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Medellín - Waste to Opportunity

Re-designing the waste and recycling ecosystem in Medellín, Colombia for whole-system improvement in urban ecology; social enterprise development; and system, service and product innovation, from a life cycle assessment perspective

Article by: Dr Matthew Parnell and Lucas R. Ivorra Peñafort.

The United Nations released the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in late 2015 to guide global efforts to activate and embed sustainability principles and actions in every country by 2030. There are 17 SDGs covering all aspects of human activity and their impacts on the environment and well-being of people and communities across developed, developing and least-developed countries. 

SDG 11 for Sustainable Cities and Communities was recently extended by the development of the New Urban Agenda, which was ratified by most nations at the UN-Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016; one of the goals is actually to “reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management”. This project has been designed to align with the SDGs generally, and SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda in particular, by investigating the current state of the waste and recycling ecosystem in the City of Medellín, Colombia. According to the Medellín Quality of Life Report of 2016, in that year Medellín was the third city to invest more in public services, after Bogotá and Barranquilla, and the coverage in waste collection services was around 99%. Regarding environmental investments, Medellín was the second most invested in 2016, after Bogotá, and it was the only one of the main cities in the country that recorded an increase in investment from 2015 to 2016. Finally, the recovery of waste went from 16% in 2015 to 17% in 2016.

Plastic waste is still a major problem across all the country

Plastic waste is still a major problem across all the country

Photo: Lucas R. Ivorra Peñafort 

Preliminary research into the Medellin waste system shows that while many recycling initiatives are well-established, many of these are of a limited, or restricted channel nature, with a minimal connection between the various waste collection and recycling subsystems. Thus, there are structural limits to the effectiveness of current regimes which prevent expansion of efforts to improve waste collection and recycling outcomes. The current state of the system is effectively preventing innovation in new recycling industries and new forms of social enterprise development due to lack of economic viability, driven by a range of internal and external forces.

Based on the existing ecosystem of stakeholders in Colombia and particularly in Medellín, there are already specific and useful assets to improve the waste management system, such as the following but not limited to:

  • Manual for the Integral Waste Management In the Valle de Aburrá.
  • In the report "Green Growth for Colombia, conceptual elements and international experiences" of the Colombian National Planning Department, the recommendations to incorporate much more innovation and added values in industrial development are clear, with criteria of eco-efficiency and reduction of pollution, as a strategy to strengthen green growth as a path to the implementation of the SDGs.
  • In the Business Commitment for Recycling (CEMPRE in Spanish), the importance of incorporating recycling organizations efficiently is a key issue, and there are instruments for establishing the value of recovered materials, as well as guidelines for the formalization of recycling organizations.
  • There are already market opportunities for recovered materials, and there are also products developed using wasted materials, such as:
    • The Industrialized Waste and Sub-product Exchange (BORSI in Spanish) is an initiative created by the National Center for Cleaner Production and Environmental Technologies - CNPMLTA - in Medellín, to promote the recovery of waste and by-products.
    • Initiatives from private companies such as Enka, which is the largest PET bottles recycler in Colombia.
  • There have been some important events related to sustainable design and waste management, from the perspective of innovative products and services:
    • Latin American Fair of Eco-products and Ecoservices – FLEP.
    • International Symposium on Sustainable Design.

Despite all the technological developments, there are still challenged to be addressed to make everyone work in unison

Photo: Lucas R. Ivorra Peñafort

According to these and other initiatives, there are now good conditions in Medellín and Colombia to allow new strategies to be designed and implemented regarding waste management and products/service innovation. “Medellin was recognized as the most innovative city in 2015 (recognition awarded by the Wall Street Journal, Citi, and the Urban Land Institute) and has become a global referent for international delegations”
This PhD proposal, then, has been conceived to assist stakeholders across the Medellin waste system to:

  • better understand the whole waste system in order to create opportunities for improvement through connecting different nodes of the system, from the perspective of the circular economy and the blue economy;\
  • propose new system designs through participatory research and design processes, from the perspective of industrial ecology and stakeholder management; and
  • increase product and service development opportunities for new industries (both profit-based and social enterprises) while improving environmental and social outcomes. It should be considered in the project that supporting entrepreneurship in Colombia has been identified as one of the key strategies to strengthen the peace initiatives in the current situation.


This PhD proposal articulates to a broader project which has been initiated by a Medellín-based innovation consultant, Plastines 

Lucas R. Ivorra Peñafort

+10 years of experience in project management and design of sustainable products/systems, sustainable production and consumption, and circular...

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Dr. Matthew Parnell

Dr. Matthew Parnell is a sustainability academic and practitioner with over thirty years of professional experience of applying sustainability in the...

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Assoc. Prof. Kurt Seemann

Associate Professor Kurt’s research focus is the relationship between people, technology and the environment as a complex adaptive system. The...

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