Newsletter and Technical Publications
<Municipal Solid Waste Management>
Regional Overviews and Information Sources
Latin America and the Caribbean
2.4 Topic a: Waste reduction
Materials recovery is widespread in Latin America and
the Caribbean. Recycling occurs in all large cities and in most medium-sized
cities. By contrast, small towns and rural areas generate highly dense wastes
(containing mainly organics and soils) that are not recyclable other than via
composting. In addition, there is no recycling market to speak of in these
Materials most often recycled are paper and cardboard, glass, metals (mostly
aluminum) and plastics. All of these materials, except plastics, are recycled by
large-scale industries. In the case of plastics, recycling industries are
usually small. These industries shred the plastics and manufacture plastic bags
Large scale recycling programs of non-hazardous industrial solid wastes have
been established in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Wastes (mostly paper,
cardboard, bottles, plastics and ferrous metals) are separated in the industrial
premises and sold to specialized private recyclers. In Colombia this program
resulted from a cooperative effort to find jobs for former landfill waste
pickers. Generally, except for plastics, this type of recycling is profitable
and environmentally adequate. Plastics recycling is frequently done on a small
scale and is highly polluting.
In the case of domestic wastes, materials recovery occurs at all phases of
the management chain (at the source, during transportation, and at the disposal
sites), though there is a trend toward source separation. This trend has been
driven by three factors: an improvement in the management of dumps, which has
forced waste pickers to find work elsewhere; factories that pay more for cleaner
materials; and households in the poorer countries getting paid a small amount of
money for their recyclable materials.
In some large Argentine, Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican cities, recycling
bins have been set up outside supermarkets, where glass and paper products can
be deposited. The most successful experience is that of glass recycling in
Colombia. In this case, the recycling bins were placed by a specific glass
manufacturer, which also carried out a public education program. The other
experiences have not been as successful, mostly because of the lack of public
education on the benefits of this practice.
Collection of materials at the source is done in a variety of ways, ranging
from individual itinerants to municipally managed, segregated source collection.
Although the number of itinerants is decreasing, their presence is widespread
and, in general, they handle the largest volume of recyclable materials. It is
not known how many people are involved in informal recycling in the region, but
the number of people picking wastes on the streets is quite high. Approximately
100,000 people pick wastes at dump sites.
Street pickers usually own a push-cart or a front-loaded tricycle with which
they roam the streets calling for recyclable materials. The itinerants deliver
the wastes to intermediaries who then sell the recyclable materials in bulk to
the industrial plants. The social and health conditions of the itinerants are
very poor. They are exploited by the intermediaries, who receive significant
amounts of money from the industrial plants. Direct skipping of the
intermediaries is considered to be very dangerous due to the strong economic
interest that this group has in the recycling chain.
Curbside pickup is being practiced only in Brazil (four cities have such a
program) and Mexico. Although waste management authorities acknowledge that
additional costs are incurred in this effort, these are partially compensated
for by the reduced amount of waste that has to be transported and disposed of in
landfills. These efforts appear to have succeeded in these Brazilian cities in
part because there was no tradition of individuals or cooperatives performing
such collection of recyclables, and in part because of the local authorities'
inclusion into their cost calculations all the externalities that others do not
consider (e.g., landfill lifetime, lower consumption of natural resources, etc.)
Curbside materials collection was also attempted in Buenos Aires, but failed due
to the high costs and the decision not to subsidize such an effort.
Materials recovery also occurs during transportation in the cities where
there is less control on the transportation routes, particularly in the poorer
Andean countries and in Mexico. Trucks deviate from their regular routes to stop
and deliver the recyclable materials to the intermediaries before they go to the
dumps. Recyclables, in this case, include not only the typical inorganic
materials, but also food residues, which are used for feeding pigs. As discussed
in the Sound Practices section, this deviation from regular transportation
routes imposes significant costs on the MSWM system, although it clearly
supplements the low pay of the waste collection workers.
Waste pickers are not allowed in managed landfills in the region. However,
since many cities have open dumps, a significant amount of materials recovery
occurs at the disposal site. The quality of the product is worse, of course, but
the collected items can still be sold in the market.
Cooperatives and small-scale enterprises
In some cases the conditions of waste pickers have been improved through
their organization and training. The most notable experiences are found in
Colombia, but a number of other countries (Argentina, Brazil, Panama, Peru, and
Venezuela) have followed suit. Recycling organizations have led to the formation
of cooperatives or small-scale enterprises. In all cases, the organizations have
been promoted by outside institutions such as NGOs or the local solid waste
authority (the best cases for this can be observed in Belo Horizonte and Porto
Alegre, Brazil, and in Mexico City). In the Brazilian cases, the waste authority
has provided a site where those in charge of recycling can carry out their work.
This is also the case for Mexico City, where a recycling plant that processes
more than 3,200 tons per year has been installed. In both cases, all revenues go
to those who separate the material, while the municipal authority benefits by
increasing the lifetime of the landfill and reducing the transportation time to
The cooperatives or small-scale enterprises provide training, financial, and
health support to their members, thus improving their overall social conditions.
Often, the cooperatives have grown, taking not only former landfill workers but
also other unemployed community members.