Brazil Officials Close World’s Largest Open Trash Site in Advance of Rio+20

By Stephanie Kopf

A good way to work on existing problems is to realize they might not be solvable overnight, and to try and modify the situation to create a positive short-term change, while of course working on a long-term solution.

There are still countries out there where the approach to taking out trash can be summed up with the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” Take Russia, for example. I spent a few years there in a small town – several times a week, a dump truck would arrive, and everyone would throw their trash bags in the back. Recycling didn’t seem to be a topic. Whether recycling existed at all in Russia still remains a mystery to me. Of course, its territory is far larger than, say, all  European countries combined. So there is room to distribute waste. But the consequences of massive ever-growing garbage dumps have to be considered. Because consequences are to be expected, right?

Brazilian officials are taking one small action to stem the rising piles of garbage. Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest open-air garbage dump, located in Rio de Janeiro was closed over the weekend. Described by Britain’s Independent newspaper as a “seaside mountain of trash”, Gramacho is no more after 34 years. Employees sorted trash by hand, walking around in the garbage forest and picking off recyclable items.

Gramacho has long been an eyesore for environmentalists and experts, bearing evidence to bad urban planning and negligence. The dump was situated near the beautiful Guanabara Bay. Once clean and sparkling, over the years the second-largest bay in Brazil has been severely polluted by massive leaks from the dump as it sagged underneath waste. From the beginning in 1978, the trash dump was opened on unstable ground – a marshland that was also eco-sensitive. For almost 20 years there were practically no check-ups or supervision from the government. Floor lining to prevent toxic waste leaking into Guanabara wasn’t included in the construction of Gramacho. As many statistics about food production and consumption will tell you, food waste occurs more and more often nowadays. So organic waste just rotted away, oozing juices that trickled in to the waters of the bay. And drops became tons over three decades.

Gramacho’s closure had previously been announced and postponed several times. In 1996, the city finally took the reins, first by putting a stop to child labour on Gramacho. The trash collectors were also registered as proper employees, and only household waste from Rio and four nearby cities was deposited at the site. Picked-over trash was bulldozed with earth layers. According to the Independent, a total of 12 layers, each some 15 feet high, now covers Gramacho, making it the garbage mountain it has become.

Amid serious concerns about contamination, plans for closing Gramacho were accelerated. As the site cannot just be erased or relocated, an alternate plan was introduced for using energy created by decomposing waste. According to estimates, Gramacho holds about 60 million tons of garbage. Carbon dioxide and methane emanating from the rubbish will be caught by more than 200 wells, which will then pipe the gases to a Petrobras facility, a Brazilian energy company controlled by the state. This facility is called Seropedica, and it’s already functioning. This time, a three-layer seal has been installed to prevent the severe waste leaks which plagued the site in the past. Sensors are also used to determine whether any abnormality is taking place in the soil of the new site. According to the Independent, the facility operators don’t exclude the possibility of leaks, but say these will be caught, reprocessed and used as recycled water.

About 20% of the area’s carbon dioxide emissions are caused by rotting waste. Forecasts predict the new plan for Gramacho will reduce these by some 1,400 tons each year. Carbon credit sales and biogas are estimated to net around $232m in 15 years. A percentage of that will contribute to payments for Gramacho’s former workers.

The final successful closure of Gramacho happened right before the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. Representatives from various countries, as well as heads of state are currently gathering to discuss setting long-term goals for combating environmental challenges the planet is facing, such as overpopulation and climate change.

Other global-scale events coming up for Rio are the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. While there is never a bad time to step on the path of sustainable development, this is definitely a good one for Brazil.

This is by no means the end of the story, as there are still problems to combat. Most notably the future of the trash site’s former employees, and the severe pollution of Guanabara Bay. But closing down Gramacho was definitely long-overdue.

Do you think Rio is on the right track? And can Guanabara Bay be saved?

Photo: © James G. Howes, November, 2007/ Wikimedia CC

Stephanie Kopf writes for the blog She has lived in Siberia, New York City and Germany. Her subject areas include anything related to the human psyche, European news, education, communication in all its forms, as well as the interaction of all of these with each other.

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