Albeit unevenly, recycling gains ground

Dominican Republic

“Botellero!” the man calls, guiding a handcart along a Santo Domingo street. As he collects bottles from housewives and maids, he keeps a keen eye out for the green bottles of this country’s most popular beer, Presidente, because he knows the brewery will buy all the unbroken empties he can deliver.

Nearby, at the neighborhood mini-mart, or colmado, a child hands in an empty Coca-Cola bottle before buying a full one, avoiding the unofficial deposit charged for taking a bottle out of the store. And at “Duquesa,” Santo Domingo’s unofficial dump, poor families pick through the trash heaps, pulling out bottles, cans, cardboard, clothes—anything they can sell.

It’s tempting to assume that sights like these, abundant as they are in the region, represent the sum of recycling in Latin America and the Caribbean. The assumption, however, would be wrong.

In fact, organized, post-consumer recycling in the region began more than 20 years ago, in Brazil. Since then, it has taken root in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Trinidad, Uruguay and Venezuela. Meanwhile, more and more countries appear interested in following suit.

To be sure, Latin American and Caribbean nations present a broad spectrum of recycling experience and experimentation. In Haiti, Paraguay and most of Central America, for instance, recycling has not progressed a great deal beyond the early stage described above. At the other end of the spectrum, Brazil is approaching levels of activity and sophistication found in Canada and the United States.

And between the two extremes, recycling initiatives in a number of countries face uncertainty due to recent economic pressure and political change.

For example, Ecuador’s new president, Jamil Mahuad, had been expected to push for recycling nationally much as he supported it as mayor of Quito, which now recycles about 3,000 tons of waste each month. But the current economic and political crisis in his country may thwart him.

And while Venezuela’s environment ministry in recent years has set up 199 state collection centers and begun promoting the virtues of recycling, the new government of Hugo Chávez has given no solid indications of what its recycling policy will be. (A business group in Venezuela, the Association for the Defense of the Environment—ADAN—is working to preserve the momentum of Venezuela’s budding municipal recycling movement, however.)

Meanwhile, in Jamaica, where recycling has remained informal and small-scale, the new government elected last fall has been silent about the future of a “green purchasing” program the previous leadership had announced to buy recyclables and products with recycled content.

Even in Colombia, where non-government recycling programs have sprung up in major cities, a change of administration has caught recycling at a vulnerable time.

Two years ago, the country considered requiring all its cities to adopt recycling and waste-reduction programs, and to ban certain types of waste from landfills. (Construction debris is already banned and supposed to be recycled.) The proposal stalled in the face of strong pressure from industry, though it may yet emerge in amended fashion under new Environment Minister Juan Mayr. (In fact, some of its provisions have crept into a waste bill now under debate in the Colombian Senate.)

Despite the unknowns, however, progress toward modern recycling in these and other countries in the region appears likely. A key reason is that waste-management and health officials have become alarmed by the mountains of trash accumulating in landfills as their nations’ economies become increasingly consumer driven. They see recycling as a way to slow the solid-waste flow—and perhaps also to improve cost recovery for waste-management services.

Brasil pra frente…

Without question, Brazil leads the region’s recycling pack. Organized, post-consumer recycling first appeared in Latin America in Rio de Janeiro in 1977. Now 128 Brazilian cities have programs that provide for “selective collection” (presorting for recycling). The move to recycling and selective collection is not merely a fad; it is becoming the law. The constitutions of Paraná and Rio de Janeiro states already enshrine the principle of recycling and selective collection, as does the municipal constitution of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Selective collection also is mandatory in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Ceara and the municipalities of Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and São Paulo, and it’s expected to be required soon in the economically important state of Minas Gerais.

The impact of all this remains mixed, with aluminum-can recycling the most successful. According to the Brazilian Aluminum Association (ABAL), Brazil became the world’s top recycler of aluminum cans last year, with a 65% recycling rate.

Brazil also engages in many types of specialized recycling rarely seen elsewhere in the region. Used oil in Brazil has been collected for reprocessing since 1993, for instance. Five cities (Belo Horizonte, Campinas, Londrina, Salvador and São Paulo) operate construction-waste recycling centers.

Not all the impetus has come from government. For example, a business coalition based in São Paulo, Business Commitment to Recycling (CEMPRE), has promoted recycling nationwide since 1992. And many of the current municipal programs now in place started out as pilot projects launched by community groups. But regulation has played, and continues to play, a catalytic role. In fact, the federal government is currently poised to take a number of crucial recycling steps.

Since early last year, the National Environment Council (CONAMA) has been circulating a draft national waste policy that would impose producer-responsibility and take-back obligations on makers of medicines, lubricants, tires, batteries, pesticides and even “electro scrap” (appliances, computers, consumer electronics).

The policy also calls for fiscal incentives to promote recycling and selective-collection programs, and for a government “green purchasing” procurement policy that would favor recyclable or reusable products. A bill recently introduced in Congress by Senator Lúcio Alcântara would codify the policy, with some minor changes.

Separately, the Industry, Commerce and Development Ministry already has begun work on an industrial policy to promote the country’s recycling industry and make it competitive internationally. That policy, a first draft of which is expected within two to three months, may include a variety of fiscal and customs measures.

In April, meanwhile, CONAMA published two draft waste-management resolutions that will become legally binding if the council, as expected, gives them final approval at the end of this month. The first would impose a nationwide take-back obligation on manufacturers and importers of batteries containing cadmium, lead or mercury. The second would ban used tires from landfills.

A battery take-back measure is considered necessary because states are adopting conflicting battery-disposal laws, and a number of overlapping bills on the subject are working their way through Congress. For example, Rio Grande do Sul has had a take-back requirement on mercury-battery manufacturers and importers since 1997. São Paulo state is considering such a requirement for all batteries containing dangerous substances as part of a complex battery waste-management program known as PROBAT. For its part, Rio de Janeiro state in January adopted a law that treats all batteries as chemical wastes, thus subjecting them to certain documentation requirements and disposal in special waste facilities.

The tire resolution does not call for a take-back regimen per se. Instead, it would place responsibility on tire producers and importers, who beginning in 2002 would be required to properly dispose of one used tire for every four new ones they make or receive from abroad. Violators would face the loss of their sales or import licenses.

At the same time, the tire provision would outlaw virtually every means of tire disposal but recycling and using the rubber as fuel for industrial furnaces. Since licensing of discarded tires as an alternative fuel is certain to face time-consuming hurdles (alternative fuels licensing is controlled by state environmental agencies), the tire industry almost certainly will be forced to promote more recycling. There is, however, a potential out: several states and the federal Chamber of Deputies are considering legislation that would require discarded tires to be used in the production of new tires and asphalt.

Brazil also has begun to target packaging, particularly plastic containers. In April, Rio de Janeiro state adopted legislation making it the joint responsibility of manufacturers, retailers and re-sellers to recycle all plastic packaging sold in the state. State agencies and municipal sanitation authorities, such as the city of Rio de Janeiro’s COMLURB, must publish regulations on the recycling of plastics within 180 days. Meanwhile, a more ambitious and complex version of this legislation has been introduced in Brazil’s national Congress.

…but others are making progress

As modern recycling programs have burgeoned in Brazil, they also have begun catching on elsewhere in the region.

Chile’s Metropolitan Region office of the National Environment Commission (CONAMA-RM) has knitted together local recycling efforts to create a Santiago-wide program. The Santiago initiative, in turn, is intended to pave the way for a national program. Meanwhile, Chile’s national environment fund is providing seed money to get recycling programs started in other municipalities.

In Argentina, recycling so far has developed as a community and municipal affair. Non-governmental “eco-clubs” have formed independent operations in 50 cities in four provinces. The municipal governments of Córdoba, Mar del Plata, Rosario and Santa Fé, meanwhile, have been building recycling programs for some time.

Metropolitan Buenos Aires has had test and community-led programs over the last several years, but the city now has begun developing recycling in line with campaign promises made by Mayor Fernando de la Rúa. A new recycling plant will be inaugurated in July, the four firms collecting city trash are required to recycle 10% of the 5,000 tons they bring in daily, and residents are being called on to sort their trash into color-coded bags.

At the federal level in Argentina, many legislators have expressed interest in promoting recycling—particularly of batteries—and in discouraging the use of PET and other plastic beverage containers not yet recyclable in the country. Thus far, however, Congress has found it difficult to reach agreement on new rules.

Organized recycling in Mexico traditionally has been weak. The few municipal programs attempted, including one in Mexico City, have a poor track record. However, the National Ecology Institute (INE) plans to set recycling targets for packaging and to adopt deposit systems for tires, car batteries and other difficult-to-handle wastes. The INE is already circulating a draft deposit scheme for portable batteries that would involve a 5% surcharge on battery sales—plus an unspecified “small margin” of battery makers’ and importers’ earnings on such sales—to fund battery-collection and recycling programs.

As in Brazil and Venezuela, a business coalition has been formed in Mexico to promote recycling, the Business Commitment for the Integrated Management of Solid Wastes (SUSTENTA).

In Peru, another country with little experience in post-consumer recycling, a waste bill now before Congress would require producers and distributors of imported products to create mechanisms to recover “reusable packaging and packing” within two years of the legislation’s passage. Commercial establishments selling “mass use” consumer goods would have to set up sites for packaging recovery.

El Salvador’s 1998 General Environment Law calls for the country’s top environment agency to promote recycling. So far, what little post-consumer recycling that exists in the country is carried out by community groups. But the environment agency is contemplating a deposit system for automobile batteries and certain types of plastics, paper and packaging to promote their collection and recycling.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the entity in charge of waste disposal, the Solid Waste Management Company, has been promoting recycling programs since 1989, although the law does not require it. At the same time, it manages a healthy used-oil collection and reprocessing program.

Initiatives such as these will likely become more common in Latin America and the Caribbean as economic integration spurs consumption—and ever-greater volumes of waste. International aid agencies, meanwhile, will try to encourage the trend. The German technical-assistance agency (GTZ) nearly always recommends recycling options, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) now requires that countries receiving loans with a waste-management component give recycling serious consideration.

Should such efforts prosper, the botellero will not necessarily disappear, though his cart may. Attempts are being made to incorporate waste pickers and bottle and can collectors into co-ops so they can continue doing recycling work, but with better equipment.
In this way the botellero, so representative of recycling’s past, might find himself an important part of its future.

- Keith Edward Ripley

Eugenio Bellido
Directorate-General of Environmental Health (DIGESA)
Health Ministry
Tel: +(511) 440-2340
Fax: +(511) 440-6562
João Câmara
General Coordinator
Environmental Quality
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 316-1322
Fax: +(55 61) 316-1240
Cristina Cortinas de Nava
Materials, Wastes & Risky Activities (DGMRyAR)
National Ecology Institute (INE)
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(525) 624-3492
Fax: +(525) 624-3595
National Environment Council (CONAMA)
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 317-1305
Fax: +(55 61) 317-1130
Claudio Nilo
National Environment Commission, Metropolitan Region (CONAMA-RM)
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 638-5261
Fax: +(562) 639-8450
Mariela Nuñez de Urbaneja
Association for the Defense of the Environment (ADAN)
Tel: +(582) 903-6430