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Eric Ehrmann

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Brazil's Garbage Becomes an Olympic Challenge

Posted: 08/09/11 12:43 PM ET

President Dilma Rousseff hopes her new plan to stimulate industrial productivity will put inflation in check and push economic growth above 4 percent this year. But with millions of Brazilians achieveing middle class status people are generating more garbage and public services are hard pressed to handle it.

A study by Brazil's Association of Public Sanitation and Waste Disposal Companies (ABRELPE) finds that Rio de Janeiro generates more waste than any other city in Brazil, 4.1 pounds per citizen per day. A sprawling metropolis of 6.1 million that will host the 2016 Olympics, Rio struggles to collect and process 1,496 pounds of trash per person annually, just five percent off the US average of 1,609 pounds. Overall, Rio generates half a billion tons of garbage each year, about the same amount as Shanghai, China, which also faces a major waste disposal crisis.

Brazil is behind the curve because its political class has been in conflict and denial about implementing sustainable waste management solutions. In spite of an influential Green party, and pressure from NGOs and international organizations, Brazil did not implement a national waste management policy until last year, when former president Lula hammered one out before his second term ended.

In the interim, education and recycling programs sponsored by local governments and NGOs like the World Wildlife Federation prove they can make a difference. Thanks to enhanced recycling awareness Sao Paulo generates one third less waste per person -- 2.7 pounds per day --than Rio, where the beat of the samba is more popular than the sound of sustainability. But São Paulo, the world's third largest city with its 17.7 million inhabitants, produces three times more waste, 872 million tons per year.

Four of Brazil's top ten trashmakers -- Fortaleza, Goiania, Natal and Recife -- are located in the economically challenged Northeast and Altiplano regions and their growth is sparked by stimulus programs implemented by the federal government. More recycling programs and citzen education are needed to offset the garbage that piles up at open dumps and landfills, creating public health problems including dengue fever, which spreads when fresh rainwater attacts mosquitoes who breed and carry the disease.

With new census results showing a population increase of 21 million over the past decade Brazil may need to rely on privatization and outsourcing of solid waste services to global companies funded in part by international capital packagers, and NGOs. Helping to jump start the effort, the World Bank recently invested $50 million in projects to improve solid waste infrastructure.

The challenge facing the Dilma government is to craft a political solution that adapts modern global waste disposal and sustainability standards that fit everybody in Brazil's inclusive society. Discussion has finally broken out of the silo provided by managed social media communities that contained it and has taken on the authenticity of a genuine national debate. Waste disposal solutions designed for high income nations in Europe and North America need to be scaled with the financial resources and cultural realities of a lower income, don't worry-be happy Brazil. While public service ads visible to all promote recycling, celebrities and athlete role models need to go public and promote sustainability through cause related sports marketing and PR as they do in the United States and so far, that isn't happening.

Solid waste is just one of the challenges Brazil faces as it develops a stronger environmental policy. In many states sugar harvesters burn canefields at will, causing pollution and smog. Officials are reluctant to take action because conventional wisdom places greater importance on the economic benefits of sugar and ethanol than on the enforcement of environmental standards.

Militant favela residents living below Rio's trendy Santa Teresa bairro defy police and burn garbage as a protest against wealthy foreigners and local developers who seek to regentrify the area. During frequent torrential rains, poor sewage and wastewater disposal in Rio and Sao Paulo cause flash floods where trash bags waiting for collection float down streets like Rua Catete and the Barra Funda like bobbleheads.

While in its nascent stage, international cooperation is starting to provide innovative solutions. A partnership between the Energy Center at Appalachian State University in North Carolina and the city of Maracanu (population 215,000) in Brazil's northeastern state of Ceara is implementing a community-based waste management program that has the potential to scale in larger cities.

Supported in part by funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the project captures methane gas generated by the decomposition of landfill garbage. It provides jobs for catadores, (garbage scavengers who work the landfills and earn income recycling cans, bottles and wire into the informal economy, the equivalent of dumpster divers in the US) and when fully operational will generate for city government annual revenue worth 1.5 milion reals (about $1 million) linked to the sale of methane gas. With more than 16 million Brazilians living in abject poverty, earning 50 reals per month or less, the Marcanu project alone can create 300 recycling jobs paying 500 reals per month, an average starting wage for unskilled workers in the formal economy. If scaled to include Brazil's 30 largest city, the program could create a national Sustainability Brigade of 9,000 catadores who can reduce the waste that is threatening Brazil's progress.

With the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics putting the world's 5th largest economy in the global spotlight waste collection and disposal is a problem the land of the samba can't dance around.