Troubled waters: How Rio's trash problem goes far beyond the Olympics

Seven years of planning for the Summer Games wasn't enough to rid Rio's waters of waste. So what will happen when the torch is extinguished?

When athletes from around the world hit the waters of Guanabara Bay for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games this month, they will be competing amid garbage.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Despite seven years of planning and multiple ideas from waste professionals around the world, Rio de Janeiro has not solved the problem of trash in its waters. The blend of political, economic, and cultural factors behind this situation is so complex that many say it was wishful thinking to ever expect a full cleanup could be done in the first place. Yet that's what was promised, and that's what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) believed when they selected Rio for the biggest international sporting event of the year.

"The Olympic Committee, I would say, trusted that the local government and the state and federal government would be able to deal with these issues, but unfortunately it's not what we're seeing now," said Carlos Silva Filho, CEO of the Brazilian Association of Public Sanitation Companies (ABRELPE).

Rio's original bid to host the Olympics included a promise to collect and treat 80% of the sewage flowing into the bay and surrounding waterways. It has been a priority for decades and the transformative potential it could have had was billed as a main factor for why Rio should be selected as a host city. Andre Correa, Rio's state environmental secretary, has since said that this cleanup will not be happening, which has raised serious health concerns.

Correa 's office has also outlined a plan to keep up to 95% of solid waste from entering the bay, though this too has proven challenging. ABRELPE estimates that about 90 metric tons of trash enter Guanabara Bay on a daily basis. Rio's state government has been using a fleet of "eco-barriers" to block waste at major access points and "eco-boats" to collect what ends up in the bay. This fleet was temporarily suspended due to financial issues last year and even at full strength, they're proving to not be enough.

According to Correa’s office, 10 eco-barriers captured 2,420 metric tons of waste during a six-month period before seven more barriers were installed in July. Additionally, Rio has 12 eco-boats in operation which collect 45 metric tons of waste per month. The boats are guided by satellites, software, and helicopters. Still, based on ABRELPE's estimates of how much waste is coming in every day, this system is not keeping up.

"Guanabara Bay is much bigger than the area that these eco-boats can cover," said Silva Filho. "We need two times more boats there and some more barriers to have a top quality solution."

Eco-barrier in Guanabara Bay

The two main Olympic events that will take place in the Guanabara Bay are sailing and windsurfing. Running into debris as small as a plastic bag — let alone a refrigerator or a sofa — can stop a vessel in its tracks and potentially cost an athlete a medal. While Correa has said he can't promise that the bay will be completely free of debris, the IOC is projecting confidence.

"It remains a challenging project with some critical zones which do not reflect the general conditions that prevail across the bay," the IOC media relations team told Waste Dive in an email. "However, Rio 2016 and all relevant local authorities are confident that the venue will be ready to host the Olympic sailing competition in August 2016 and we therefore see no compelling reason to change venues."

Best laid plans

An event of this scale requires long-term planning beyond cleaning up the bay and a number of international organizations have been willing to help.

In 2012, David Newman, president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), and Silva Filho, also vice president of ISWA, met with IOC officials to offer the joint assistance of their organizations. They were told that the local organizing committee wasn't ready to discuss an overall waste strategy at that time and were asked to wait.

The IOC did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this meeting or subsequent conversations.

In the following months and years ISWA's attempts to follow-up with Brazil's National Olympic Committee and local officials went unanswered. By the time contact was finally reestablished this year, it was too late. Newman sees this, and the bay cleanup issues, as emblematic of larger structural problems in the government's approach to the games.

"It has failed under the weight of political inertia, it has failed under the weight of a certain amount of corruption, and it has failed because investments have not been prioritized in time to get it right," he said. "It comes down to lack of planning, it comes down to lack of vision, it comes down to lack of foresight."

Financial limitations caused by an ongoing recession that experts say is the worst since the 1930s — along with the current impeachment trial of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff — have put Rio in an even tighter position.

Last year, the Netherlands signed a memorandum of understanding with Rio's state government to help find long-term solutions to the contamination in Guanabara Bay and the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. A consortium of Dutch experts across multiple sectors put together the Clean Urban Delta initiative and released a report with 20 proposals. Ideas ranged in scale from litter-sorting devices, to filtration carpets made out of fishing nets, to anaerobic digesters.

Many proposals were designed for quick implementation, but the overarching goal was to fix systemic issues and not just patch up problems before the television crews arrived.

"Only cleaning up for the few weeks of the Olympic Games would really be a waste; leaving a long-term legacy to the population should be the objective. Gaining the momentum of the Olympic Games to ignite fundamental and structural change in the way the Brazilians use the social, environmental and economic potential of the Guanabara Bay is a once in a lifetime opportunity," the report said.

Due to a lack of funding, none of this ever happened. Yvon Wolthuis, one of the report's authors, said this result was disappointing, though she sees potential for these ideas to be used in urban deltas around the world. Wolthuis said that the state government's current efforts with boats and barriers are fine, but do nothing to fix the solid waste problem at its source.

"Somebody has to start doing the actual work and preferably on such a scale that that work can be embraced by the local communities because they benefit from it," she said.

Wolthuis pointed to the closed Jardim Gramacho landfill — an unlined, decades-old site that was one of the largest in Latin America — as one culprit. The landfill is located close to the shore and waste can wash into the bay during heavy rainstorms.

When Gramacho closed in 2012 it also affected thousands of waste pickers, known as "catadores," who made their living recovering items from the landfill. A compensation fund was negotiated with the state government, and some catadores are currently employed at a new recycling facility near the site, but most of them don't make as much money as before. Many work on the streets of neighboring municipalities, which is why Wolthuis and others see them as a key part of addressing the main source of trash heading into Guanabara: Rio's residents.

Yasuyoshi Chiba / Getty Images

Street systems

The state of Rio de Janeiro is comprised of many municipalities — including the city of Rio — and an estimated 8.5 million people live near Guanabara Bay. Within these municipalities many residents live on hilly terrain or narrow streets which make it impossible for collection trucks to reach their front doors. While these areas do have local drop-off points, some residents never make it that far and illegal dump sites are common on the outskirts of the city of Rio.

"The problem is not collection," said Silva Filho. "The problem is you have the bad behavior of the people who leave their waste in the wrong places."

This results in hundreds of metric tons of waste going uncollected every day, much of which washes into the bay through various streams and tributaries. Once the waste reaches the bay it becomes the state's problem — not the city of Rio — but the state lacks proper resources to address it. On top of this, Silva Filho says that because the vast majority of municipalities don't charge residents for collection, and local government resources are also thin, services have been reduced below necessary levels in some areas.

Source separation isn't common practice in most areas, which is where the catadores come in. Their prowess in recovering valuable materials has led to a previously reported 98% diversion rate for aluminum cans in Brazil. Some have mixed opinions on their role in the waste system, but decades of organizing has achieved national recognition of their occupation.

Sonia Dias — a waste picker sector specialist for the organization Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) said that Brazil's catadores are some of the most well-organized in the world. She estimated that the country has more than 1,100 waste picking cooperatives which represent roughly half a million workers and said any official program which doesn't include the catadores is "doomed to failure."

Brazilian catadores sorting material 

Though Brazil's system is more organized than most, Dias said many catadores still operate independently and often struggle financially. These economic constraints can make it hard to unite them around broader environmental goals such as cleaning up the Guanabara Bay.

"At the end of the day, the waste pickers, they will have to fight," she said. "This is an occupation where unfortunately in spite of all the support the government at the national level, and in some cities at the local level have given in terms of providing incentives for people to get organized into cooperatives the majority of informal recyclers are still outside the cooperatives."

The Clean Urban Delta Initiative recognized the role that catadores could play and proposed mapping out existing networks and flows of material. The hope was to find potential efficiencies in the current system as well as target parts of the waste stream that weren’t being collected and could become less valuable once they ended up in the bay. The concept of a pilot "maker hub" was also proposed for one neighborhood in which residents would create products for the Olympics out of recycled material and establish a local circular economy.

While these proposals didn't come to fruition, Dias noted that certain catadore cooperatives have been selected by the government to participate in the Olympics. One catadore even helped carry the Olympic torch in 2012. More recently, these agreements have allowed them to collect material within stadiums at events in multiple Brazilian cities and also provide environmental education to participants.

Dias sees potential for catadores to be more involved in educating their fellow citizens about the value of recyclable materials and the need for proper disposal. Though making this happen beyond the Olympics may be a challenge.

"It's a combination of people, citizens, and government. So it's where the notion of responsibility comes in," she said. "It needs to be a process, you need to have something that is ongoing and this is where as government we kind of fail."

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After August

The conditions of Guanabara Bay are still a concern for this month's events especially if it rains though the real question is what will happen once the world's attention moves on.

When asked whether the eco-boats and eco-barriers would remain after the games, a representative from the state secretary of environment's office said the project would continue but didn't offer specifics.

As for future plans to prevent waste from flowing into the bay, press officer Steven McCane wrote, "The State Government is working together with the municipalities in order to reinforce the waste collection and environmental education."

A press release on the secretary's website about what comes after the Olympics details plans for multiple sewage treatment projects that will serve thousands of residents.

Based on the experiences in Rio and elsewhere, a special task force will be organized at ISWA's 2017 World Congress in Baltimore to discuss best practices for sustainable waste management at future mega events. ISWA's Newman thinks that the heightened level of attention this month may help spur improvements in Rio, but isn't optimistic based on current conditions.

"Everywhere, from the tip of Siberia to the tip of Tierra del Fuego in South America is a mess. Waste is going in the environment everywhere, sewage is going into the environment everywhere," he said.

While Brazil's situation is similar to so many others, that doesn't absolve them of their responsibilities. Newman also pointed out that the world's most developed countries have overcome past practices of dumping waste as a sign that it can be done.

"This is a democracy which is not working and therefore citizens' rights are being ignored," he said. "The right to clean water and clean air are amongst the basic human rights which we all have."

Wolthuis echoed these thoughts, saying that Rio and other major coastal cities around the world can't avoid this forever.

"It will get to us one day in time, and we don't know when, but it will get to us," she said. "Water quality is so important that we really cannot look away."

Mario Tama / Getty Images

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Filed Under: Collections & Transfer Recycling Waste Diversion
Top image credit: Buda Mendes/Getty Images