Recycling in Patagonia, an interview with Bill Penhollow

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The Chilean Patagonia is one of the most isolated zones in Chile. The area of Magallanes is only accessible by land crossing from Argentina, in the north it is surrounded by gigantic glaciers and reservoirs of life that block the vehicular transit. This extensive region of more than 132.000 square kilometers has a population of less than 170.000 people. As you can imagine, there is a lot of space for conservation and the protection of native life.

But how can we deal in a sustainable way with the enormous amount of tourists that are attracted by this amazing land?

We present you an interview with Bill Penhollow, a wonderful friend originally from the USA who has been living in the southern area of Chile for more than a decade. Bill is the co-founder of Erratic Rock, a hostel-rental-info center located in Puerto Natales that has a clear social-environmental conscience.

Bill and his team have been leading a recycling program for several years, they intend to deal in a sustainable way with the problem of modern lifestyle garbage creation. Among the articles recycled are plastic, aluminium cans, glass, cardboard, batteries and even camping fuel canisters.

Bill Penhollow

When did you arrive in Patagonia and why did you decide to stay?

I arrived in December of 1999 to receive the Millennium and to work in an environmental project in Tierra del Fuego with a group called Gonwana. Less than 10 minutes after descending from the Navimag I already knew that here was where I wanted to live if I stayed in Chile! I went to the park for 2 weeks and I was thinking how to get a job in Patagonia.

Then I went to Tierra del Fuego for 3 2 week “tours”, our objective was to report on what was REALLY there in those amazing forests! At that time the Trillium Company had a plan to cut all the native forest (they are bad for building), make chips and send them to Japan! And in their place plant Oregon pine trees to make a lot of money.

At the end we were a small part of the machine that stopped that company, and in 2006 the best part of 84 thousands hectares was protected by the Chilean government! That changed my view on “activism”, and I realized that we can really DO something!!! It is not always possible, but every once in a while! And with that I started to think differently.


How are the travelers that stay at Erratic Rock?

They are from all around the globe. Maybe because we are “gringos” (real ones) we receive a lot of gringos! We also have a discount for students in Chile, so a lot of gringos that are studying in Chile come here, but there is a bit of everything! What they have in common is that they are looking for something different, not only the cheapest hostel! It is important, and all cities should have them… but I don’t want to be the owner of one! Things “go missing”, people “forget to pay”, Israelites singing, gringos shouting… too much work!


Where did the recycling project idea come from?

I don’t want to be selfish, but we really started because it IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY!!! We earn money from the park and Patagonian nature, it is our livelihood and we have to protect it! We started collecting glass bottles at first, and sharing the cost of a truck to send the bags to Puerto Montt. And with time, and the help from the 1% for the planet and the Municipality and a little (very little) from Navimag, we started to go bigger. But we are still not ready to work with the whole town! We don’t have the facilities.

Torres del Paine

Was it too hard to implement?

… As with every project it was hard at the beginning, but when we received the help from Patagonia Co. with the 1% for the planet, things started to change! With that money we were able to do more things, buy bags and a container, arrange transport with Navimag and a place to recycle: Wale is a beautiful project in Puerto Montt!


How did the community react? And the travelers?

The community still doesn’t get us completely, but little by little things change. We just “guide” with our example, we are not trying to tell people what to do. But gradually there is more people from the community involved! During the first years they said “this gringos are crazy, they PAY to send garbage to the north” hehehhe. Our clients are very good and they are already used to recycling, so it is a lot easier, we only have to set the space.


How did you manage to organize everything? Can you tell us about the evolution of the project?

Well, as I said we started to send the bags to Santiago and Puerto Montt, and then with the 1% for the planet from the Patagonia Foundation we received 5 thousand dollars and with that money we were able to buy the container and we started to give bags to our partners. We began to use the help of volunteers and also with the assistance of the municipality of Puerto Natales to organize a space for the container and to convince Navimag to work with us. The last 4 years things have worked well, there is still a lot to do, but it is already in motion! We are one of the few companies to receive a grant, in general it is only for non-profit, but they are happy with what we do and made an exception in our case!


What is your opinion on the sustainability policies in the region?

It is changing!! Besides recycling, there are more days to clean the shore. We are the first town (do not listen to Pucon!!!) to ban plastic bags!! That is a big step! There are permaculture, building and sustainability courses. But as always, the people has to guide the politicians to action. If things don’t start from the people, nothing happens.

Puerto Natales

How is the Patagonian community?

A bit divided between those originally form here, who live in many ways more sustainably, but sometimes new ideas and changes are difficult for them; and the group of gringos and people from other regions that have come looking for a better quality of life, and are therefore more motivated to improve things here!! But every year things are changing, and more people originally from the area are seeing that there are other ideas and ways to improve things!


What community/sustainable projects are in the area?

Hhhhhhmmmmmm not many really, recycling, yoga dome and permaculture courses. Many veggie gardens are almost self-sustaining; there are many ladies that have amazing gardens!! They make exchanges between themselves, but we don’t have much contact with them, besides buying their veggies at the market.


What would your ideal Patagonia be like?

hhhhmmmmm wow….starting by the park:

  1. Limited entries 2. No more buildings or infrastructure (besides a real guarding patrol) 3. The refugios to be REFUGIOS not hotels 4. Eco-transport in the park 5. Take out the catamaran and build a bridge 6. A patrol of rangers to always be walking the paths 7. Volunteers to improve the paths 8. A massive reforestation plan 9. More use of alternative energies 10. NO CEL PHONE ACCESS!!!

The zone:

  1. A recycling center between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas 2. “curb-side pick up” of recyclables 3. Incentives for people and companies to change to solar 4. Community gardens 5. More green spaces 6. A train between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas 7. Control of the urban-sprawl


Where is your favorite place for trekking?

Cabo Forward!!! The southernmost point in the continent!

2 thoughts on “Recycling in Patagonia, an interview with Bill Penhollow

  1. The Patagonia is a resplendent gem in the Tierra del Fuego tiara. This pristine wonderland at the foot of the world is an enchanted hallowed and justifiably enigmatic ambit with a striking spiritual aura and charisma. This divine land of spectacular splendour truly transcends all common lay definitions of beauty and captivates all with her suave seductive charms and alluring appeal. Quite literally, this place is breathtaking and this is coming from someone who is yet to saunter amongst her scintillating surrounds. When the amor is requited, the union is a wondrously majestic pairing. Sumptuously sublime is this secluded scene of serenity is it any wonder that it yields the awe inspiring capacity to cast it’s spell upon all whom lay their eyes upon her becoming fixated and be dazzlingly drawn in by her spellbinding eyeful of desires. How could any soul resist the inevitable fate of subduing oneself to the fetching fecundity of a natural temptress such as this evocatively expanse virgin landscape? The Patagonia could quite easily be Chile’s own Helen of Troy setting all les petits couers aflutter with a head-turning face that could indubitably launch the eagerness of a 1000 activists, preservationists et al. Gallant gringos such as this assiduously animated and tirelessly active adopted hijo de Chile, are a priceless asset to the preservation of a glorious global heritage treasure. The laudable labours and phenomenal feats achieved by this bon homme in conjunction with his consummate commitment, affinity and dutiful will to safeguarding this genuinely tangible slice of heaven merit such energetic heralding. An entertainingly engaging interview of an eagerly enterprising, congenial and jocund good bloke. I relished reading this profoundly insightful and inspiring piece immensely 🙂

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