As Brazil’s cities grow, waste is posing serious health and environmental risks. But with the help of German technology, one municipality near Sao Paolo has developed better ways to dispose of its garbage.
What a load of rubbish: Uncontrolled waste dumps in Brazil are a serious health hazard
In Sao Paolo, a city of around twenty million people, stinking landfills reach heights of up to eighty metres. Fluids which seep through contaminate the groundwater, posing a serious health threat. Many of these waste dumps are in danger of collapsing.
All over Brazil, uncontrolled waste dumps and landfills provide a meagre living to waste-pickers who scavenge in the piles of rotting garbage. But in the town of Sao Sebastiao, near Sao Paolo, the tips, and the waste-pickers, have vanished. In their place the town boasts one of the cleanest and neatest landfill sites in Latin America.
The lives of the former waste-pickers have changed dramatically. Many people who used to spend long days sifting through rubbish out in the open, knee-deep in filth, are now employed sorting marketable waste at a recycling co-operative near the town centre.
Workers at the recycling co-operative Sao Sebastiao, Brazil.
The co-operative was set up with the help of the German development agency GTZ . It has trained staff in the fundamentals of waste sorting and provided them with a computer system, with which members can check the current prices of materials such as glass and paper online.
The recycling co-operative is headed by Edleuza Vlinaia Santos, a former waste-picker. Santos now has accounting skills. She says the GTZ trained her and the staff at the centre to differentiate between different types of paper and plastic.
As Santos told DW Radio's John Hay, the atmosphere in the centre is much more harmonious now that the workers are no longer competing with one another for their survival.
"We really are better off than we used to be. We work peacefully together, and we don’t fight amongst ourselves. Now that we all receive regular wages, we don't have to worry so much."
A model partnership
GTZ, as well as helping to found Sao Sebastiao's recycling co-operative, has also supported a program to improve storage and processing techniques, making the municipality a model of good waste management.
A modern waste dump in Sao Sebastiao.
Sao Sebastiao's landfill is no longer an eyesore. And it also smells better, thanks to a public-private partnership between the municipality, a Brazilian company that collects and transports waste to the landfill site, and the German company FABER.
Several decades ago, FABER developed a technique known as ‘mechanical-biological treatment’ in which waste decomposes in carefully ventilated rotting heaps.
"We trialled these processes in Germany during the 1960s," says Wolfgang Tönges, FABER’s managing director. "It makes a compelling reason to buy our products, when people realise they can jump several developmental steps and avoid making the same mistakes that were made in Europe."
Hi-tech waste management
Uncontrolled, untreated household waste takes up to four hundred years to decompose fully. During this time, it emits fluids which contaminate ground water, as well as harmful methane gas.
Mechanical-biological treatment reduces the time of decomposition to twelve months or less. Almost no methane is produced.
The waste heaps are keep off the ground with plastic sheeting to avoid contamination of the ground water. The addition of small amounts of bacteria contained in water collected at the base of the dumps helps the rotting material to decompose quickly.
The heaps of rotting waste consist of several layers, separated by wooden pallets to ensure proper ventilation. The top layer of each pile - the biofilter - consists of wood chips, resembling a forest floor and giving an overall impression of orderliness.
Like ninety percent of municipalities in Brazil, most developing countries and emerging economies have uncontrolled waste dumps and landfills, creating a sizeable market for FABER’s expertise.
More landfills using German technology are planned in several countries including Mexico, South Africa and Mozambique. Proper management of these sites will improve the health and well-being of the residents as well as helping to preserve their environmental resources for the future.
Reduce, re-use, recycle
Recycling is an effective way to reduce the quantity of waste for disposal. And hi-tech landfills can help keep the environment clean. But it’s also important to avoid producing waste in the first place, according to GTZ advisor Dieter Munz.
"We have to look at the beginning of the process, as well as the end," Munz says. "That means we also have to look at co-operating with supermarkets, to tackle the problem of waste creation much earlier."
John Hay, DW Radio