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Meet the New Heroes
Albina Ruiz

Photo: Actual Films

Albina Ruiz

Project: Ciudad Saludable

Location: Peru

Albina Ruiz started worrying about health and environmental problems caused by garbage in Peru when she was a student studying industrial engineering. After writing her thesis, she came up with an idea for a new community-managed system of waste collection that she hoped would serve as a model for urban and rural communities around Peru.

One of the first neighborhoods she worked with was El Cono Norte in Lima, where1.6 million people produced about 600 metric tons of garbage daily. The municipal authorities were only able to process about half of the community's trash. People tossed the rest in streets, rivers and vacant lots, causing serious health problems as well as creating a perpetually ugly environment that many residents found dispiriting.

Ruiz's idea called for micro-entrepreneurs — small business people chosen from the community — to take charge of collecting and processing the garbage, at once addressing another serious problem in the community: unemployment. She helped these businesses get going and set the monthly fee for the service at about $1.50, the cost of a beer, and came up with a wide array of creative marketing schemes — including special gift baskets — to entice families to use the services and, importantly, pay for them regularly and on time.

Ruiz started doing the work alone nearly 20 years ago. She now oversees projects in 20 cities across Peru, employs more than 150 people and serves over 3 million residents. Her approach to waste management is so successful that she has been asked to come up with a national plan for Peru, while other Latin American countries have expressed interest in emulating her method.

Even though her organization has grown, Ruiz remains central to the operations on the ground. She still visits municipalities overwhelmed by garbage, checks on neighborhoods involved in her program and meets with government officials.

Ruiz says that where most people see a problem, she sees a possibility. Her ultimate goal is to change the way people think.

What Does Ciudad Saludable Do?

Ciudad Saludable develops efficient solid waste management systems that generate employment and contribute to better quality-of-life and cleaner cities.

Ruiz created the organization because government-run garbage collection in Peru had not been effective and illegal dumping was causing environmental deterioration and ground water contamination. The garbage crisis arose partly because municipalities failed to collect the funds necessary to maintain the infrastructure. Because the system wasn't working, people didn't pay their monthly fees, making the garbage problem worse. Ruiz set out to break that cycle.

In addition to taking care of the garbage problem, her micro-enterprise model provides self-employment opportunities to local residents in neighborhoods where unemployment rates are high. The businesses are often run by women who go door to door collecting garbage and fees, and educating people about respecting and protecting their environment. Some women have even built profitable businesses by creating products like organic fertilizer out of the trash they collect.

By generating income for local residents and involving them in the process of improving their neighborhood, Ruiz has succeeded in obtaining pay rates of up to 98 percent. The government collection pay rates sunk as low as 40 percent.

Ruiz's simple idea has become a successful business and community-organizing model that benefits large numbers of people and has worldwide potential.