Rio de Janeiro tells tourists: no more butts on the beach

Rio now imposes tough penalties on littering by locals and visitors alike, with discarded cigarette butts incurring a $65 fine. Can it put a dent in deeper problems of trash collection and landfills?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Ipanema beach on a sunny day in September 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Brazil's second-largest city has enacted tough penalties on littering, including a $65 fine for discarding cigarette butts.

Tourists enjoying the pristine beaches of Copacobana and Ipanema may not realize it, but this city is trying to clean up a butts problem. 

Rio de Janeiro recently enacted tough penalties on littering under its Lixo Zero program, with discarded cigarette butts incurring a $65 fine and larger waste getting tickets up to $1,300. Tourists are not exempt from the law, which comes as the city preps for the 2014 World Cup.   

While the law may help preserve the renowned beauty of Brazil’s beaches amid an influx of visitors, critics say it will do little to actually change attitudes toward environmental care and waste collection. The law targets a public eyesore while ignoring the greater problem of where all the trash ultimately winds up: unregulated landfills that are environmentally harmful and energy inefficient, says Sergio Guerreiro Ribeiro, president of the Waste to Energy Research Technology Council (WTERT) Brazil.

“This law is ridiculous,” Mr. Ribeiro says. “It makes the government look good, [but] it’s propaganda.” 

But the law is a potential moneymaker that could help pay for the city’s cost of cleaning up trash, estimated at more than 9,000 tons a day. More than 100 pedestrians alone were fined on Aug. 20, the law’s first day in effect, for littering anything from butts to food wrappers, according to daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. Failure to pay a fine will result in a black mark on your government identification number, which can affect eligibility for anything from a cellphone to a bank loan. 

City cleaning company Comlurb is charged with enforcement, training and sending two-person teams to monitor littering. Ahead of it going into effect, the agency engaged in a publicity campaign that included foregoing daily cleaning of Ipanema beach to show the amount of litter.

Rio de Janeiro is not unique among developing nations and emerging markets acting aggressively to combat public littering. In Singapore, it’s illegal to chew gum recreationally (it requires a prescription from a doctor). In many countries in Asia and the Middle East, it is illegal to spit after chewing paan, a stimulant produced from betel nut.

Rio’s law is being primarily enforced in the city center, and will likely come as a shock to commuters from lower-income neighborhoods that lack flushing toilets, much less trash cans for cigarette butts, says Alfonso Stefanini, a local environmental consultant and environmental policy gradate student in Rio de Janeiro.

“Garbage collection seems to be the last thing on their minds,” says Mr. Stefanini. 

At the same time, however, he is in favor of the law as a baby step toward educating the public on waste management.

“The government is trying to get the city ready for the World Cup and Olympics, trying to educate people in the city center,” Stefanini says. “People will bring knowledge back to where they live.” 

Environmental education on litter and waste management is limited in Brazil, which only enacted a federal law on solid waste management in 2010. The law supported increased energy recovery from waste by creating economic incentives, but it still defines landfills as an environmentally adequate solution to the country’s annual waste of 60 million metric tons. This equates to about 380 kilograms (about 837 lbs.) of garbage per person, or about half of what is produced annually by Canadians and people in the United States.

The landfill in Brazil “will remain a significant feature for a number of years,” according to a March 2012 report from CMS Cameron McKenna LLP.

But there is a glimmer of hope, says Ribeiro. As overflowing landfills send garbage trucks further away to reach waste dumps — pushing up transportation costs and overall fees per ton of garbage dumped at landfills — waste-to-energy incineration plants could become feasible. These plants are more expensive to operate, but less environmentally harmful, and also generate new electricity. 

“We have two kinds of landfills in Brazil: bad and very bad,” says Ribeiro. “The bad ones, people say, are excellent. And the very bad ones, everyone agrees, are very bad.”

For now, however, Rio’s cigarette butts and other garbage will continue to simply be dumped into the environment, be it onto a beach or inside a landfill. Only education can change attitudes toward this, says Marcos Nobrega, a law professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco and the former president of the Brazilian Association of Law and Economics. 

“In Brazil, you can find the middle class buying McDonalds and then throwing the garbage out the window of the car,” Mr. Nobrega says. “A law cannot change this. It takes education.”

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