Rio de Janeiro landfill exposes Brazil’s recycling crisis

. Jul 09, 2019
Rio de Janeiro landfill exposes Brazil's recycling crisis

Brazil is not a country of recyclers. According to the Waste Atlas, an initiative developed by global consultancy firm D-Waste, the country as a whole only recycles one percent of its waste. China, on the other hand, recycles 30 percent; Germany recycles 47 percent. Brazil’s major cities are above the national average, but are still far from ideal levels. The capital city of Brasilia recycles 5.9 percent of its trash; the country’s largest city, São Paulo, recycles just 2.5 percent. In Rio de Janeiro, however, the concern with recycling is even more pressing.

The city generates approximately 3.5 million metric tons of waste each year, but only recycles 1.9 percent of it, according to the Municipal Solid Waste Knowledge Platform and the Municipal Urban Cleaning Company (COMLURB).

</p> <p>Approximately 29 kilometers from Rio’s luxurious Ipanema neighborhood lies Jardim Gramacho, Latin America’s biggest landfill. Up until its closure in 2012, the landfill used to receive much of Rio’s waste. The shocking reality of its garbage collectors, who live amid piles of trash, was featured in the documentary <em>Waste Land,</em> where Brazilian artist Vik Muniz worked with locals to create art made with trash from the landfill. The famous Brazilian soap opera <a href=""><em>Avenida Brasil</em></a> also shed light on Jardim Gramacho, broadcasting its tough reality to average Brazilian families.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-4-3 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <iframe title="LIXO EXTRAORDINÁRIO - WASTE LAND - Documentário" width="1200" height="900" src="" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe> </div></figure> <p>When the landfill closed, the government devised a plan to reincorporate garbage collectors into society and provide them with a new source of income through the development of a recycling plant. The plan envisioned 11 recycling hubs, employing 550 workers. Seven years later, only one hub has been built, and only 65 people are employed. Despite a brief moment of fame on Brazilian television, Jardim Gramacho has lost considerable attention, yet its community remains in dire conditions.</p> <h2>The landfill and the environment</h2> <p>Back in 2012, environmentalists concluded that the Jardim Gramacho landfill had reached overcapacity. The landfill lies on a mangrove that could no longer withstand the weight of more trash. Moreover, the National Law of Solid Waste, instituted in 2014, banned open-air landfills as they contaminate the soil, the air, and running water.</p> <p>Although it has been five years since this national law was imposed, the landfill remains exposed to the outdoors. The envisioned recycling hubs were aimed at gradually decreasing the <a href="">amount of waste</a> in the area. As ten recycling hubs still haven’t been built, little has been done to control environmental contamination by the exposed trash.&nbsp;</p> <p>Although the landfill itself is regulated, the previously untouched mangrove surrounding the landfill is not. Some companies are illegally dumping waste into this surrounding area, contributing to further environmental degradation. This is left unchecked by the government, as they only oversee the original landfill compound, according to Sebastião Santos, president of the Association of Waste Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.</p> <p>The National Law of Solid Waste states that those who produce waste— consumers, producers and distributors— share responsibility for its disposal. However, with so much fly tipping, companies are not held accountable for the waste they produce.</p> <p>“You can’t punish the garbage collector if he [doesn’t report] companies that are illegally dumping. The Jardim Gramacho community needs that trash. What is waste to some people is food and survival for our community. The companies are the ones [who should be punished],” said Mr. Santos.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <h2>What happened to Jardim Gramacho’s waste pickers?</h2> <p>Before closure, approximately 3,500 to 4,000 waste-pickers indirectly worked at the compound. One thousand seven hundred of them were officially recognized by the government.&nbsp;</p> <p>When the landfill was shut down, each garbage collector received BRL 14,000 (USD 3,618) so they could provide basic necessities for their families while government initiatives were still being developed. Aside from the recycling plant, the government plan also envisioned launching technical courses in partnership with the National Program for Access to Technical Education and Employment (PRONATEC), so that garbage collectors could undertake work in other sectors.</p> <p>The revitalization plan has never been implemented. Few workers can find employment at the recycling plant, as only one new recycling hub was built. When the landfill closed, locals were stripped of their source of income and now struggle to find other jobs.</p> <p>“The government needs to put everything that was envisioned into practice. This ranges from developing a fund to recover the neighborhood’s environment to building houses, schools and daycares— these people need dignity,” said Mr. Santos.&nbsp;</p> <p>Like many poor communities in Brazil, the lack of state presence in Jardim Gramacho means drug traffickers are in charge. Mr. Santos hopes that this doesn’t get in the way of his initiatives as the president of waste pickers association.</p> <h2>A matter of public health</h2> <p>After India, Brazil has the second largest incidence of leprosy in the world. In 2016, there were 25,218 registered cases. In 2017, the number increased to 26,800, according to the Ministry of Health.&nbsp;</p> <p>The disease proliferates in poor neighborhoods where public sanitation is underdeveloped. The region of Duque de Caxias, where the landfill is located, is a notorious hub for leprosy. With little access to treatment, infected people easily transmit the disease, according to Milton Ozório Moraes, chief of the Leprosy Laboratory at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute.</p> <h2>What still needs to be done</h2> <p>Sebastião Santos began working at the landfill when he was 11 years old. As the current president of the waste pickers association, he oversees the recycling plant as well as other social projects. He explains that the biggest challenge locals face is the lack of employment opportunities. Mr. Santos stresses that it is necessary to build the other ten recycling hubs so garbage collectors who lost their jobs can be employed once again.</p> <p>“We need to give more importance to the work of these garbage collectors. It’s necessary to understand that those people are qualified, their work just needs to be valued more,” he said.

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Martha Castro

Martha Castro worked as an intern at The Brazilian Report in 2019. She is a Brazilian journalism and political science student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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