Pure Genius

Empowering children and parents who call garbage dumps home

Posting in Education

As a child, Ryan Integlia learned about the plight of people in some developing countries who worked -- and lived -- in garbage dumps. He launched a nonprofit to help.

As a child, Ryan Integlia learned about the plight of people in some developing countries who worked -- and lived -- in garbage dumps. Now a recent graduate of the Rutgers-Princeton Nanotechnology for Clean Energy IGERT PhD. Program, Integlia launched a nonprofit to help. I spoke recently with Integlia, co-founder of [em]POWER Energy Group. Below are excerpts from our interview.

What's the problem you're trying to solve and what's your solution?

People are living in garbage dumps. The majority of the communities are children. They live in or directly in relation to garbage dumps. They're mainly dependent on the garbage dump for their livelihoods. It might be a source of food. Generally, the structures they live in are made from materials gathered from the garbage dump. They work by sorting through the garbage dump to find recyclables. Most of the time in these developing countries, by the time the garbage gets to the dump it's already been sorted through by multiple parties. There are no constraints on what's in there. It's dangerous. In some cases, the garbage dumps are on fire.

We focus on existing schools or clinics built in or adjacent to garbage dumps. We focus all our efforts there to create a renewable resource process. [The process consists of] sorting the garbage, gathering the recyclables, composting the organic material. The organic material can also be used in the biodigestion process. That would capture the methane and burn it to create electricity to power the school or the clinic. It could power a computer or a sewing machine. It's basically upcycling the garbage.

Right now, we're at the digester stage. The parents of the children are members of our co-op. We try to have them work directly adjacent to the school where their children are going. It's incentive for them to allow their children to go to school and to keep them in close, safe working conditions. We try to provide them with gloves, shoes, ways to clean themselves. We try to enhance the resources there both in Bangladesh and Pakistan and other areas where we're trying to start projects. The innovation we created years back was merging community infrastructure inside the garbage dump with the renewable resource process. One is supporting the other directly. Children go to school instead of wandering the garbage dump. Their education process can allow the people associated with these communities to leave that environment, especially when you have access to ways to start small businesses.

What technology do you use in this project?

We try to use technologies that can't be patented. People can't exert intellectual property control on them. That would introduce additional barriers to people who have zero resources. Biodigestion technology has been around for a long time. No one can patent composting or sorting recyclables. We can anticipate technologies that can enhance this, but first the groundwork has to be laid. The community has to see a benefit from working together in close quarters with the school or health clinic, so they can protect their families while having a better economic situation than before. There needs to be economic stability, so the school and the clinic will also grow. Within that, we can start inventing these technologies. The area is underdeveloped.

What roadblocks have you faced so far?

The roadblocks are significant. That's probably why the communities in these conditions haven't been remedied -- the problem is enormous. It's at the intersection of so many issues. Aid organizations want to take on projects they can have success in. You don't take on a project that's so difficult that you can't realize success to show people their money and resources were put to good use. That's why this problem was left to an organization like ours.

What's next for this project?

Our next step is to make sure the sorting and composting and biodigesting steps are moving forward and that the community is involved. The co-ops of parents should be linked to the school and incentivized enough to make sure their focus is 100 percent on doing this work -- which they'd be doing anyway -- in safer conditions and to support the school. That's our immediate next step. After that, we need to make sure there's proper electrification and lighting resources. Once you have energy, you can do a lot.

We've connected with another nonprofit that can provide economic resources. According to our charter, we can only provide physical resources. We had to bring in another nonprofit to do that. I was just at the Social Good Summit and one thing I noticed there, which is something we were trying to do for a long time, is the merging of many nonprofits. It's about finding synergies between nonprofits. We've been trying to do that as much as we can. It revolves around social networking. There are a lot of people working on that.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

We're in serious need of funds. We're a small organization. We've been studying this problem. We spent a long time learning from these communities. We're at a point now where we could make good decisions and facilitate change if we had the proper funding. We're now looking, for the first time, for significant funds. We're also looking for organizations to partner with.

Photo: Karachi landfill community / By Urooj Mughal

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure