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Buenos Aires Mayor Slammed for Slow Pace on “Zero Waste” Targets

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 28 2013 (IPS) - The garbage strewn across many streets and sidewalks in the Argentine capital reflects the inefficiency of a waste collection and treatment system that, paradoxically, has become increasingly costly for the city’s residents, say civil society groups and opposition parties.

The garbage crisis in Buenos Aires is a result of the saturation of the city’s landfills, due to increased levels of consumption over the last decade, and substandard collection service, with compactor trucks that tend to leave piles of trash and residue in their wake, especially in the city centre.

The generation of solid waste, such as plastics, textiles, glass, metals and food, increased by 24 to 35 percent between 2001 and 2011. The amount of trash sent to landfills from the city of Buenos Aires grew from 1.4 million tonnes to 2.2 million tonnes between 2002 and 2010, despite no significant increase in the number of residents, according to figures from the opposition party Proyecto Sur.

The landfills are located in municipalities in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area such as José León Suárez, González Catán and Punta Lara, all of which fall under the jurisdiction of the province of Buenos Aires, which surrounds the city. Their proximity to these populous municipalities entails a major health risk.

Once the trash is buried in the landfills, it is treated – at least in theory – through various methods including gas collection systems and solvents that separate the soluble substances from liquids.

The administration of these sites is overseen by the Coordinación Ecológica Área Metropolitana Sociedad del Estado, a company formed through an agreement between the city and the province.

Trash collection is carried out by five private companies and a sixth owned by the local government, with each responsible for a specific section of the city, although an upcoming tender foresees the division of the city into seven sections.

In addition to the obvious health concerns, the collapse of the trash collection system also has economic repercussions. Expenditure on street cleaning in the city has risen from 641 million pesos (128 million dollars) to 2.517 billion pesos (503 million dollars) since 2008, the first year in office of conservative Mayor Mauricio Macri, one of the most ardent opponents of centre-leftist Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

With a population of almost 2.9 million inhabitants, the city of Buenos Aires will end up spending 176 dollars per person on urban sanitation when this year’s draft budget is approved.

In 2006, the city of Buenos Aires adopted the so-called Zero Waste Law, which entered into force in May 2007, and includes among other measures a commitment to drastically reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

According to the timeline established under the law, the city was to decrease the proportion of solid waste buried in these dumpsites by 30 percent as of 2010, 50 percent as of 2012, and 75 percent as of 2017. The ultimate goal was to ensure that 100 percent of recyclable waste was in fact recycled, and kept out of the landfills, by the year 2020.

Under the timeline, the trash buried in landfills was supposed to be reduced to 748,828 tonnes last year. In fact, however, the actual amount was three times this much, with an average of more than 6,000 tonnes a day.

Nevertheless, the minister of environment and public areas of the city of Buenos Aires, Diego Santilla, declared, “No other government has made as much progress as we have in fulfilling the Zero Waste Law.”

Although the city government admits to difficulties in meeting the targets until now, it claims that this will change thanks to agreements reached with the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, who is a member of the same Justicialista (Peronist) Party as Fernández de Kirchner, but represents the centrist faction within the party.

However, civil society organisations and opposition political leaders point to what they see as a lack of will on the part of the Macri government to effectively implement the Zero Waste Law.

Rafael Gentili, a deputy in the local legislature from the centre-leftist Proyecto Sur, told IPS that Macri’s performance has been “abysmal”, given that “he has not complied with any of the requirements established by the law.”

“The city is dirtier today than it was five years ago,” added Gentili.

In addition to the above-mentioned targets for reducing the proportion of waste sent to landfills, the Zero Waste Law also bans the incineration of garbage and calls for the promotion of the separation of waste at source, a crucial point that has been the subject of the loudest demands.

Consuelo Bilbao, who heads up the toxic waste campaign at Greenpeace Argentina, told IPS that there is “a major imbalance between the system for collecting and burying waste and the money allocated to recycling, which is 200 million pesos (40 million dollars).”

The 2001 crisis that devastated the Argentine economy also led to an upsurge in informal waste recycling, as thousands of families took to the streets to collect recyclable solid waste materials such as glass, plastics, metals, paper and cardboard.

The improvement in socioeconomic conditions since 2005 has led to a decrease in the number of people who make a living picking through trash, known in Buenos Aires as “cartoneros” (from “cartón”, the Spanish word for cardboard). Two years ago, the local government implemented a system that “formalised” the work they do.

Buildings with more than 19 floors, shopping centres, public offices and schools are required to separate recyclable waste, which is turned over to cooperatives of cartoneros registered with the authorities.

Bilbao and Gentili concur that this measure has enabled the recovery of 15 percent of the solid waste generated in the city, in addition to continued waste collection and recycling on an informal basis.

But according to Greenpeace and other critics, the local government is dragging its feet when it comes to further progress in the separation of recyclable waste at source – in homes and neighbourhoods – which could increase the proportion of trash recycled to up to 40 percent.

“Macri has no interest in reducing the amount of trash produced. On the contrary, he wants there to be a lot of it to make the business more lucrative,” said Gentili.

The companies contracted by the local government to process garbage and turn it into biogas and fertiliser, he explained, are paid according to the volumes they produce. As such, it is economically advantageous if a large proportion of solid waste continues to go to landfills, instead of being separated at source and recycled.

Gentili also pointed out that some companies, like Grupo Roggio, one of the largest in this sector in Argentina, are involved in both ends of the waste chain – collection and treatment – which represents a conflict of interests.

Bilbao agrees that the policy of the government of Buenos Aires “emphasises waste treatment, and not the prior stages that we consider crucial.”

She also finds it particularly telling that “the treatment plants are paid for their services, while the cartoneros are provided with a subsidy, not a salary, which leaves them at the mercy of market rates for recyclable materials.”

The result, she says, is “total inequality.”

*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

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