Colombian activist’s work earns environmental prize

Nohra Padilla, who heads the Assn. of Bogota Recyclers, has won a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in promoting recycling.
(Chris Kraul / For The Times)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Nohra Padilla spent her childhood at a garbage dump here in Colombia’s capital before going on to organize the city’s poor recyclers. Now the activist, who travels the world giving talks about waste management, has won one of the world’s most prestigious environmental prizes.

Padilla is a 2013 winner of the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Prize, which comes with a $150,000 cash award, the group announced Monday. She helped organize and formalize the work of 5,000 poor trash collectors and recyclers who spend most nights fanning out over Bogota’s streets to cull recyclable paper, plastic, glass and metals for resale.


“We have come a long way,” Padilla, 47, said of her fellow members in the Assn. of Bogota Recyclers, part of a network she founded in 1990 that operates in 200 Colombian cities and towns. “We still face social castigation, so getting an award like this is a true milestone.”

Padilla was interviewed recently in a collection center in central Bogota stacked with bales of paper and plastic salvaged from curbside, dumpsters and trash containers. Her members typically bring in recyclable trash on hand carts or horse-drawn wagons.

She has helped members develop resale markets for material averaging 1,500 tons a day. The buyers include U.S.-based Smurfit-Stone Container paper company, Brazil-based steelmaker Gerdau and the Enka company in Medellin, Colombia, which purchases plastic bottles and converts them into thread for bluejeans and other apparel.

Years of effort to seek legitimacy for her organization culminated last month with hundreds of her members getting their first city paychecks: $48 per ton delivered to a network of collection centers. They now will be eligible for coverage in the government health and pension systems.


Under Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, the city has taken back responsibility for trash hauling from private companies to boost recycling and lower costs. The recycling trend that has already swept much of Europe and the United States has been late arriving in much of Latin America.

“Nohra has been a forerunner in creating new models in Latin America by forming cooperatives and alliances between recyclers and their customers in Colombia and also in the region,” said Christie Keith, international coordinator at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a Berkeley-based recycling advocacy group.

Born into grinding poverty, Padilla grew up at a refuse dump in the Las Cruces slum of Bogota where she helped her family scavenge through trash for material they could resell. But in 1987, they were forced to hit the streets to collect recyclables after the city closed a dozen neighborhood dumps and opened the central Dona Juana landfill, which was off-limits to recyclers.

“We would have rather stayed inside the dumps to work because going out to the streets exposed us to social rejection and sometimes obstruction by the authorities,” Padilla said.


She saw that the only way to preserve their means of earning a living was to organize. Now through the cooperative, Padilla’s group has won the right to routes and access to collection centers. The city is slowly swapping out the recyclers’ horse-drawn carts, which can be a major traffic nuisance, with light trucks.

By winning a court decision upholding the cooperative’s right to collect recyclables, Padilla’s group was a factor in the city’s decision last year to take over much of the city’s trash collection from private haulers, said Eduardo Behrentz, head of civil and environmental engineering department at University of the Andes in Bogota.

“Bogota was overhauling its waste management policy and as a result of the court decision, it was forced to include recyclers as part of the process,” said Behrentz, who received his engineering PhD at UCLA.

Behrentz, however, disputes Padilla’s contention that recycling Bogota’s garbage produces a social benefit. He insists that the conditions in which the city’s estimated 15,000 recyclers and their families work are so bad that they would be better off if the city helped them find an alternative way to make a living.


“In the countries where this works best like Germany, Holland and the United States, the garbage is separated at home, not on the streets in Bogota where the lack of technology makes the process too hazardous and too costly,” said Behrentz.

Although conditions have improved in recent years, Padilla acknowledges that a recycler’s life is a hard one. Her members are routinely threatened by criminal gangs seeking for kickbacks.

“Cars still run over us, and the police sometimes harass us and the society doesn’t realize how our work benefits them and the environment,” Padilla said. “But it’s how we live.”



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Kraul is a special correspondent.