Waste picking communities in low-income countries, with MIT students and Community Innovator Lab’s Libby McDonald, develop waste sector business models.

Libby McDonald is the Program Director of Global Sustainability Partnerships for MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab).  CoLab is a center for planning and development within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) with ties to MIT Sloan, Engineering Systems Division, and D-Lab. CoLab works with community partners to explore the intersection of democratic engagement, shared wealth creation, and the environment to support cities’ efforts to become socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.

When my students go into a community, they always leave something behind. Some artifact that the community members can look at after they are gone and know, we opened our doors and here’s what we got. It was good to us to have MIT students here. They helped us create that.


Libby’s current work focuses on integrated waste management strategies in low-income communities to promote social and economic change. Libby and her students work with municipal governments and community members to develop business models that simultaneously provide livelihood income and reduce environmental impacts of waste. But Libby is careful to point out that the method for this interaction is one of learning and facilitation, not flying in with a solution already determined. 


What I have learned is that it really requires three or four weeks living with a community to develop a strategy that will be sustainable. It requires a phase of listening, and of letting them know what I’m about – and what CoLab and D-Lab are about. There’s something remarkable that happens when you come in with the attitude, ‘these are students who want to learn more about your life.’ We have to remain open to the magic – the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit – that exists in these communities.


On working with MIT students, Libby is very positive:

I always start my classes by telling students, ‘You will be working in dump sites, right alongside the people who live there. When we visit local homes, you will eat what’s in front of you. If it’s orange soda and goat, you will eat it and be grateful to share the meal. If you can’t do that, you should not take this class.’ When we start talking about being in the communities, I look around my class and all the students are smiling. 


Libby, who teaches D-Lab Waste, takes her students to work in communities during January IAP.  Through independent studies and as research assistants, students work on waste related projects in Nicaragua and Panama over spring break and during the summer months. Work with the Kuna Yala people off the Caribbean Coast of Panama to develop strategies for waste management on islands is an active project for Libby and her students. These islands are moving toward a zero waste policy, but they also have a steady stream of tourists who each bring dozens of PET water bottles, among other things. This project has involved MIT experts on supply chains, technology, business models, and development, as well as the expertise of the local people. 


There is something very valuable about applying the knowledge they have on engineering, on business models, on development in a real world setting. It’s an extraordinary experience for the students, and if done well, also for the community.