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From the waste to the solution

Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

The project consists in producing a modified chitosan biopolymer, extracted from shrimp shell waste discarded by the fishing industry, and using it to remove textile dyes from wastewater. The chitosan biopolymer contained in the crustaceans` shells is an ideal absorbent and flocculant for the dyes. The product is non-toxic, biodegradable, enables water reuse, and is low cost, so it could be used by both large and small textile industries. We address two national problems: on the one hand, the contamination of water by dyes and on the other hand, the management of solid waste from the shrimp industry. At first, the textile producers were reticent to implement the new technology that was being offered to them. The problem is caused by the lack of regulation on wastewater discharge and solid waste management. The problem of dye contamination in the textile industry is caused by both large industries and small producers. The traditional methods for the remediation of water contaminated with dyes include electrochemical reactions, chemical press, and reverse osmosis. However, these methods have several limitations such as high operating costs, low efficiency, and production of by-products, which makes them difficult to acquire at small scales. Even a low concentration of dyes in the water can reduce photosynthetic activities in aquatic environments by preventing the penetration of light and oxygen. Also, the dyes are non-biodegradable and have toxic effects in humans and other species, which endangers the health of people who use this water.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

We made coalitions with shrimp producers, in order to manage and take advantage of their waste, giving it high added value by extracting the adsorbent polymer. We made alliances with various textile industries, from medium-sized companies to associations of textile artisans, who did not give real samples to develop the appropriate technology. We take advantage of the experiences through bibliographic consultation of scientific literature about the use of the polymer for the adsorption of dyes. With this base, we made experiments, with which we obtained the removal efficiencies, the correct particle size, etc. And we developed a filter, which was tested on real samples and by textile producers, making several improvements to the prototypes. The success of the project was thanks to the joint work between the private sector, NGOs and academia.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

The initiative, more than resilience to climate change, helped to develop mitigation of climate change or at least raise awareness about the sustainable and adequate management of solid waste to avoid the increase in greenhouse gases that cause climate change. In Guatemala not much attention has been paid to the management of organic waste, such as shrimp shells and other biomass waste from agricultural industries. The initiative allowed us to talk about the issue and understand that it is better to use the biorefinery to take advantage of these wastes instead of disposing of them in landfills.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

Better data access was achieved because a bond of trust was established with industries and communities to develop appropriate technology together. Connections and pathways were created that improved collaboration between different sectors such as the community, academia, and the industrial sector, who previously did not work together and therefore duplicated efforts or did not reach the expected impact. Collaboration between science and industry and between science and communities was engendered, through the development of appropriate technology resulting from joint work. An awareness of the importance of creating a water law in the country and of the importance of science in solving national problems was created in the population.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

My process as a change agent was special because I managed to identify with the youth and with the scientific sector. Being a young scientist with an innovative proposal that was recognized worldwide helped me gain credibility and be able to lead a movement. It was difficult, because the communities and industries tend to be very closed to the implementation of a new technology. It was a great challenge to achieve equitable agreements in which we all benefited. Also, as young people we sometimes lack of credibility when trying to present solutions to large organizations. It was a challenge, but we managed to articulate efforts with the industrial, academic, NGO and community sectors. For example, it was difficult to contact the associations of textile artisans who wanted to be part of the prototype improvement process. They thought that they were being attacked for contaminating the water. It was difficult for us to explain to them that we needed their support to be able to develop a technology that was going to be beneficial for them. There was inertia between the organizations of the shrimp industry because they could see their waste that could be given a high added value.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

We are making alliances with institutions abroad to be able to scale up production and to involve more institutions in the project, while still looking for new applications for the polymer in wastewater treatment. The effectiveness demonstrated by the polymer as a flocculant and the ability we have to continue producing it locally opens the door to expand its applications in the management of faecal sludge and wastewater in general. The risk is that we cannot scale up production. We have followed up on all artisan associations and industries that helped us develop the prototype, for continuous improvement.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

I learned a lot during the change agent process. I learned that the collaboration of different sectors is necessary to achieve a greater impact. I learned to be able to talk to powerful people from different organizations, realizing that they are human and that it is possible to convince them to help with a project as long as it is of mutual benefit. I always relied on tools such as scientific publications and books for the development of new technology. And, I also used all the project implementation tools that the Young Toilet Solutions organization gave me. Throughout the process I have met many young people who have environmental initiatives and have learned from their experiences, for example about creating strategic alliances with the private sector or about the processes of obtaining patents. I have had the opportunity to be a speaker at many events where I have motivated girls and young women to pursue careers in science and to put scientific discoveries within the reach of society.