Enhancing the social value of the circular economy in Latin America

by Paul Vanegas1,2, Dolores Sucozhañay2,3, Andrés Tello (presenting author)2,4, Fernanda Solíz5, Melanie Valencia5,6, Marc Craps7

1: Facultad de Ciencias Químicas,Universidad de Cuenca, Cuenca, Ecuador; 2: Departamento Interdisciplinario de Espacio y Población, Universidad de Cuenca, Cuenca, Ecuador; 3: Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas, Universidad de Cuenca, Cuenca, Ecuador; 4: Department of Materials Engineering, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; 5: Área de Salud, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar – Sede Ecuador; 6: Faculty of Economics and Business, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; 7: Research Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium


Globally, rapid urbanization and increasing commercial and industrial activities have resulted in large amounts of waste. In urban areas of developing countries, only between 30-70% of waste generated is collected for disposal, while the rest ends up in landfills, streets or water bodies. This improper waste management has direct consequences on human health and the environment. Additionally, there is a growing awareness of the economic and environmental value of scarce materials lost in waste, which has created interest in circular economy models to tackle the challenge of finite resources. However, the circular economy has given more attention to the economic and ecological dimensions than to the social one. This situation might affect the poorest social groups in many developing countries, as they often survive off the income generated by informal waste recycling. For example, in Latin America, approximately 2% of the population rely on informal recycling as their primary source of income. The circular economy can be a threat (e.g., less garbage, no access, privatized business, high-tech) and an opportunity (e.g., better health conditions, dignified manual labor force) for the informal recyclers. In this sense, Ecuador provides an interesting scenario for assessing these situations, as it presents a legal framework that emphasizes environmental protection, a significant informal recycling force, and a middle-income economy that generates increasing amounts of waste. This project studies the possibilities of incorporating informal recyclers in the circular economy in Ecuador by analyzing the current situation in two complementary cases in Ecuador. The first case with good waste management, but limited experience with informal recyclers (Cuenca); the second, with interesting organizational experience with recyclers cooperatives, but poor waste management from environmental and health perspectives (Portoviejo).