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Green Or Gone

Waste In Brazil, Where Environmental Failure Meets Dire Poverty

Brazil has utterly failed to find an environmentally friendly response to waste disposal. The struggling economy makes change unlikely, meaning ever more garbage "pickers" making modest livings sifting through the dumps.

A trash picker at the Gramacho Garden landfill, on the northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro
A trash picker at the Gramacho Garden landfill, on the northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro
Lucas Ferraz and Avener Prado

PERUÍBE — One of the ways to measure a country's development (or lack thereof) is to look at its garbage. Unfortunately for Brazil, such scrutiny is yet more proof that our country's woes, as we have plainly failed to eradicate landfills as the quantity of our garbage continues to pile up every year.

And it doesn't look like the situation will improve in the near future. Brazil's ongoing economic crisis and the unprecedented budget deficit of more than 50 billion reais ($13 billion) forecast for 2016 are certain to exacerbate the problem.

For the lowest rungs of society, it means ever more people will be pushed into the degrading position of sifting and sorting through the mountains of trash in dumps to resell what they can find, while the country as a whole has fewer resources to tackle the issue.

"I know that a lot of people don't have the courage to face such a disgusting task, but I really didn't have any other choice," explains 31-year-old Edson Sousa Silva, who recently began garbage "picking" in the landfill in Peruíbe, on the southern coast of São Paulo state.

Without work available in civil construction, he found himself out of a job. Two months ago, he started searching the landfill for materials to recycle. Since then, he's earned 2,000 reais ($500). He works at night, sifting through domestic garbage with a headlamp but without any protection for his hands. "It's slower with gloves," he says.

Peruíbe's landfill is just one example of Brazil's failure to deal with its garbage. The fence around it doesn't change the fact that the waste piles up under the open sky. It draws dozens of trash pickers, including children, who climb up and down the mountains of garbage. They all start work at around dusk, the only time when they can enter the site.

There is a stream just 500 meters away, threatened by the dregs created as trash decomposes, which penetrates the soil until it reaches ground water.

Working in a dump, living in a slum

Most of those who work here live in the neighborhood nearby. It's a depressing slum along the highway that increasing numbers of people are forced to call home. "I'd rather live here than in jail," says José Carlos Sena, a 39-year-old who's been working in Peruíbe's landfill for nine years. Like most houses in the area, his consists of material he collected in the dump. He sometimes even finds discarded food to eat.

According to Brazil's Environment Ministry, there are 3,000 landfills across the country and about 800,000 people who sort through garbage for a living. Almost half of Brazil's waste ends up in these dumps.

And yet, as another sign of the unfulfilled euphoria of the Lula years (2003-2010), a 2010 National Policy of Solid Waste planned for all landfills to disappear by August 2014. Brazil missed the target by a long shot.

"Even in 50 years, we might not be done with them," says Albino Rodrigues Alvarez, a scientist who led a waste study at the Institute of Applied Economic Research. "The plan was far too ambitious. Garbage is a civic challenge, and it's directly connected to education."

A good example of the issue's complexity is in the capital, Brasilia. The city boasts the highest income per capita in the country, yet the nearest dump, Lixão da Estrutural, is the largest in all of Latin America.

But despite the initial blatant failure, a new bill currently being reviewed by Congress would create a new deadline to eradicate landfills. For small cities, the new deadline would be 2021.

"If we couldn't solve the problem in the last five years, will we in the next five?" asks Ariovaldo Caodaglio, president of the São Paulo State Union of Urban Cleaning Companies. He says municipalities depend on federal cash to deal with the garbage crisis, but the current situation and the recession are likely to jeopardize these efforts.

Still, in a sad paradox, landfills offer a humble blessing for some families. After working in a landfill for years and then officially retiring, 65-year-old Aparecido Bonifacio continues to return to Peruíbe almost every night with his wife and daughter to sift through the trash for valuables. Together, they earn a modest living.

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