For more than 50 years, if somebody threw something away in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, it likely ended up in the Estrutural dump.
Once the largest open landfill in Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 2,700 metric tonsof municipal waste were ending up here daily by 2018. The garbage was not separated, covered or compacted, but was often burned. The dump did not have leachate management nor landfill gas collection systems in place.
As a result, toxic gases polluted the air, soil and water around the dumpsite, sickening locals, particularly the 2,500 waste pickers who combed the landfill for recyclables.
The dumpsite was closed in 2018 and replaced by recycling plants and a sanitary landfill further away from the city. It is estimated that this measure will avoid at least 70% of the 1.4 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2e) equivalent that the landfill would have generated by 2050.
The fate of Estrutural mirrors that of many other ageing dumps in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the last 10 years, governments have closed some of the most polluted landfills in the region, including sprawling facilities in Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua. The drive is part of an effort by countries to cut down on pollution and stem the flood of greenhouse gases; comes after years of lobbying by environmentalists.
Closing open dumpsites and moving towards sustainable waste management systems is a key to achieving “Clean Air for All”, the theme of the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, observed on September 7, as established by the United Nations General Assembly.
Currently, dumpsites receive 40 per cent of the world’s waste, particularly in developing countries. In Latin America and the Caribbean, around 145,000 tonnes of garbage ends up in dumpsites every day, where the decomposition and burning of waste generate powerful gases that pollute the atmosphere, make people sick and contribute to climate change.
The open burning of garbage is especially pernicious. It is one of the region´s main sources of black carbon, a key component of fine PM2.5 particles, which can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system, elevating the risk of heart and respiratory disease and cancer.
An estimated 330,000 premature deaths in the Americas are attributable each year to poor air quality.
The toxic gases that emanate from open burning disproportionately affect waste pickers, who often live where they work. Some 250 poor families lived inside the huge La Chureca dumpsite, in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, which was closed in 2016. Municipal authorities documented severe respiratory diseases within this population, which had an average life expectancy of 50 years.
La Chureca was the largest open dumpsite in Central America and received more than 4 million cubic metres of waste during its lifetime. It was replaced by a modern landfill and a recycling plant. Local authorities also launched a social inclusion program, which included the construction of houses for 258 families, new job opportunities and access to health services.
People working in open dumps are also exposed to emissions of methane and carbon dioxide, which are generated by decomposing waste. Both are greenhouse gases and cause climate change. Methane is up to 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth, and garbage can continue to emit gases even years after a landfill is closed.
It is estimated that around 70 million tonnes of waste remain buried at Bordo Poniente, once the largest open dump in Mexico City, now closed since 2011. Local authorities thought, right upon its closure, to install a biogas plant to capture the methane at the dumpsite, which could have generated 250 GWh, that is, enough energy to light 35,000 homes in the megalopolis. But the plant was not built. Today there is a facility on the site that produces around 90,000 tonnes of compost per year.
“In a business as usual scenario, dumpsites will account for 8 to 10 per cent of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 2025”, said Atilio Savino, lead editor of the Waste Management Outlook for Latin America and the Caribbean and former president of the International Solid Waste Association, ISWA.
“Closing dumpsites is key to tackle two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today: the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Savino emphasized.
The pandemic has shown how essential it is to manage waste to minimize long-term risks to human and environmental health, say, experts. In response to COVID-19, there has been a large increase in the amount of medical waste like masks, gloves, and other protective equipment that could be contaminated with the virus.
“Finding innovative solutions to reduce waste, dispose of it properly, reuse it and recycle it under a circular economy perspective is key in post-COVID-19 recovery plans in Latin America and the Caribbean, where only 10 per cent of waste is recycled,”, said Jordi Pon, regional coordinator of waste, chemicals and air quality at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
UNEP helps countries find waste management solutions through the Voluntary Coalition of Governments and Relevant Organizations for the Progressive Closure of Dumpsites in Latin America and the Caribbean, established in 2018 by the Forum of Ministers of Environment of the region.
The 17 countries that are part of the coalition have agreed to develop a roadmap for the closure of dumpsites and the transition towards integrated waste management systems. “This is in line with the goal of build back better after the pandemic,” said Pon.