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CLIMATE CHANGE: Recyclers Tout Benefits of Their Trade at Cancun Summit

Emilio Godoy* - IPS/TerraViva

CANCÚN, Mexico, Dec 5 2010 (IPS) - Ezequiel Estay began collecting glass bottles in 1991 after losing his job with the Chilean media conglomerate Copesa. Now, years later, he heads Chile’s National Movement of Recyclers and is a leader of the Latin American Recyclers’ Network, which is questioning the climate benefits of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

“We are in the first part in the chain; we are the solution for waste management. First is to prevent garbage production, then come reduce and recycle, and, finally, disposal,” Estay told TerraViva.

The Chilean organisation is part of a global movement of solid waste collectors who separate out materials to supply the recycling industry with paper, plastic, glass and aluminium.

At the 16th Conference of Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under way in the Mexican resort city of Cancún, the recyclers are voicing opposition to the CDM projects being implemented at garbage dumps to capture greenhouse-effect gases.

They are also calling for the creation of an international fund of immediate access for local communities engaged in recycling practices.

The goal of the CDM, established under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, is to offset greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised nations by allowing their governments and companies to invest in emission-reduction projects in developing countries.

The countries of the industrialised North thus obtain Certificates of Emissions Reduction (CERs) that can be counted in their favour as if they were in fact reducing their own national carbon emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol, in force since 2005, requires the industrialised nations that ratified it to reduce their emissions by 2012 an average of 5.2 percent below their 1990 emissions.

“There are no public policies that recognise the recyclers’ social and environmental contributions. The (CDM) initiatives tend to displace our work,” Silvio Ruiz, of Colombia’s National Association of Recyclers, told TerraViva.

Worldwide, there are some 15 million people who make their living by waste- picking and selling the useable material for recycling. In Latin America, there are 4 million people working in this sector.

In Chile, there are about 60,000 collectors-recyclers, in Colombia 300,000 and in Mexico City alone more than 15,000, according to figures from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), which has a strong presence in Cancún to defend recyclers’ rights.

Funds for climate actions, like CDM and other initiatives, provide financing for incinerators and capturing greenhouse gases at landfills, with questionable environmental benefits, according to the Philippines-based GAIA, which unites more than 500 organisations from 80 countries.

The CDM has 2,562 projects currently in operation, with 483 in Latin America and the Caribbean (Mexico has 124, Chile 139). There are nine initiatives in Mexico for capturing methane from sanitary landfills.

Methane is a gas whose greenhouse effect is 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, seen as the main culprit in climate change.

Mexico’s Secretariat (ministry) of Environment and Natural Resources reported that the country generated 38.3 million tonnes of garbage in 2009. In Colombia the statistic is 30,000 tonnes per day, while the per capita production of waste in Chile is one kilo per day, according to the recycling movement.

The portion of waste recycled in Mexico is just over 15 percent, in Colombia 20 percent and in Chile about 14 percent.

“After the waste prevention, recycling has shown to result in the highest climate benefit compared to other waste management approaches,” states the report “Waste and Climate Change,” which the United Nations Environment Programme presented in Cancún.

According to John Christensen, director of UNEP’s Risoe Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development, both prevention and recycling are valuable. He acknowledged in a TerraViva interview that some CDM projects have not worked very well, but stressed that there are successful cases.

The gases coming from garbage are three to five percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, and by 2015 could reach 2.9 billion tonnes if appropriate measures are not adopted, according to the UNEP report.

“We are opposed to exploiting the energy from garbage. The technology should benefit recyclers, if not, it’s useless,” said Chilean recycler Estay.

Colombia’s Law 142 establishes regulations for waste management, without going into detail for recycling. In Chile, meanwhile, the sectors involved are debating a legislative bill for a new waste law.

Recycler Ruiz pointed out that in Colombia “there is a plan to regionalise sanitary landfills so that they include several municipalities… The problem is transporting the waste, which could lead to more emissions.”

“Because (recycling) activities are not formally organised or often sanctioned by government, their contribution to waste management and resource recovery (and the economy) is often not recognised. However, there is a growing appreciation of the role of ‘waste-pickers’ in some countries,” states the UNEP report.

(*This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online published for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Cancún.)

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