Moving Towards Efficient Waste: Solid Waste Management in the Informal Settlements of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Photo: Brent Perdue  

Latin America (and the Caribbean) is one of the most urbanized regions of the world. With 80 percent of residents living in urban areas, it is second only to North America.1 Urbanization agglomerates people, production and consumption, thereby creating large amounts of waste and resultant pressure on solid waste management services..  Inadequate or inequitably distributed public services compound solid waste management problems in formal and informal settlements alike.

The Dominican Republic is a middle-income country and the largest economy in the Caribbean, as well as one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas .2 Santo Domingo is the largest city in the Caribbean. Approximately 3.9 million people produce approximately 3,500 tons of waste every day, which represents half of the country’s total waste production .3 The Greater Santo Domingo region consists of five municipalities that provide varying types and levels of governmental services.

Solid Waste Management in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

In 2016, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency found that solid waste management is inadequate across the Dominican Republic.4 Indeed, in 2015 the Dominican Republic Environment and Natural Resources Minister warned that the country could “be in a state of permanent vulnerability due to deficient waste collection and disposal. The nation has no sanitary landfills—landfills that are engineered with methane, leachate, and vector controls.*6 At Duquesa, the largest landfill in the country, informal waste pickers (known as buzos) search dumped waste for recyclable materials, methane gas is released  into the atmosphere, and contaminated leachate enters water systems .7 Improvised dump sites and dumping into creeks and rivers are common across the country.8 Waste accumulates in the streets, empty lots, and bodies of water, which creates environmental and public health risks such as solid waste pollution and bacterial incubation.

In the Santo Domingo region, solid waste collection is inadequate and uneven.9 In addition, access to services varies within and between  municipalities.10 All of the Santo Domingo municipalities contract with private solid waste service providers.11 The exception is the National District municipality, which contracts with community organizations to provide solid waste services in informal settlements.12 Within municipalities, formal neighborhoods generally receive solid waste service, albeit sporadically at different times of the day and week.13 In informal settlements outside of the National District, solid waste collection is not provided by the corresponding municipal jurisdiction.14 These areas are more vulnerable to environmental and public health risks due to the lack of solid waste collection.

Solid Waste Management in Informal Settlements of Santo Domingo

Unplanned informal settlements across the Santo Domingo region developed in floodplains along the Isabela and Ozama Rivers, as well as along connected creeks. Infrastructure for surface water runoff management and solid waste services is either completely lacking  or deficient in informal settlements. Narrow street and steep staircases  are also deficient, restricting the ability of solid waste collection vehicles to access the communities. Precarious housing made of found materials located in floodplains  is at greater risk for flooding as uncollected trash and debris clog waterways. In addition, poverty and low educational attainment levels are widespread in informal settlements.

Traditional solid waste management strategies are not as effective nor as economical in the spatial characteristics and built environment of informal settlements. Spatially, informal settlements typically develop on steep slopes and floodplains near rivers and creeks. The built environment is characterized by unplanned land use with poor street connectivity and haphazard building footprints. Narrow alleys and steep stairs inhibits access by bulky compactor trucks for waste removal. Some municipalities have placed dumpsters along the edges of informal settlements. But deficient street and stairs infrastructure inhibits carrying waste up and out of the communities.

Zurza Environmental Sanitation Foundation



In order to provide solid waste services tailored for  informal settlements, the National District municipality began to contract with community foundations such as the Zurza Environmental Sanitation Foundation or FUNDSAZURZA.15 Five solid waste management foundations exist in five informal settlements along the Isabela River in Santo Domingo. With the support of the municipality, the community foundations are able to provide solid waste services tailored for the spatial characteristics and built environment of informal settlements. The profits of such tailored solid waste services are not as attractive to traditional solid waste management companies. But, as not-for-profit organizations, the community foundations combine their social vision with economic development to provide solid waste management services. The foundations use hand-pushed carts to navigate the narrow and winding alleys for solid waste collection. The pushcarts deposit the solid waste in designated areas located on more developed streets to be loaded into compactor trucks. Then, the compactor truck transports the waste to a waste transfer station to be loaded into tractor trailers for final disposal at the Duquesa landfill. The foundations also deploy street sweeping teams to collect litter and remaining solid waste left behind after compactor truck pickup. The five foundations jointly operate a recycling center where plastic, plastic bags, paper, and cardboard materials are diverted for processing and sale. Recycling is collected by environmental awareness outreach teams who go house to house, primarily collecting single-use plastic. The street sweeping, pushcart, and compactor truck personnel also separate recyclables from commingled solid waste. With the municipal contract revenue, the community foundations also provide social services, such as environmental awareness campaigns, gender equality advocacy, youth development, senior care, and insect fumigation.

LP house over creek

FUNDSAZURZA provides solid waste services to over 14,000 people and employs 93 people.16 FUNDSAZURZA collects approximately 3,500 tons of solid waste each month.17 This summer, I will be working with FUNDSAZURZA in its various aspects of solid waste management— street sweeping, pushcart collection, truck collection, recycling collection, recycling processing, and environmental awareness efforts. I plan to audit  FUNDSAZURZA’s solid waste services performance and offer recommendations as a final deliverable.. I worked in solid waste management for seven years and hope to leverage that experience to FUNDSAZURZA’s advantage. In future blog posts, I will share more about FUNDSAZURZA’s history and my experiences as I accompany FUNDSAZURZA in its various solid waste management processes.

Edited By: Joel Dishman


*Methane control: as organic waste decomposes in landfill, methane is released into the atmosphere. Methane controls capture the methane gas for controlled burning or energy production. Leachate control: as water percolates through landfill waste, contaminated water can enter water systems. Leachate control diverts the water into treatment systems. Vector control: landfills attract animals, such as rats and birds, that can, respectively, spread diseases or interfere with air traffic. The primary means of vector control at landfills is applying daily cover of soil, crushed glass, or other inorganic materials over exposed waste.

[show_hide title=”SOURCES”] 1World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division ST/ESA/SER.A/352, New York, 2014.
2“Dominican Republic Overview.” World Last modified March 20, 2016.
Cattafesta, Catherin. Proyecto para la creación de capacidades y el perfeccionamiento en la formulación de políticas y de la capacidad de negociación en medio ambiente. (2013). Secretaria de Estado de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2013.

4El Estudio del Plan de Manejo Integrado de Desechos Solidos en el Distrito Nacional, Santo Domingo en Guzmán Republica Dominicana. Agencia de Cooperación Internacional de Japón. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2006.
5Santana, Omar. “En el país podemos pasar del caos de la basura a la industria de los desechos sólidos.” Diario Libre. (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), April 27, 2015.
6“El Estudio,” 2006.
9Ibid; “El Estudio.”
10Ibid; Ibid.
11Silfa, Robinson Garcia (Environmental Director, FUNDSAZURZA). Interview with Author. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2016.
13“El Estudio.”


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