Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Sweeping the (Garbage) Problem Under the Rug

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 8 2010 (IPS) - To live up to the “Zero Garbage” law that went into effect in 2006, the volume of waste ending up in landfills in the Argentine capital was to be significantly reduced every year, with the ultimate aim of eradicating landfills by 2020. But environmentalists are skeptical that the goal will be reached.

Every day more than 5,000 tons of solid waste generated by the city of Buenos Aires are trucked to landfills on the outskirts of the capital, where local residents complain of the stench, proliferation of diseases and water pollution.

Under the law, which was passed in 2005 and entered into force the following year, the amount of rubbish in landfills was to be reduced by 30 percent by 2010, 50 percent by 2012 and 75 percent by 2017, from 2004 levels. And by 2020, burying trash in dumps would be banned.

This year, the city government would have to cut the amount of waste dumped in landfills from 1.8 million tons in 2009 to 1.0 million tons, and there is no sign that such a drastic reduction is taking place.

On the contrary, government reports indicate that every year since the law was passed, more garbage has been buried in landfills, rather than less. Last year, 400,000 tons more waste was trucked to the dumps than in 2004.

But the city official in charge of garbage disposal, Alberto Termine, told IPS that this year, progress will be made towards complying with the law by means of “a series of measures,” such as fines for companies that fail to clean up construction sites, the building of recycling plants, campaigns urging people to separate their rubbish, and the separate collection of recyclables and trash.

He acknowledged, however, that in order to implement these measures, “a specific budget is needed, and the Zero Garbage law failed to clearly define what it would be.”

“This year, almost the same amount of trash will be buried in the landfills as in 2009, because nothing is being done,” director of Greenpeace-Argentina Juan Carlos Villalonga commented to IPS.

The environmental watchdog had applauded the approval of the Zero Garbage law – officially named the “integral management of urban solid waste act” – which stipulates the gradual reduction of the quantity of garbage going into landfills by means of increasing recycling and recovery efforts.

The law, pushed through by the centre-left city government of the time, establishes the creation of a system of dry and wet waste separation of garbage at its source, as well as separate garbage collection, support for informal waste pickers – who recover and recycle 10 percent of the city’s trash – and the promotion of recycling and organic compost plants.

But separation at source, which got off to a timid start in 2006, ground to a halt in 2008, after the government of Mayor Mauricio Macri, a right-wing businessman, took office in December 2007.

CEAMSE, a public enterprise that reports to the Buenos Aires city and provincial governments, is responsible for the final disposal of waste in three landfills outside of Buenos Aires.

One of the dumps, in José León Suárez, to the west of the city, receives 11,300 tons of garbage a day, and the foul odours can be smelled several kilometres away.

Celia Poo’s with the Vecinos Autoconvocados de Catán (Catán local residents association) told IPS that in her neighbourhood, González Catán, a CEAMSE landfill has been polluting the groundwater and causing diseases for 30 years.

The courts confirmed in 2006 that the water is contaminated, although it did not find the public enterprise responsible for the situation.

The González Catán landfill, located 32 km from the city of Buenos Aires, was to be closed in 2005, but trucks are still bringing in waste from the city.

“The problem is that we are nothing, next to them,” said Poo’s. “Every time we have held demonstrations or blocked the road so the trucks can’t come in, they’ve called in the police to crack down harshly on our protests.”

In the face of such criticism, the government of the province of Buenos Aires is not willing to increase the number of landfills, and is pressing the city to live up to the Zero Garbage law.

In a 2009 report on the management of urban solid waste in the city of Buenos Aires, released in March, Greenpeace says 2008 and 2009 were “the worst years since the law was passed.”

The environmental group complains that since Macri became mayor in late 2007, the city government’s campaigns have merely called for cleaning up Buenos Aires, but based simply on continuing to truck out the waste to the landfills.

Under that argument, the only thing that matters is that “the city is clean, while 10,000 tons of garbage a day could continue to be buried in dumps,” the report says.

“Two years ago, the city had begun to move towards the ‘zero garbage’ goals, but today, it is getting farther away day by day,” it adds.

Greenpeace points out that waste products contain chemical substances like heavy metals, detergents, solvents and plastics, which when they break down release liquids that contaminate the groundwater. Organic waste, meanwhile, releases methane, a greenhouse gas.

Nor has progress been made towards an alternative for dealing with “e-waste” – discarded computers, cell-phones, TV sets, cameras, stereos, radios, batteries, monitors and circuit boards – which contain persistent toxic compounds like antimony, lead, mercury and cadmium.

All the city government has done so far is carry out periodic campaigns urging people to bring their discarded electronic goods to large dumpsters, from where they are taken to be dismantled, and to take their old batteries to special disposal sites – both of which involve an extra effort that many people simply do not make.

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