Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Up to Their Necks in Garbage

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 16 2004 (IPS) - Around 80 heads stuck out of a mountain of garbage piled near the famous Obelisk monument in the centre of the capital of Argentina Monday.

But the trash was put there on purpose, and the people buried in it were Greenpeace Argentina activists protesting the city government’s continued use of landfills and lack of a system for sorting and recycling waste, under a banner reading “Garbage is Making Us Ill”.

Buenos Aires generates an estimated 5,000 tons a day of solid waste, which is hauled to landfills on the outskirts of the city, without any prior separation of organic and non-organic trash to enable the recycling of materials like plastic, cardboard, glass and metals.

In the last five years, and especially since Argentina’s late 2001 economic and financial collapse, the number of scavengers scouring the streets of the city and rummaging through garbage bags to pick up materials that can be sold for recycling has skyrocketed.

However, the municipal government continues to hire private companies to collect the city’s garbage, which are paid per ton of waste hauled to the landfills.

The waste pickers, known here as “cartoneros” (carton means cardboard), collect an estimated five percent of the city’s solid waste by sifting through the trash bags that people put out on the sidewalks, before the garbage company trucks pick them up during the night.

Greenpeace Argentina says that through a recycling system to make productive use of the city’s trash, the volume of solid waste could be halved within five years and reduced 75 percent by 2015. And “in 2020, we would reach the goal of ‘zero garbage’,” Greenpeace activist Verónica Odriozola told IPS.

The Nuevo Rumbo (New Direction) cooperative of scavengers in Lomas de Zamora, an outlying district of around 800,000 people on the south side of Buenos Aires, has for the past several years insisted on the urgent need to recycle the city’s garbage not only for environmental reasons, but to generate jobs in a country where the crisis has driven unemployment up to nearly 20 percent.

Pepe Córdoba, one of the cooperative’s founders, told IPS that in Lomas de Zamora, Nuevo Rumbo has a recycling centre where 60 different materials are purchased, sorted, pressed and sold to individuals or industry.

The cooperative pays the cartoneros up to 100 percent more than private companies for the waste they bring in, and provides jobs in two warehouses of its own. “In Buenos Aires (proper) something like this could be done, it would be very easy. The problem is that the state pays a fortune there not to recycle,” said Córdoba.

The Greenpeace protest was staged on the eve of the deadline for companies to acquire the specifications and conditions for participating in a public tender for creating a new landfill 150 km from Buenos Aires. By last Friday, no company had expressed any interest.

Odriozola said the aim of the protest was to draw attention to the squandering of natural resources involved in the system of burying waste, the negative impacts that landfills have on human health, and the extent to which they pollute water, land and air.

In the mid-1970s, Buenos Aires and the outlying districts, an area with a total population of around 12 million people, created CEAMSE (Cinturón Ecológico del Area Metropolitana Sociedad del Estado – Ecological Belt of the Metropolitan Area Public Company), to which the private garbage firms are obligated by law to deliver their waste for burial.

CEAMSE has four dumps, one of which had to be closed a few months ago because of complaints by nearby residents.

When city officials announced that a new landfill site would be created, 14 outlying districts immediately responded “not in my backyard”.

Odriozola cited studies that have found that the decomposition of garbage in landfills pollutes the soil, air and water, and epidemiological research showing that garbage dumps have been associated with an increase in the incidence of serious health problems like leukemia, bladder cancer and birth defects in surrounding communities.

In addition, the dumps put up a terrible stench which can be smelled a long way off.

But despite the problems, the Buenos Aires city and provincial governments persist in using the landfill system.

The environmentalist said the government should introduce a bill that would force manufacturers to reduce packaging to a minimum, and to produce longer-lasting goods that generate less waste, in both the production and consumption stages.

Greenpeace also says it is possible to convert half of all organic waste into fertiliser. And with respect to non-organic waste, the international watchdog is calling for a system for sorting and recycling paper, plastic, aluminium, glass and other materials.

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