumpsters where trash from that specific segment of the city is brought and the waste pickers go through that trash looking for recyclables that they can resell. They told us that they have to take turns working at the orange points and have only a certain time frame to pick out the waste before their turn is over. Off to the side, we could see that there were sacks of salvaged bottles and piles of stacked cardboard as each waste picker went about looking for waste inside the dumpsters.

Finally, the team went to visit the governor’s office. There was some talk about them thinking about installing a waste incineration plant to provide more energy to deal with some of this waste. However, this may not be a good idea as energy in Cochabamba is very cheap and, because the city is surrounded by mountains, not much wind can come through to carry away the air pollution that would result from burning all the waste. Based on the data that they collected, more than half of their waste is bio-waste and they are not sure what to do with it. Another thing that was mentioned in this meeting was the challenge of landfill space and the impact of landfill on communities that lived around the area. The governor mentioned instances of the residents of these areas blocking the trucks from dropping off waste because the waste piling up in these landfills was bad for their community. How the waste pickers can be involved in the larger government plan remains unclear.

On the third day, the team met with the mayor of Cochabamba in the morning. Libby had the opportunity to introduce herself and a few of the waste pickers that were there. The mayor seemed much friendlier than the governor and seemed to be more open to integrating the waste pickers in the waste management infrastructure of the city. After the formalities of the brief meeting with the camera crew, we got a group picture together and then headed off to visit EMSA.

EMSA is the company to which the municipalities contract out waste management and city cleanup. Walking through the compound that they had, we could see lines and lines of dumpsters, a few trucks, and many sacks of plastic waste sitting out under the sky. Once we reached their meeting room, the company began a presentation about their work. They told us about the routes that they operate for their waste and the type of services that they provide to the city. They also had statistics on the type of waste that they collected and showed us an inventory of the machinery that they had at their disposal. EMSA told us that they are contracted annually for around 20 million BOB, give or take 5 million, depending on the amount of waste that they clean up. As for the recyclables that they haul in alongside their trash, they told us that it could only be used if there was a market or company that handles this type of thing because that was not in their area of expertise. After meeting with EMSA, we then drove to the landfill K’ara K’ara to see how they handled the waste there.

11 people, several with hospital masks, standing in front of a landfill.
Visit to K'ara K'ara landfill. Photo: Courtesy MIT D-Lab

For the remainder of the week, the team went through a series of workshops to learn about each other and conduct research around the local area. Both Marco and Libby presented their slides to the D-Lab and CITA students present in a series of workshops. This included information about D-Lab and its broader mission, Marco’s lab and their work (CITA), along with discussions of the design cycle and the Creative Capacity Building workshops. Marco showed us tiles that he made from plastic by pressing it together into sheets, along with tiles made from cardboard. Afterwards, we split off into teams to start focusing on different aspects of the research that still needed to be done in order to learn more about the situation that we were facing. Some of those topics included further understanding the supply chain, how biowaste is handled, and how to create more value from this waste. Pairs of MIT D-Lab students were put together with Marco’s CITA students to start discussing plans for continuing this research in the field.

My group’s focus was understanding how waste is managed in La Cancha, which is the enormous informal market in Cochabamba. According to a couple of the students, the size of this market was comparable to the footprint of multiple UMSS’s put together. Once our group was formed, we went to La Cancha and saw that it was greatly bottlenecked due to the low number of dumpsters there. Because many of the people in La Cancha sold produce, there was an overwhelming amount of organic waste that ended up in the dumpsters. We visited two or three of the sites, which was about half of the number of orange points located in La Cancha. However, there was only one dumpster in each of these points and they were overflowing with a mix of waste that would only be cleaned out at night because the waste pickers could only operate during that time in La Cancha since it was so busy during the day. Additionally, one of the students, Mihael, told us that his mother works in La Cancha, which could be a useful point of contact in the future.

Please see the second blog post in this series: Creative Capacity Building for Circular Economy Design in Cochabamba, Bolivia - Part 2

More information

Class: D-Lab: Development

Class project page: Limpiando Cochabamba con las Eco-Colectoras: CCB Workshop & Cooking Oil to Soap Initiative

Class: D-Lab: Gender and Development

Class project page: Livelihood Alternatives with Waste Pickers in Cochabamba


Libby McDonald, MIT D-Lab Lecturer, Inclusive Economies Lead, Co-Instructor, D-Lab: Gender and Development

Libby Hsu, MIT D-Lab Lecturer, Associate Director of Academics, and Instructor, D-Lab: Development