Turning Trash into Solar Energy

GARIN, ARGENTINA — Volunteers in Argentina are helping marginalised communities recycle used materials to generate sustainable energy.

Workers from the Argentine NGO Sumando Energias (“Adding up energies” in Spanish) built a solar panel in just two hours for an impoverished family in Garin, a town 40 kilometres north of the capital Buenos Aires.

Under heavy rain, the 40 volunteers brought leftover soda cans, plastic bottles and milk cartons to recycle.

Aged between 20 to 50 years old, they joined forces in the back yard of one family’s house.

The home made system they are building is ingenious but simple, and could easily be replicated in other communities where the sun shines.

Volunteers are painting the pipes black to soak up heat from the sun. This way, the “solar collector” keeps water hot without using electricity or gas.

The NGO has assembled 36 solar panels since 2014.

Tamara Legnazzi, a student in Agronomy at the University of Buenos Aires, has volunteered several times with Sumando Energias.

“I like very much volunteering because it’s an opportunity to help (others) and get to know people who have a different life and learn from them and about other people’s (socio-economic) situation. It’s also the opportunity to meet people who are always keen to do things in a place that has a very good energy,” she says.

The NGO offers a two day workshop for those keen to turn these materials into solar powered heaters for those in need.

Volunteers can learn about recycling for 600 Argentine pesos (about US$40). They can then come back for free.

Today, participants are learning that foam mattresses can be used for insulation.

As the sun heats the tubes of the “solar collector”, hot water flows into the storage tank.

This enables families to have hot water all night long.

For Pablo Castano, co-founder of the NGO, his project is innovative because it brings renewable energy to the doorstep of impoverished communities in a South American nation with many natural resources.

Argentina has a huge potential for solar and wind energy. To give you an idea, if we could have the same capacity that Germany has – which is at the same altitude than Santa Cruz (province) – in Buenos Aires or in the north, where we have a lot of sun, we could supply (energy) to not only Argentina but also to our neighbouring countries. Besides, wind capacity in Patagonia can supply several times the energy that Argentina needs,” he says.

Much like the Campo de Ruso neighbourhood, a third of Argentines live with poor infrastructure, according to figures released by Argentina‘s statistics agency in September 2016.

Nearly 17% don’t have water, according to the latest census. One of these is Angel Guelari. He is one fortunate resident of Garín who will get a brand new solar powered bathroom by the end of the day.

He is learning about harnessing solar energy. Involving recipient families in the construction process is key to the NGO’s plans of empowering locals and teaching them about recycling.

“These are things (garbage) that we throw away and that contaminate the environment but we can use them for practical things, like hot water in the house. It’s good to recycle. I never recycled. I would throw away everything I use, like bottles. Before, litter would stay in plastic bags because the garbage man would not come (to pick it up),” says Guelari.

With the help of an increasing number of volunteers, Sumando Energia aspires to build solar panels for 3,000 families a year.

This alternative heating method has significantly improved the lives of others in Garin, like Luis Alberto Quinona.

A father of three, this 28-year old is proud of the water that comes out of his tank.

He’s been able to shower and bathe his children for the past five months, after volunteers built him a bathroom.

Before, he used to heat a small quantity of water in a saucepan.

“This is a poor neighbourhood and sometimes we don’t have light. There is no water. This (recycled solar panel) helps us a lot because we have children. We have hot water although there is no electricity,” he says.

Building solar powered heaters has attracted like minded Argentines and foreigners interested in promoting a more ecological lifestyle across borders.

Julien Laurencon, from France, started working in humanitarian aid after quitting his job in banking in Singapore.

“For me, sustainable development and sustainable energy are an important trend that we need to follow and foster. We waste too much today. It isn’t just under-developed or developing countries only. I believe that developed countries too have to follow this trend. Developed nations are the biggest polluters,” he says.

Argentina seems to be on the right path. Since 2005, Buenos Aires became the first Latin American city to vote for a Zero Waste policy.

It has committed to recycling the 4,000 to 5000 tonnes of rubbish people dump in landfills every day, according to Greenpeace Argentina.

This video was shot and produced exclusively for The Associated Press. It was published on November 13, 2016. Click here to watch it or look for ARGENTINA SOLAR ENERGY.

It was also published by Euronews on November 15, 2016. Click here to watch it.

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