09/19/2013 11:55 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Recycling Key to a Sustainable Urban Future

Building on the first debate to accelerate progress towards the MDGs, the Skoll World Forum partnered with Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Huffington Post to produce another online debate--this time focused on critical issues that do not have enough of a spotlight in the discussions on how to achieve the MDGs or what should be in the next global development framework. As part of that discussion, we asked some of the world's leading experts what's not being discussed during UN Week this year about the post-2015 development framework, but should be? View the full debate here.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the need to address the growing challenge of solid waste management has emerged as a critical part of the larger effort to build sustainable cities. As the recent Report of the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons states, "The post-2015 agenda must be relevant for urban dwellers. Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost." The most significant social and environmental challenges generated by this intense and rapid expansion include sanitation, air quality, urban mobility and waste management.

Over the next forty years, an estimated 3 billion more people will be added to the planet's cities, according to United Nations data. Latin America leads this global phenomenon as the most urbanized of developing regions. Of Latin America's 500 million residents, 75 percent live in cities; more than 20 percent live under the poverty line. Within Latin America, Brazil stands out, with the highest rate of urbanization between 1970 and 2010. Today, nearly 90 percent of the Brazilian population is classified as urban.

Brazil generates nearly 200,000 tons of solid waste each day. Of this, only about 60 percent has an environmentally appropriate destination (e.g., landfills, recycling, or composting). Recent data suggests that fewer than one fifth of municipalities enjoy selective collection of recyclable materials, despite the near doubling of solid waste production in just the past ten years.

The new regulatory framework established in Brazil, represented by the National Solid Residue Policy (Law no. 12305/10), however, introduced a new perspective for the handling of solid waste, inserting this theme into the country's social and political agendas through guidelines that aim to reduce the impact of solid waste production, including: eradication of dumps by 2014 and exclusive destination of tailings to sanitary landfills; productive inclusion of the country's half million recyclable material collectors in the solid waste management system; and shared liability among larger producers of solid waste. These are only a few indications of Brazil's positive trajectory in better handling its urban centers' growing waste challenges.

Fundación Avina and partner organizations have been working for ten years to better integrate waste pickers in the economy and in the broader society. As a result, an increasing number of organized collectors have been connected to the supply chain, selling recovered materials to companies and industries, and a financial value recognizing the valuable environmental service provided by these collectors has been established for the material recovered by them, beyond their material value. Avina has also contributed to studies of and advocacy for the creation of public-private partnerships that effectively implement guidelines of the national policies in Brazilian municipalities.

The Sustainable Cities Program of the Rede Nossa São Paulo (Our São Paulo Network) and the Brazilian Network for Just, Democratic and Sustainable Cities, with the support of Fundación AVINA, offers municipal authorities a model set of indicators associated with an agenda of urban sustainability and enriched by national and international examples of public policies. Established in Brazil, this program has already expanded to five other Latin American countries.

Waste management is one of the indicators of a well-functioning society that should be measured and compared across all nations but for which good sources of comparable information are lacking. The rapidly emerging Social Progress Network, of which Fundacion AVINA is a proud member, will build on the work of its members to highlight the need for more attention to building sustainable cities around the world while advocating for better ways to measure success.