Walking down the streets of Buenos Aires is often a sensory adventure – but not always in a good way.
In between wafts from bakeries and the glorious Roman-style columns, bags of refuse line every kerb. Street corners sometimes serve as collection stations, where dozens of bags sit and stink up the neighbourhood. Restaurants dump uneaten food into the same bins as computer parts and cardboard. Cartoneros – the city’s makeshift recyclers – rip through bins and bags for whatever can be sold.
This is just what people can see.
Beneath the surface, the situation is just as messy.
Out of the approximately 14,000 tonnes of garbage produced daily by the entire Buenos Aires metropolitan area, the capital’s share weighs in at about 6,000 tonnes. For years, that trash has been ending up in the Province of Buenos Aires’ landfills.
But if a new bill currently being debated at the Buenos Aires province legislature is passed, the province will not take it anymore – and the city will have to find new ways to deal with its own garbage.
Recent Stir Ups
Last week, Buenos Aires provincial senators Cristina Fioramonti and Alberto De Fazio introduced a bill that would slowly decrease the amount of waste entering the Province of Buenos Aires from other jurisdictions – namely from the city of Buenos Aires.
From the 14th January 2014, no waste of any type would be allowed to enter the province from another district.
“The issue of garbage has been dilating for quite some time, and we understand the need to resolve the issue for the sake of our environment and our health,” Fioramonti said, according to the Argentine legally-focused weekly Parlamentario. ”We will do whatever is necessary to get this bill passed and that it can be used in the future as the standard.”
The cherry on the garbage sundae is that the State Society for Ecological Co-ordination of the Metropolitan Area – CEAMSE, the publicly-owned solid waste management company – has stated that prices for the capital will be hiked 35% as of 1st June.
The move follows weeks of trash talk between President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Buenos Aires city mayor Mauricio Macri.
On 3rd May, President Fernández asked that “the city pays what it has to pay” for garbage per tonne, noting it is either that or “they should have it [the rubbish] processed in the city.”
In a press conference on 8th May, Macri accused the national government of trying to “bankrupt” the city.
“The attacks have to be limited,” he said. “We live in Argentina and we have a metropolitan area. An important part of the waste generated is from people coming every day to work in the city.”
Consuelo Bilbao is a co-ordinator with Greenpeace Argentina. She says the problem extends to the metropolitan area as well, but the capital is the biggest issue because it creates the most rubbish. While she points out that the city has to find ways to limit the garbage it produces, she notes the 2014 deadline that would close the province landfill’s doors would leave the city stranded.
“They can’t be closed,” she says. “Where will they put the garbage? There is no other new location. [...] We can’t prohibit it all, 100%. There isn’t a way, in two years, to stop it all, 100%”
In November 2005, the government of Buenos Aires unanimously passed the “Zero Waste” law, which was supposed to decrease the levels of garbage produced in the city.
The law proposed measures to reduce waste, improve recovery and recycling, and decrease the toxicity of waste; it also is supposed to put more responsibility on manufacturers for their products.
The Zero Waste law states that using the 2004 baseline of 1,497,656 tonnes, the city should reduce the amount of waste being buried at landfills 30% by 2010, 50% by 2012 and 75% by 2017. It also says the city will prohibit the disposal of recyclable materials by 2020.
Despite the efforts of the Zero Waste law, Bilbao says the situation remains the same.
“Regrettably after so many years, because of a lack of investment, because they do not really want to change anything beyond the words of the law, we’re still burying trash,” Bilbao says. “Today, after so many years, instead of having less garbage as is in the law which was to progressively introduce methods of reduction, we have had a steady year-to-year increase.”
Francisco Pompeyo Ramos-Marrau is an urban architect working with the Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services. He says he thinks the program is “better than not having anything.”
“It doesn’t resolve the problem definitively at all,” said Ramos-Marrau, who works in the department of urban planning and construction.
A “Below-Average” City
In comparison to the rest of Latin America, Buenos Aires is not particularly green.
In 2010, the business consultants Economist Intelligence Unit released a report on the environmental performance of 17 Latin American cities. Sponsored by Siemens, the report ranked the cities on a range of criteria like waste, sanitation, water and air quality.
Buenos Aires fell below average – with especially dismal performances in its waste management and sanitation.
The study said the city generates 606kg of waste per person per year, above the 17-city average of 465kg per year.
“This is the third highest rate of waste generation in the Index — only Brasília and Belo Horizonte produce more waste,” it reads.
Bilbao notes the city’s huge lack in organic composting. She says about 50% of the city’s solid waste going to landfill is organic material.
“If you want to separate your food and organic material out, no one comes to pick it up,” she says. “[It's] an important fraction, which would shrink this gigantic garbage pie.”
Urban environmental expert Nicholas You was a member of the panel that advised the Economist study. In an interview published alongside the study, he said that in Latin American cities everyone is responsible for a “slice of the problem” but no one controls the bigger picture.
“There are several obstacles, including short-term politics versus long-term planning, decentralisation and the lack of empowerment of local authorities, and overlapping jurisdictions,” he said. “But there is one key issue: who is responsible for doing what?”
Improvements and Options
The city has announced that next March, recycling stations will be available around Buenos Aires.
In an attempt to cut down the garbage, La Nación reported Sunday that although a few “ecopoints” have been set up in the city, many people near them do not know how to use them.
“The information that is available is not great, nor is there a number to call to come and look for things, at least in my neighborhood,” 32-year-old Paula Lombardi, who moved to Floresta nine months ago, told the newspaper.
Although there is a law against anything but interred garbage, on 9th May the state-owned news agency Télam reported that the city of Buenos Aires’ auditor Eduardo Epszteyn said he thinks the lack of interest in reducing garbage is part of a strategy to move toward incineration.
There have been no further reports on the topic. But Eduardo Giesen, Latin American co-ordinator for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an NGO against incineration which promotes systems of Zero Waste, says there are studies from around the world that show the negative impacts of incineration.
“GAIA and its allies in Argentina, who group themselves against incineration, celebrate the Zero Waste law,” he says. “But unfortunately, we have seen it employed in a manner that is deficient.”
Although she disagrees with incineration, Bilbao says Buenos Aires is on the verge of crashing if there are no major changes before 2014.
“We’re at a moment of collapse,” she says, noting that money is not a problem.
She points out that the city spends $1.5bn on garbage services, and only $200m on its minimal recycling programme.
“Is it that there isn’t money? Or is it that the money isn’t distributed well?” she asks.
Ramos-Marrau also says the city should treat its unofficial cartoneros better. With an official system, they would. He adds that the cartoneros should be given the opportunity to work in the centres.
“The working conditions of the cartoneros today should not exist,” he says. “It’s outside of labour laws. [...] They are workers. They are not people that are outside of the labour market.”
That said, Ramos-Marrau notes that garbage is just one of a slew of institutional problems in the city. Fixing the rubbish problem would be a “patch” on a much deeper problem. He says he thinks the city should no longer be the federal district of Buenos Aires, but that there should be an all-encompassing government that functions within the metropolitan area. He also believes the city should no longer be the actual capital of the country. He noted that the capital should move to a place like Viedma, which is according to law the capital of Argentina.
Ramos-Marrau also says that with regards to garbage in general, people have to start thinking of it differently, thinking of it as something that can be used in another way. He says there are better ways to dispose of and use municipal waste, which could be found through waste treatment plants and urban garbage factories.
“This is urgent,” he says. “This is immediate. This cannot wait any longer. They have to take enormous institutional measures. [It's] a question of jurisprudence, jurisdictions, and of decentralisation – it’s very difficult.”
Click here to find out what porteños think about the city’s rubbish problem.