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Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The first time I went to the Gramacho landfill, about three years ago, I was dumfounded by the size of the 1.3 million square meter area that hugs the Guanabara Bay. It was like going to the end of the world scenario, a cemetery if you will, where every piece of material residue seemed to give its final breath. There is a little bit of every person that lives in Rio in Gramacho.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

Gramacho, the largest landfill in Latin America has closed its doors on June 3, 2012, after 34 for years of chaos. It received approximately 8,000 to 9,000 tons of residues a day, but these numbers do vary.

There is public-private initiative to capture and flare the biological gas after the landfill closes, but the lack of infrastructure, such as the proper landfill liners and its proximity to the bay, will not contain the leachates that will certainly migrate into the water. The Guanabara bay, an ancient sanctuary and breeding ground for cetaceans, is far from what it used to be.

It is estimated that Rio recycles about five percent of the total material residues it produces. It is estimated forty percent of the total amount brought to landfills are recyclable. At the national level about five percent of organic residues are reused in Brazil.

Landfills, such as Gramacho, are a reflection of our consumption habits and an example of unorganized distribution of material residues. Furthermore, it is necessary for everyone to take out the concept of “garbage” and “waste” of their vocabulary and replace it with the word “material residue.”

Consumption and packaging are two of the biggest culprits that society needs to confront, to reduce the amount of material brought to landfills. People believe that technology will solve our future environmental problems but it is certainly not solving our present day excessive consumption habits. Consumerism can be put in check by the three R-s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

An interesting fact is that since the late seventies global consumer product diversity began outnumbering global biological diversity.

Now, let’s take a look at supermarkets and “convenience” stores because they are not selling foodstuff but mainly packaging. You can check this by doing a calculation of the comparative weight. This packaging material, an externality, is absorbed by the consumer, followed by society and finally absorb by our environment.

This is why I believe that every package item should have a value that any person or company can sell back to the rightful producer, like a coupon. Moreover, there are no incentives set in place by government and the private sector for people, at home, to separate their left over packaging. Residential waste, by volume, has the largest share, by far, at landfills.

Brazil is having a resurgence of established companies that are making their part in reducing the amount of packaging and byproducts that go to landfills, by exactly doing this, adding value, like a coupon, to their packaging. One of the biggest producers of beer and sodas in Brazil is reinstating the returnable bottles effort.

This effort is saving the company money and it attracts people because the product is more economical than the former. This effort is attracting consumers since they are buying the contents and not the bottle. This initiative saves the company money and makes their business profile “green.”

“Pit stops” or local environmental drop-off centers could also be a valuable idea in getting people to bring hazardous wastes and other residues to their rightful owners and destinations.

The concoction of materials thrown on the streets, as seen in Rio, is an outcome of the lack of stewardship. The historic lack of environmental education in Brazil is a key factor in this widely seen behavior. But lets consider another factor; some of the most powerful and affluent companies in Brazil, and the world, are in the “garbage” business.

The reason why they are successful is not only because material residues have a growing market value but also because they capitalized on the stewardship and goodwill of those people that do care about the environment. This recycling box conspiracy theory, as called by some, should be recognized but not dwelled upon.

I also agree with sources that say that more money worth of materials, energy and water will be thrown away in landfills this year in Brazil than all the money that will be spent by federal government’s on its 2012 educational budget, about R$80 billion which is around US$40 billion.

We shouldn’t have landfills but rather re-utilization centers. For this to happen Brazil needs a cultural environmental revolution based on stewardship and environmental education.

Lastly, as for Gramacho, I believe that all of the residues there should be removed, reprocessed and put in suitable working landfills.

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Policy in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he works with environmental detective services throughout the metropolitan area.

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