Categorized | Environment

Fighting for Recycling in Buenos Aires


Photo courtesy of Greenpeace
Greenpeace campaigned for the Basura Cero law in 2005

The authorities of the city of Buenos Aires have recently decided to stop installing new containers to separate litter on the streets, arguing they are misused. Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs accuse the government of breaking the new law and not dealing with overflowing landfills.

The city of Buenos Aires alone generates over 5,000 tonnes of solid rubbish a day, that end up in landfills in neighbouring suburbs, to the disgust of the residents such as those in Ciudad Evita. In 2005, the previous city government unanimously approved a law, Basura Cero (Zero Litter), that came into effect last year. The idea was to recycle waste and minimise the amount of rubbish buried in landfills.

But since Mauricio Macri was elected mayor of the city last year, NGOs accuse the government of sabotaging efforts at recycling and therefore breaking the law. “They are generally against the law as it implies time and money,” says Eugenia Testa from the policy unit of Greenpeace Argentina.

Last month Juan Pablo Piccardo, city environment minister, stated that no more recycling containers would be installed in Buenos Aires capital. “The project isn’t working,” he told the daily paper Clarín. “People aren’t using the containers properly as all types of litter are mixed together. The quantity of rubbish is even 10% higher than in 2006 and the containers are costing the city too much money.” Greenpeace consequently organised a Basura Cero funeral in front of Macri’s office.

New Law

The aim of the law is to reduce the quantity of rubbish that goes to landfills by 50% before 2012 and by 75% before 2017. As well as being environmental friendly, it would enable the city to cut down on costs on the long run, according to a Greenpeace report. The government now spends $400m a year burying its rubbish, the environmental organisation states, and buries around $600m worth of recyclable materials.

The law includes four main aspects. It begins with the assumption that the population separates its waste at home. It obliges the authorities to install two types of containers in the streets for people to put their wet rubbish (organic waste or plastic and paper still smudged with food) in one, and dry (clean paper, cardboard, textiles, metals, glass, wood, plastic and drinking cartons) in the other. The dry waste is then taken to green centres and the wet to landfills. Finally, the law requires that the government creates extra green centres in which cartoneros, people who search for recyclable elements in the streets, are employed to separate dry rubbish before selling it to the appropriate recycling centres.

Although the authorities started installing the two types of containers, none of the processing after the waste is collected is being carried out.

Photos courtesy of Greenpeace

Lack of Communication

The government is blaming the citizens for not separating rubbish. But NGOs blame the government for not setting up any campaign to increase public awareness as the law also predicts. “Nothing has been done to change the people’s habits as far as waste is concerned,” deplores Roberto Felicetti, former city environment minister, now director of Fundación Ambiente y Sociedad, which helps environmental projects in the city. “No new green centres have been created and rubbish arrives mixed up in the three existing ones, which shows that people haven’t been encouraged to separate.”

Eduardo Terreni, sub-secretary of the urban hygiene governmental department, defends the authorities by telling The Argentina Independent there has in fact been a campaign showing people the correct use of the containers installed in the streets.

A test of how recycling can be effective is currently being undertaken in La Plata, for example. A pilot project has been set up in four different areas of the city in which residents are given green bags for their dry rubbish and white ones for organic. According to Clarín, the results are encouraging.

Greenpeace recently sent leaflets to its 70,000 members suggesting that they should ask the government to send them special recipients to separate their organic rubbish at home. “It is working as we got phone calls from the authorities accusing us of encouraging this,” says Testa. Although no one has received those special bins so far, some residents in San Telmo, for example, separate their rubbish in plastic bags on which they write what’s inside for the cartoneros to pick up.

Photos courtesy of Greenpeace

Saturated Landfills

Authorities are looking for new places to dig landfills to absorb the 310,000 tonnes of waste produced monthly in the 19 towns that form the Greater Buenos Aires area. But the situation is critical, as Alexandre Roig from University of San Martín explained at an international conference in Geneva last November. Searching for new space is a problem as Ceamse, the state-owned organisation in charge of landfills, always has to fight against the neighbouring residents who actively do all they can to stop the digging.

In the meantime, as Greenpeace reports, the excess of waste produced in the capital due to the lack of recycling encourages the proliferation of rubbish dumps in the open. “Unlike landfills, these are dangerous for the environment and people’s health,” admits Alfredo Vega, Ceamse spokesperson. “No control is undertaken on what is dumped, there are no gas extractions and everything goes straight into the air.”

New Plan

The government announced at the end of June that it now has a new plan, to the chagrin of NGOs such as Greenpeace and the ecological association Gaia. Juan Pablo Piccardo said classical containers were going to be installed instead of the separate ones, in which the population can throw its rubbish without dividing wet from dry waste.

According to newspaper Página 12, the city government has also made a deal with some cartonero cooperatives to collect recyclable rubbish door to door. And private transportation companies, one of which Macri used to have business interest in, will be paid by weight to collect all the rest of the waste.

“This system goes against Basura Cero, as it will encourage companies to collect more so as to earn extra money and to accuse cartoneros working independently in the streets to steal their rubbish, like Macri accused them of doing a few years ago,” said Greenpeace, pointing out that not much could be left for the cartoneros at the end of the day.

The new plan also stipulates that manufacturers and importers of paper, cardboard and plastic bottles will have to pay a tax to finance the recycling process. The amount of money gained would be around $150m a year, which represents a quarter of what the city pays to collect rubbish. Piccardo added this tax was most likely to come into effect in two years’ time.

Buenos Aires’ current means to deal with recycling don’t seem to discourage everyone though, as some members of the national parliament have presented a project for a Basura Cero law to be implemented in the whole country.

In the meantime, 600 tonnes of rubbish, 11% of the capital’s waste, is still being recycled on a daily basis thanks to an estimated 15,000 cartoneros who work on the streets every night.

A look in the dustbin

The city of Buenos Aires produces 5,000 tonnes of rubbish daily, of which:

Organic waste: 41.2%

Plastic: 12.8%

Furniture and wooden objects: 8.7%

Nappies: 4.6%

Paper and cardboard: 16.4%

Toxic remains, such as aerosol bottles and cosmetics: 9.6%

Glass bottles: 5.4%

Metal: 1.3%

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