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Copacabana compost

Milton Bragatti, Brazil / alsDecember 28, 2012

Huge amounts of food are thrown away every day in the restaurant and hotel industry, especially in the boom cities of Brazil. Now, one very famous Rio de Janeiro hotel is taking the lead with a unique, food waste plan.

Night view of Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro (Copyright: ekaterina_belova / Fotlia)
Image: ekaterina_belova / Fotlia

The setting at this restaurant is simply too good to be true. A musician plays the piano as diners sit and enjoy a meal next to an open-air swimming pool situated in the middle of a gleaming white, Italianate-style building. The surrounding lights shimmer in the clear blue waters.

This is not just any restaurant. It's located in one of Rio de Janeiro's best known hotels, the Copacabana Palace, in the glamourous suburb of the same name. Many of the greats have stayed here, including Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Princess Diana and Mick Jagger.

But the Copacabana Palace isn't resting on its laurels. In an age of disposable culture, they want to promote sustainability. They are turning the waste produced by the hotel's restaurants into something useful.

The famous Copacabana Palace beach hotel in Rio de Janeiro (Archivfoto vom 30.10.2006). +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The Copacabana Palace hotel has won prizes for its leadership in sustainable business practicesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In Brazil, as in other countries, there are strict laws preventing restaurants from giving away food to poor families or homeless shelters. So the Copacabana has begun its own composting program, which it hopes will lead the way across the city of Rio de Janeiro.

'At the Copa, Copacabana'

Launched in 2008, the hotel's restaurant waste management and recycling program is well and truly up and running. More than seven thousand liters of cooking oil and fifty tons of bottles are recycled each year. In addition, the hotel also composts most of its food waste too.

Paulo Andre Pozzobon, Director of Engineering at Copacabana Palace, implemented the system. "It started out for economic reasons, but it is also supposed to be environmentally friendly and socially fair," he told DW in an interview.

"We started researching and found that the cost of managing waste was high and we wanted to reduce the volume of waste to reduce costs. We then bought a machine to crush the organic waste produced by the restaurant, which reduced 88 percent of the volume," he said.

Treasures in trash

The Copacabana Palace was awarded a sustainability prize in 2009 from the Brazilian Association of Hotels and is now considered a leader in green business. Green practices have spread from its restaurant into other operations. The hotel now recycles just about everything, including buckets and other plastics and even unused waste from pineapples and coconuts.

Although Pozzobon says recycling can be profitable, many restaurants in Rio de Janeiro continue to dump their food and other waste products directly into the trash. The city's larger restaurants produce between 200 and 1,000 kilograms of food scraps each day.

Excess fruit and vegetables in a biomass fuel facility, waiting to be processed. (Foto: Christian Charisius dpa/lno (zu dpa-KORR: "Gammelfleisch als Energielieferant" vom 26.08.2011) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted worldwide each yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Green entrepreneur Álvaro Oliveira runs a composting company from Rio de Janeiro called VideVerde. He sees a niche market for his services in Brazil.

"We went to Japan to study how they manage their waste and we visited a composting site and studied the technology," Oliveira said in an interview with DW. "We wanted to bring it to Brazil, where we realized there was a big demand in composting."

Sprinkling bacteria on top

Oliveira's company collects the organic leftovers from restaurants and turns them into healthy composting material.

"This is a bio-transformation of organic waste into compost using microorganisms, or bacteria if you will," he explained. "When we receive the organic waste, we spread bacteria on top."

"Everyone that works with it is excited when they see the organic waste arriving - even though it looks like garbage and smells a little, too," he said. "Then, in 45 days, which is the time that we manage to decompose organic waste, they see pure organic compost."

The result of the process can be seen, for example, in the gardening section of supermarkets in Rio de Janeiro, where the compost is sold as fertilizer in biodegradable plastic bags.

"You see people buying it, and then sometimes, when I go back a month later, I hear people who have bought the organic compost going on about it to their friends, praising it and suggesting they buy it," Oliveira said. "It very satisfying. It's even better than payday for us - knowing that the product works and everyone really accepts it."

Role models for change

Engineer Paulo Andre Pozzobon, of Copacabana Palace, hopes examples like his and Oliveira's will catch on throughout the Rio de Janeiro. He wants composting and combustion plants installed city-wide.

"We could change the whole profile of organic waste management," Pozzobon said.

Pozzobon believes that companies can improve their profits when they divert waste away from landfills and thereby build a green reputation for themselves.

"The landfills will also have a longer lifecycle too, which is good for everyone," he said. "It's not trash, it's not waste, it's reusable, it's recyclable, it's going back into the earth again."