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A $10bn opportunity in waste

With new waste laws and a growing population, Brazil now has an opportunity to implement waste management systems and technologies for its huge consumer base, writes Carlos Silva Filho

Certain factors influence waste management systems all around the world, and in Brazil it is no different. The main factors that affect any waste system nowadays are population growth, urbanisation, and production and consumption patterns.

In the past four decades, the global population increased around 85%. Brazil has faced similar growth during this period and it has intensified in the past decade. In 2013 the country registered slightly more than 200 million people and this growth is anticipated to continue until 2040, when the country is likely to hit around 230 million.

A solid trend of increasing urbanisation is being observed on a global level and on an acute level in the developing world. At the beginning of this century, around 50% of the world’s population was living in urban areas. Research on trends shows that, by 2050, cities and urban areas will be home to two thirds of the world’s population.

The World Bank released a list of the most urbanised countries in 2010. Brazil topped this list with around 87% of its population living in cities. The second and third countries listed were Saudi Arabia and the US at 83.6% and 82.3%, respectively.

Production and consumption patterns are also influential factors on waste generation. Waste is a result of life in society. This result is directly linked to what is bought by each person and how post-use materials are thrown out. These processes are driven accordingly by the purchasing power of each society.

Brazil has registered economic growth for the last 15 years. It is resulting in higher employment levels and more wealth for the people, which of course leads to greater consumption.

Nowadays, 60% of the people in Brazil are middle class. The country is the largest market in the world for personal care and fragrances, and the third largest for electronic products, pet care and home cleaning products.

Despite some institutional weaknesses of the federal government to control the public deficit and keep solid long-term economic growth, the most reliable studies reveal that the Brazilian market will be the fifth largest world market by 2020, reaching US$1.45 trillion (£0.87 trillion)

But is this a market with sustainable consumption? Research released by the Global Footprint Network, an international think tank for sustainability, in June 2013 showed that the world is extracting and consuming more natural resources than the planet is able to recover. From a global perspective, this means the world would need 1.5 planets to fulfill its resource demands. But waste generation is increasing at the same pace.

Introducing waste laws

Brazil’s National Waste Law was sanctioned in 2010 and established a series of procedures to be applied and implemented when dealing with waste.

Law 12.305/2010 obligates waste managers to develop integrated waste plans; introduce the waste hierarchy principle; and calls for some industrial sectors to implement a producer responsibility system, through reverse logistics of post consumption products.

Implementation of this modern law will:

  • Help natural resource conservation;
  • Promote economic development within the industry, by stimulating new businesses, mainly related to recycling, recovery and treatment activities;
  • Protect the environment and public health, as it determines the closure of open dumps and inadequate disposal sites by august 2014;
  • Promote social inclusion; and
  • Mitigate climate change effects, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector.

Each year, ABRELPE, the Brazilian association of waste management companies, publishes a study called Panorama of Solid Waste in Brazil, with the most up to date data about the waste industry. The most recent study covers 2012.

In 2012, Brazil generated almost 63 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW), which represents 1.049 kg per person per year. It also puts the country as the world’s fifth largest waste generator.

Analysing the sector for the past 10 years, the data shows waste volumes rising by 21%. During the same period, population growth was 9.65%. Waste generation increased two times more than the population, but there is an explanation for this rise: variation in GDP per capita from 2003 to 2012 was 21%. This leads to the conclusion that waste generation is inherently linked to economic growth.

From the total amount of waste generated in Brazil, 56.5 million tonnes of MSW is collected. Almost 10% of the MSW generated in the country is not collected but abandoned. The average composition of Brazil’s municipal waste is 51% organics, 32% recyclables and 17% other materials (textiles, nappies and so on).

But the biggest concern is the end destination of municipal waste. The 2012 figures reveal that there are still almost 24 million tonnes a year going to inadequate disposal sites such as open dumps and uncontrolled landfills. The largest portion, 33 million tonnes (58% of the total collected), mainly goes to sanitary landfills, but only a small portion (3%) is recycled.

Today the waste industry in Brazil represents a market of almost $10bn, and it has been expanding at around 10% during the last four years. A recent study carried out by ABRELPE shows that Brazil needs $2.75bn of investment to move from an inadequate situation to an adequate situation, where all the waste generated is collected for legitimate disposal.

The future for the country is positive, despite the fact that it will bring great challenges for the waste sector. It is clear the game rules are now being created and Brazil has a clear opportunity to achieve suitable waste standards through new systems, technologies and practices, which must be planned accordingly to local characteristics and demands.

But such development requires social change and there is a paradigm to be broken: the shift from a linear waste management system to a cyclical one, where recycling, reuse and recovery will play the leading roles.

Carlos Silva Filho is chief executive of ABRELPE (Associação Brasileira de Empresas de Limpeza Pública e Resíduos Especiais), the Brazilian association of waste management companies

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