Creating Value from Waste

Jan 27, 2022 | Reserves, Tijuana River, California

Adela Bonilla’s first demonstration using a press to transform waste into usable materials.

Since 2014, California’s Tijuana River Reserve has partnered with groups on both sides of the Mexico–United States border to remove approximately 80,000 pounds of debris from the Tijuana River Valley. With a grant from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program (MDP) and funding from the U.S–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) Implementation Act, they are turning  waste into valuable products through a circular economy process driven by communities—including Cañón de Alacrán, where thousands of refugees currently reside.

“This grant will allow us to work with communities to identify solutions to an environmental and human security issue by creating a circular economy using waste.” says Kristen Goodrich, coastal training program coordinator at the Reserve. “When upcycled, or repurposed, and sold, waste can transform from something that negatively impacts health and quality of life to something with value.”

Reducing debris not only reduces pollution, it also mitigates the flooding caused by blocked culverts and drainage systems. With 75% of the Tijuana River Watershed located in Mexico, working across the border has been critical to the Reserve’s ability to identify areas vulnerable to flooding, remove debris, and support binational emergency response guidance, other elements of the MDP/USMCA project.

The Reserve is working with engineering and business students in the U.S. and Mexico and in partnership with the University of San Diego’s Engineering Exchange for Social Justice and the non-profit Waste for Life to design products from waste. Waste management is a major challenge for the canyon communities adjacent to the Reserve.

The Reserve’s Coastal Training Program facilitated community workshops to help identify the community’s needs and goals. Together with local decision-makers, including community leaders, they explored questions about the sources and types of debris and identified communities with interest in getting involved. Ultimately, Alacrán was selected as a project site for its unique role in housing refugees in a community center and will be increasing its capacity to do so with Reserve partner, University of California San Diego’s Center on Global Justice. Alacrán’s waste services are extremely limited due to its terrain, and its primary sources of waste include food packaging. 

With pandemic border closures, work on the project slowed down, as in-person work was not always possible.“Virtual engagement proved challenging for doing work we intended to do like collecting waste, experimenting with the press, and making demo products,” Goodrich reflects. “But troubleshooting on an equipment issue—between a lab in the U.S. and a workshop in Mexico and across two languages— highlighted our team’s ability to adapt and span boundaries.”

Adela Bonilla, a long-time partner of the Reserve, community leader, and skilled maker, is back on track after equipment delays to pilot the project and experiment with the press and materials in her workshop. Bonilla will lead training for other community members so they can learn the process and start producing products, including in Alacrán. Students have already begun prototyping marketing for various potential products. In other efforts led by Waste for Life in Sri Lanka, presses have been used to make materials from waste for the hotel industry, including clipboards and folders, generating income for community members.

“The project is intended to be an unique model to be replicated in other sites with the similar challenges in waste management,” says Ana Eguiarte, binational liaison with the Tijuana River Reserve’s Coastal Training Program. “Implementing the circular economy on a community scale will have a positive impact on both the environment and the health of the people; moreover, it will empower economically vulnerable residents.” 

Project team setting up the press in Bonilla’s workshop, built by partner non-profit 4 Walls International with repurposed materials like glass bottles.

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ReservesCreating Value from Waste