The Trash Planet series highlights various countries around the world and how they handle their waste.
With a current population of close to 200 million and a stable population growth rate (1 percent in 2009), Brazil’s waste management challenges are not like those of countries such as India or China, which are experiencing rapid urban growth, according to the CIA.
Perhaps Brazil’s greatest waste management hurdle to overcome is acquiring adequate financing. But despite this difficulty, the country’s lawmakers and municipal authorities have made it clear they want to make improvements to their cities’ systems.
Municipalities have therefore tried to find creative, responsible solutions to many of their problems in order to deliver satisfactory collection services, recycling programs and street cleaning to their citizens.
The Brazilian Federal Constitution makes municipalities responsible for protecting their environment, limiting pollution and contamination, and preserving forests and wildlife.
According to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, cities are granted the right to create their own laws, provided they pertain to matters of local public interest such as waste management and environmental policy, to accomplish these goals.
There is no all-inclusive federal law that provides guidelines for how to manage the country’s various types of waste materials. Instead, Brazil tends to regulate the most dangerous and prevalent components of the waste stream as they begin to raise special concern. Oil, tires, pesticide containers and batteries are some examples, according to EIATrack.
To ensure that companies and organizations operate in ways that are safe to both the country’s people and natural resources, Brazilian lawmakers established a federal law to set forth a national environmental policy. Included in this policy is the power to grant environmental licenses.
According to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, environmental licenses are granted to companies as a way to regulate any potentially contaminating activities, such as construction or operations. This means that any company wanting to use environmental resources cannot move forward without first applying for, and being granted, an environmental license by Brazil’s National Environmental System (SISNAMA).
More specifically, these licenses assign responsibilities to a company as well as establish the criteria for environmental impact assessments both prior to and during company action, such as the installation of a sanitary landfill. Environmental licenses must be renewed periodically for operations to continue.
According to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, the solid waste stream in Brazil is mainly comprised of the following:
- Organic matter - 65 percent
- Paper - 25 percent
- Metal - 4 percent
- Glass - 3 percent
- Plastic - 3 percent
Data collected in the 2008 Ciclosoft Survey, reported by CEMPRE News, reveals that 405 Brazilian municipalities do separate these waste materials, representing 7 percent of the country’s total municipalities. The number of municipalities separating their waste increased nearly 25 percent since the 2006 survey, which reported that only 327 were sorting their trash.
The waste collection systems in these 405 municipalities use a combination of operating methods. According to CEMPRE News, 50 percent of the municipalities use door-to-door service, 26 percent use collection points and 43 percent collaborate with street waste picker cooperatives.
Robyn Pereira is a 36-year-old American writer and translator who has lived in Brazil for four years. She and her Brazilian husband live in the city of Juiz de Fora, in the state of Minas Gerais, which is located in the southeastern region of the country.
Pereira says that, in her experience, municipal trash pickup for residential neighborhoods is generally three times a week. “However, in poorer neighborhoods,” she says, “trash is a visible problem, and the amount of trash seen on the street tends to be a pretty good indicator of the poverty level of any given area.”
According to the 2008 Ciclosoft Survey, around 26 million Brazilians, or 14 percent of the population, receive separated waste collection service - an increase of one million people since the 2006 survey was conducted.
Collection services are more prevalent in the south and southeast areas of Brazil. Based on weight, materials with the highest collection rates include plastics, glass and metals, with paper and cardboard far outweighing all the others, according to CEMPRE News.
In countries like Brazil where waste management systems are run by individual municipalities rather than the federal government, the nation’s larger cities are often at an advantage. This is because a large city will likely have more resources and a greater revenue stream to apply to its waste operations.
However, Brazil is comprised of mostly small cities, with 80 percent of its municipalities having a population of fewer than 30,000. Naturally, this places resource limitations and financial strain on most of these small-city governments, according to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual.
Some Brazilian municipalities choose to contract specialized companies to handle collection, sorting and street cleaning services. In these cases, municipalities are spared from having to manage the hiring, monitoring and compensation of hundreds of sanitation workers, while still ensuring their cities stay clean.
“In the main areas of the city center, trash is not a problem,” says Pereira. “There are daily street sweepers who are uniformed and hand-sweep the sidewalks, gutters and main pedestrian malls. There is also daily municipal garbage pickup in the center for both residential and businesses. [And] throughout the city center and surrounding middle-class neighborhoods, there are bright orange designated bins on every corner.”
For example, the Rio de Janeiro City Urban Cleaning Company (COMLURB) is an independent company contracted by the city, therefore it’s responsible for managing its own employees, setting its own budget and determining its own operations. In addition to manpower, it also provides the municipality with machinery, equipment and expertise, according to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual.
In some cities, Rio de Janeiro included, when cleaning contracts for low-income communities are established, every effort is made to guarantee that local labor will be employed to carry out the waste collection and street cleaning services for the community. This creates local jobs and develops community awareness of public health and environmental issues.
For example, according to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, COMLURB funds the services of these low-income community cleaning associations, as well as provides technical support and equipment. However, the associations hire and manage their own employees. This type of system is present in almost all of Rio de Janeiro’s informal settlements and has worked well so far, although there are still individuals who independently scavenge for recyclables in urban areas.
CEMPRE and Recycling
In 1992, private companies in Brazil established the Brazilian Business Commitment for Recycling (CEMPRE), a nonprofit organization that promotes recycling and waste elimination. The organization issues publications, conducts technical research, holds seminars and maintains databases.
CEMPRE’s goal is to persuade people in influential positions, such as mayors and company CEOs, to support recycling and waste elimination programs, as well as to improve the working conditions of waste pickers. The organization has also worked hard to standardize packaging symbols, according to an EPA case study.
Overall, Brazilian recycling rates are fair, especially concerning paper, steel and aluminum, despite the fact that there are no structured municipal recycling programs. The recovery of recyclable material is largely left to waste pickers, who earn a living by collecting recyclables and selling them to private recycling companies.
"There is essentially a small army of recycling 'entrepreneurs' - individuals with two-wheeled chaises who canvas neighborhoods and go through residential and business trash to separate out recyclable paper, plastic, glass and metal,” says Pereira.
“There are several private recycling depots around the city, and these recycling soldiers line up on the blocks outside, separating their goods on the street before taking them in to be weighed.”
In 2006, Brazil recycled 3.9 million tons, or 45 percent, of the paper materials produced that year. Taking into consideration only the paper used in packaging, the recycling rate is even higher at 70 percent, according to CEMPRE News.
According to the World Steel Association, in 2007, Brazil’s recycling rate for steel cans was 49 percent, and in 2005, the country managed to recycle an incredible 96 percent of the aluminum cans sold that year - almost 9.4 million cans.
Brazil does compost its organic waste, with the quality of the final product being standardized. Any commercial compost created from domestic materials must adhere to minimum values set forth by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. For example, the amount of organic matter, nitrogen, humidity and pH level are all regulated, according to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual.
In Brazil, the average waste produced in the construction of new buildings is approximately 660 pounds per square meter. This waste is comprised mainly of mortar (63 percent) and concrete (29 percent), as well as wood, plastic, cardboard, glass, metal, ceramics and soil, according to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual.
If small amounts of this construction waste are illegally disposed of in a city, the urban cleaning company will collect and transport the waste. However, Brazil tries to adhere to the “polluter pays” principle, and under such, it is the responsibility of the construction or demolition companies to safely remove large amounts of waste.
Another component of special waste is medical waste. If waste in clinics, doctor's offices and hospitals is not handled and disposed of properly, it can spread infection and disease. When municipal hospitals in Rio de Janeiro introduced separate waste containers and stricter sanitation procedures, the rate of hospitalization from such infections was reduced by 80 percent.
According to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, in hospitals in Brazil, plastic trash bags are color-coded accordingly:
- Transparent – common waste, recyclable
- Opaque colors – common waste, non-recyclable
- Cream – infectious or special waste (except radioactive waste)
After being removed from hospitals, medical waste is then transferred to a septic trench landfill, which is designed to safely hold medical waste.
In Brazil, radioactive waste is handled, stored and disposed of by the National Nuclear Energy Commission. Some disposal methods include depositing the waste in underground saline caves, encapsulating the waste in impermeable concrete and burying it underground, or encapsulating the waste in impermeable concrete and dumping it in the ocean, according to the EPA. The last method has been highly criticized by environmentalists and is even prohibited in some countries, including the U.S.
Final waste disposal can be problematic in Latin American countries. Incineration is a relatively effective method, however incinerators are expensive to purchase, operate and maintain, eliminating them as an option for most of the cities in Brazil.
Instead, Brazil relies on dumps and landfills. Pereira says her city’s landfill is “as tidy as they come” and describes the layers of waste as appearing to be very organized, like reverse strip mining.
However, Pereira has also seen the effects of unsanitary dumping in Brazil. “There is a favela [shanty town] in Rio that the elevated expressway cuts through on your way from the airport to the city, [and] you can see home waste dumping directly into open sewers that lead straight to the bay,” she says.
“This bay, Guanabara, stinks, has a black sludge floating on it and piles of plastic trash floating on top of that. It’s awful and, unfortunately, one of the first things that people see when coming to Brazil, as it is right outside the airport.
According to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual, as municipality administrators in Brazil begin to understand the risks associated with untreated waste in open dumping areas, and acquire sufficient funding, more and more dumps are being closed or converted to sanitary landfills.
At some Brazilian landfills, clean development mechanism (CDM) projects have been approved to collect the gases produced on-site. For example, at a landfill in Nova Iguaçu (Rio de Janeiro area), methane is being collected and converted into electricity. This process is expected to eliminate 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2012, according to the World Bank.
It seems that the majority of Brazil's municipal authorities are aware that efficient waste management is important to citizens. As shown by their willingness to participate in multi-country conferences, strides towards improvements are being made.
For example, in 2003 and 2005, segregators from several Latin American countries met in Brazil at the first and second Latin American Congress of Recyclable Material Segregators to discuss waste management strategies, according to the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual.
And in 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Green and Healthy Environments Project in Sao Paulo to gather city authorities interested in promoting environmental preservation, conservation and the protection of public health. The Green and Healthy project aims to establish community health advocates in Brazil, as well as strengthen the nation’s policies related to housing, the environment and climate change. Already, the project has assessed conditions pertaining to water resources, sanitation, urban parks, sustainable building and more, according to a UNEP report.
As Brazilian authorities continue to seek information regarding better technology and safer practices, and strive to apply them to waste management operations, the country hopes to continue on a path toward responsible urban living.
Feature image courtesy of Tim Ellis