Rio Seeks Answers to Recycling Urban Waste

A state-of-the-art treatment plant eliminates hazards but also threatens livelihood of city's poor trash-pickers

WHILE ecologists and diplomats discussed the future of the planet last week at the Earth Summit, thousands of people were literally working their way through one of this city's biggest environmental hazards: trash.

Greater Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second-largest metropolis with a population of 9 million, produces about 10,000 tons of trash a day. Until a month ago, 80 percent of this was deposited in eight dumps in and around the city. Two of the dumps border Rio's Guanabara Bay, and as the trash ferments, liquids called "leachates" are created that runs into the bay.

Meanwhile, at one of the largest dumps, the Gramacho landfill on the city outskirts, about 2,000 people live off the trash, exposing themselves to health problems.

Partly in response to this situation, the city of Rio in late May proudly inaugurated its Caju trash-recycling plant, a state-of-the-art unit that processes about 1,200 tons of garbage a day.

The $23 million plant is impressive, even to a group of Japanese environmentalists that includes a trash-recycling expert.

"He says his plant processes only 50 tons a day; he has never seen anything so big," the group's interpreter notes, as orange-suited men pull glass, paper, plastic, and aluminum off conveyor belts. The trash moves for presorting purposes through two giant sifters and passes by a huge magnet, then tumbles down several chutes.

About 12 percent of the inorganic trash is recycled here, and about half of all the organic material goes into the production of compost that will be sold to local farmers, says Jose Paulo Teixeira, the unit's industrial director.

"In Urca, an upper-middle-class neighborhood we chose for a household recycling experiment, we got people to separate only 6 percent of the inorganic material," Mr. Teixeira adds. "People here think they should get something in exchange for helping out."

The Caju plant, the first of four planned for the next several years, complements $42 million in Rio de Janeiro State project proposals to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank to improve trash collection and disposal outside of Rio proper. The state expects to start up its project, part of an ever larger plan to clean up Guanabara bay, in January 1993.

In addition, the city of Rio has made a $14 million request to the IDB for medical-waste disposal facilities and a cleanup of the Gramacho landfill. Now nearing the end of its life span, the landfill receives 5,000 tons of trash a day and is off limits to journalists.

"It's a depressing scene," says Jose Antonio Barros, a local reporter. "People compete for the trash with vultures." The government's efforts are expected to help to clean up the bay and its surrounding environment, but they may also create new problems for many poor people. Beans and chilled fish

"The landfill has been like a mother to me," says Virginia dos Santos, a toothless, wrinkled woman who lives in a shack on the dump's outskirts. "Outside [the dump], people who live on the minimum wage are hungry. Here, I make about [$13] a week on the plastic I put into canvas bags, and I eat the rice, beans, and when it's chilled, meat or fish that I find."

Inside her shack, Ms. Santos proudly displays two working radios and a blender she found. "I know two people who found television sets," she adds.

A short walk away from the shack, young women wearing mostly underwear are doing the work that Santos values so much, in a breeze laden with the dust of discarded plastic objects. Trucks bring the plastic out of the Gramacho landfill, and here on its edges the women sort it by type into large canvas bags for resale. Claudia, a teenager, says she makes more here than in a previous job as a maid, but she fears for her health. Competition on the heap

Ironically, the Gramacho trash-pickers and the Caju plant are competitors. "Our trash is of better quality, and we get more money for it," says Teixeira of the Caju plant. "It's cleaner. The trash-pickers put stones in the bags to make them seem heavier."

Once all of the city's recycling plants are built, Rio will send less trash to Gramacho, although Teixeira notes that the poor suburbs will continue to use the dump for some time. But Teixeira separates the trash-pickers' plight from the problem of dealing safely with thousands of tons of waste.

"I think they will find another job naturally, and I hope the economy will improve," he says. "This is a social problem."

For its part, Rio de Janeiro's state government aims to address the job ramifications of improved trash disposal.

"We hope to take advantage of the experience of the pickers and the residents [near the landfills] as skilled labor in our on-site recycling and trash-treatment plants," says Altamirando Fernando Moraes, projects coordinator at the Public Works and Services Secretariat. "We'll give them uniforms, protective equipment, and reasonable wages."

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