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Fortaleza, Brazil Shows Why Waste Matters for Sustainable Urban Development

Fortaleza Waste Management

Catadores—Fortaleza, Brazil's waste pickers—are helping the city reuse its waste and avoid landfill expansion, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by Louis Vasconcelos/Flickr.

In 2002, Brazil produced 60,000 metric tons of waste per day, 76 percent of which was disposed of in landfills with no long-term management or water treatment. In response to growing challenges with waste production and trash dumping, the country passed the Política Nacional de Resíduos Sólidos(PNRS) in 2010, which aims to make integrated waste management a national priority.

The PNRS provides tremendous opportunities for cities across Brazil to improve waste management. Still, by 2013, only 33 percent of Brazilian cities reported having plans to address waste management.

Fortaleza was one of those cities and can serve as a model for making the best use of PNRS today. After measuring the extent of its waste challenge, Fortaleza found that its waste—discarded food, plastic, and other materials—more than doubled from 2,375 tons per day in 2001 to 4,816 tons per day in 2011, while the city's population only grew 14 percent over the same period. Through an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions, Fortaleza also found that 25 percent of its carbon emissions come from waste.

A close look at Fortaleza's efforts to improve its own waste management reveals lessons for how strong waste management strategies can contribute to sustainable urban development globally.

Committing the city to international waste management standards

Fortaleza unveiled its waste management proposal in April 2012, which included an investment of about $375,000 to develop a separation and recycling system for materials like plastic bottles and aluminum cans. That may not sound like much money, but in 2013, only 39 percent of Brazilian cities even let customers separate trash from recycling in some areas of their jurisdiction. Recycling is key for Fortaleza, as the city currently sends the remainder of its solid waste to the massive Caucaia landfill, which had to absorb nearly 1.8 million tons of waste in 2011 alone. Recycling can also provide benefits like job creation and reducing the energy needed to produce goods.

For Fortaleza, the impetus to improve waste management also comes from a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through the Urban LEDS project, the city is implementing machinery designed to capture methane entering the atmosphere from the Caucaia landfill. The machinery will capture and purify methane before using it as fuel in place of natural gas. Reusing the purified landfill gases for power is expected to reduce Fortaleza's carbon emissions by 318,000 metric tons per year, or about 8 percent of its current annual emissions.

Grassroots organizing for a cleaner city

In addition to these top-down efforts, communities within Fortaleza are taking bold steps forward on sustainable wastewater issues. Only about one-third of households are connected to the city's wastewater system. Without proper wastewater services, sewage from favelas—informal slum communities—can sit in containers accessible by mosquitoes or enter into groundwater reserves that serve as drinking water sources. These mosquitoes have been known to help incubate Dengue Fever, a serious health risk. By working with Project Fortaleza—an initiative to promote trust and social capital among slum dwellers—150 families came together to complete the Palmas community's first project to improve wastewater drainage. In addition, these families paid only an average of $84 for the project—compared to the $420 they had to pay to for illegal and unreliable water services before.

Fortaleza's waste pickers, or "catadores," are also an unexpected source of grassroots activity in the city. They sift through trash to collect, sort, and sell useful materials to the Brazilian recycling industry. Some even turn waste materials into jewelry, furniture, and art. Still, it's not a perfect system. To collect waste, the catadores work in hazardous conditions, are cut off from much of society, and many face food insecurity. While the PNRS formalized the catadores' work in 2010, little is being done to integrate them into Brazilian society and many think the PNRS has failed to help catadores shed the social stigma that follows their line of work.

While it may not have happened yet, the PNRS can in fact catalyze projects that improve the lives of catadores. For example, The Green Methane Committee and the The Appalachian Energy Center want to ensure the previously mentioned project to capture methane at Fortaleza's Caucaia landfill creates safer working conditions and better pay for catadores.

Fortaleza as an inspiration for change across Brazil

When we think of waste management, we often forget that it does not occur in isolation of other aspects of urban life. Recycling lowers not only lowers greenhouse gas emissions, but also drives economic development by providing employment and reducing the cost of raw materials. Water and wastewater management improve health and sanitation, especially for marginalized populations most vulnerable to diseases. Integrating smart waste and water management into a city is an important part of a broader sustainable city development strategy.

The PNRS presents local governments in Brazil with a fresh opportunity to evaluate and improve their waste management systems to improve health, reduce carbon emissions, and strengthen the economy.