They Say It’s Getting Better, But Trash Is Still a Serious Issue in Brazil

Trash dump in Brazil Urban waste problem is huge in Brazil – yet, it  is visibly improving. Almost half of it is disposed inadequatelly – in river banks, wetlands or bare land. According to Abrelpe (Association Of Private Waste Management Companies), only 55% of 149.100 tons of waste collected every day in the country are sent to landfills (most of it), recycling, composting or controlled incineration.

These numbers don't cover the trash that is just not collected. The destiny of hospital waste – 210,000 tons of this highly contaminated trash were collected last year – is particularlly dramatic: a mere 23% is treated adequately.

These statistics may sound very bad, but in fact they reveal an impressive progress. When I began reporting about environmental issues, 25 years ago, quality landfills were extremely rare and there was virtually no recycling in the country.

Today, 26 million people living in 405 Brazilian cities have access to some sort of selective waste collection (in 201 cities, door-to-door). According do Cempre (a non-profit sponsored by packaging industries that promotes recycling in the country), Brazil is the world leader in aluminum cans recycling (96.5% of all)- thanks to the high price of this commodity and the huge amount of extremely poor people that wander around the cities searching for trash to sell to intermediaries, that will then sell them to recyclers.

There are estimates that 800,000 Brazilians work as catadores, dragging their carts around most cities. We also recycle steel cans (46.5% of the units disposed of), glass packaging (47%) and paper (43.7%).

These numbers seem a little bit too optimistic to me, even if Cempre is considered a good source. After all, the number of cities involved in organized selective collection is still too small, and many citizens (in shanty towns, isolated communities, rural areas) don't have their waste collected at all.

The country also faces the problem of huge amounts of litter thrown by careless citizens on the streets and beaches. Every day, 8,500 garbage men collect 3,500 tons of trash in the streets of Rio (590 grams per person). In a summer Sunday, 180 tons are removed from the beaches of the city (60% are coconuts). The main avenue in Rio, Rio Branco, is cleaned six times a day and remains dirty.

Peri Pane is a journalist, singer and performer who is disturbed by this reality. In 2003, he conceived a very eloquent project that illustrates the omnipresence of trash in our lives and stresses that we should work on reducing our "waste footprint".

During his performances, he collects for a whole week everything he would normally discard – bottles, cans, newspapers. The trash is organized in a plastic apron with pockets that he wears for seven weeks, getting heavier as the experience evolves.

He has taken his performance to a few theatre festivals in Europe. I met him a few days ago, during a global warming awareness rally, in Ibirapuera, the main park of São Paulo. Pane was fully dressed in his "trashy costume". I must say, he was blending with the environment.

Brazilian born, French citizen, married to an American, Regina Scharf is the ultimate globetrotter. She graduated in Biology and Journalism from USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and has worked for Folha de S. Paulo, Gazeta Mercantil and Veja magazine as well as Radio France Internationale. Since 2004 she has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the US. She authored or co-authored several books in Portuguese on environmental issues and was honored by the 2002 Reuters-IUCN Press award for Latin America and by the 2004 Prêmio Ethos. You can read more by her at Deep Brazil – www.deepbrazil.com.

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