Five ways Latin America is tackling its waste problem

Nearly half of the region’s waste ends up in landfill. We meet groups finding fresh ways to stop the flow, via recycling apps, blockchain, waste-to-energy plants and more
<p>A worker collects recyclables at Lixão da Estrutural in Brasília, which was one of the biggest rubbish dumps in Latin America before its closure in 2018. On average, roughly one kilogramme of waste is generated per inhabitant every day in the region (Image: <a href="https://flic.kr/p/W1Fm6Y">Leopoldo Silva</a> / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/people/agenciasenado/">Agência Senado</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">CC BY</a>)</p>

A worker collects recyclables at Lixão da Estrutural in Brasília, which was one of the biggest rubbish dumps in Latin America before its closure in 2018. On average, roughly one kilogramme of waste is generated per inhabitant every day in the region (Image: Leopoldo Silva / Agência Senado, CC BY)

The final destination of solid waste is emerging as a critical challenge to solve in Latin America. Though collection services cover 85% of the region’s urban areas – relatively high by global standards – countries are faced with gaps in their ability to properly manage such waste beyond just collection.

Around 45% of this waste ends up in inadequate disposal sites such as landfills, which contaminate soil, water bodies and air.

Latin America generates a total of 541,000 tonnes of waste daily, roughly 1 kilogramme per inhabitant, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). World Bank data shows that the region is among the lesser producers of waste, compared to other world regions. The problem is not the volume of waste in itself, but its management, says Jordi Pon, UNEP’s regional coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Across the region, inadequate management of waste has brought negative impacts on the health of populations and the environment, but has also meant missed opportunities for the adoption of circular economies – systems that seek to minimise waste and maximise resource use by reintegrating waste material back into production cycles.

Given the scale of the problem, large-scale responses from national governments and cities are likely to be needed. Some of them are, indeed, moving in this direction; Dialogue Earth looks at five projects in countries across the region that are seeking to improve waste management and encourage more sustainable practices.

Argentina: Sustainability and solidarity via recycling

In recent decades, the verb cartonear has emerged in Argentine Spanish to refer to the act of collecting cardboard and other recyclable materials from the streets to be sold on. These waste pickers are known locally as cartoneros. The country’s economic crisis of 2001 sparked a surge in the number of people involved in this line of work.

An aerial view of a street worker putting cardboard into a large trolley
A cartonero picks up cardboard in the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Cooperatives have formed to represent such workers, promote good practice and help members send materials to recycling businesses (Image: Carol Smiljan / NurPhoto / Alamy)

The growth in the activity has led to the formation of a number of representative organisations, including the Federación Argentina de Cartoneros, Carreros y Recicladores (FACCyR). It brings together cooperatives from across the nation that organise locally to improve members’ working conditions and promote more efficient recycling practices.

One such affiliate of FACCyR is Dignidad Cartonera – “dignity for cartoneros” – founded in 2017 in the city of Rosario and with over 150 active members. Founding member Mónica Castro, herself part of the generation that became unemployed in 2001, explains that she and her neighbours “decided to create our own source of work, which was to go out and collect cardboard”.

In 2019, Dignidad Cartonera collaborated with the local government on a pilot programme to prevent the contamination and soiling of collected recyclable materials, increasing their sell-on value. While its members previously focused on more generalised, city-wide collection of materials, the pilot created a door-to-door service in Industrial, a neighbourhood in west Rosario, through which cartoneros demonstrate to residents how to correctly separate recyclable and non-recyclable waste.

The materials collected from the street arrive daily at a warehouse managed by the cooperative’s members, from which they are sent to various recycling businesses. By teaming up with other cooperatives that are part of FACCyR, they are able to amass a large quantity of waste, secure greater collective bargaining power, and seek fairer remuneration for their work.

Among other goals, Dignidad Cartonera hopes its work will translate collective action and solidarity into advances for sustainability. “We want to inspire others to follow our path, demonstrating that it is possible to create a fairer and more sustainable world for all,” says Juliana Muchiut, the cooperative’s coordinator.

Chile: Blockchain helps tracing and trust in recycling

More than 140 million tonnes of plastic pollute aquatic ecosystems, according to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). In Chile, the Atando Cabos project collects plastic waste from aquaculture, such as nylon nets, polyester ropes and plastic trays, and transforms it into reusable materials. Throughout the process, it uses blockchain technology to ensure the transparency and efficiency of its recycling operations, thereby building trust throughout the value chain.

The project’s founder, Michel Compagnon, is the commercial manager of a company specialising in plastic injection moulding. He says the project started after a trip to Patagonia in 2016, where he found large amounts of plastic waste, and dozens of fishing lines polluting the region’s fjords. He recalls feeling, as someone working in the plastics industry, that it all “wasn’t rubbish, but valuable raw materials that could be recycled.”

A pile of ropes and fishing nets
The Atando Cabos project in Chile collects plastic waste such as nylon nets, polyester ropes and plastic trays, and transforms it into reusable materials (Image: Atando Cabos)

The Atando Cabos team works with locals, including fishers, to collect this plastic waste in southern Chile. Its collections are then shipped to a local port and processed in a factory in the capital, Santiago. There, they are given a new life, transformed into other products such as pallets or fruit crates.

The initiative incorporates blockchain technology, which can guarantee that registered data on items is secure and inalterable due to its structure of linked and encrypted “blocks”. Each journey of a piece of waste – from collection to production of new material – is documented and logged as a record on an online ledger, and blockchain is used to verify each stage it takes in the recycling process.

This blockchain ledger can be accessed by product users through scanning a QR code on the product, allowing all actors involved in the value chain to follow the materials’ journey and ensure that waste is handled in accordance with established environmental and quality standards. Compagnon says he was driven to use this method of verification to provide easily understandable and accessible proof that the products are made from recycled material.

The project, which in 2019 won an award recognising green initiatives in Latin America, reports that it enables the recycling of more than 2,300 tonnes of waste per year.

Brazil: Turning waste to energy in Rio

In a vast city such as Rio de Janeiro, where over half of the waste generated is organic, sustainable waste management projects are vital. One such project is an organic waste processing plant maintained by the city’s public municipal cleaning company, Comlurb. The facility, located in the city’s northern neighbourhood of Caju, processes 250 tonnes of such waste per month, turning it into biogas and organic compost. It was the first of its kind in Latin America when inaugurated in 2018.

A group of people in matching uniforms collect trash on a beach near to high rise buildings
Workers from public cleaning company Comlurb clean the beaches of Rio de Janeiro after New Year’s Eve festivities, January 2023. With over half of the waste generated in the city considered organic, Comlurb has sought to turn part of it into biogas and organic compost (Image: Jose Lucena / ZUMA Press / Alamy)

The plant uses a process called biomethanation to transform organic waste into biogas and subsequently electricity that powers the facility. The process also enables the plant to produce organic compost for use in various urban agriculture projects, as part of the UN-funded Carioca Vegetables programme. Comlurb’s compost has its own name – Fertilurb – and has been presented by the company as a “super fertiliser” due to being produced from “very segregated organic matter”, it claims.

Comlurb’s project coordinator Bernardo Ornelas notes that the initiative was the first “selective organics collection programme” in the city, and was initially launched in municipal schools and supermarkets.

Together with the Inter-American Development Bank, Comlurb is also studying how to expand the recycling of organic waste in Rio de Janeiro and scale to process and eventually transform up to 150 tonnes of organic waste into biogas and compost per day. The project is expected to be realised in three years.

Uruguay: Laws against e-waste

With 14.8 kilogrammes generated per inhabitant each year, Uruguay has the highest per capita production of electronic waste in the Southern Cone. Studies by the country’s environment ministry attribute this phenomenon to the correlation between e-waste generation and gross domestic product per capita, with Uruguay being the regional leader in both aspects.

Specific legislation on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in particular is crucial because such refuse represents one of the fastest-growing physical waste streams. Regulation is required to assess its evolution, outline effective policies, limit its generation, prevent illegal dumping, promote recycling and create jobs in the recycling sector. But until 2023, only five countries in Latin America had WEEE-specific regulations.

Two people walk past a public information stand in a park
An electronics recycling event organised by the Uruguayan environment ministry in Rodó Park, Montevideo. The national government is working on legislation to regulate the management and treatment of electronic waste (Image: Ministerio de Ambiente de Uruguay)

Given its high levels of waste, progress in local waste-management policies has been particularly relevant in Uruguay.

In June 2023, its environment ministry signed an agreement with the municipality of its capital, Montevideo, and the recycling cooperative Volver a la Vida to expand the recycling of WEEE. The agreement allows the cooperative, which previously only focused on bulky waste, to also manage e-waste. The municipality provides the premises and collates the waste, while the cooperative is responsible for the repair of products that can be salvaged, and disassembly of devices to recover useful components for reuse. This aims to foster a circular economy, as well as social inclusion, by employing and training people in vulnerable situations as part of the recycling cooperative.

The national government is also reportedly working on legislation that specifically regulates the management and treatment of WEEE, building on the Integrated Waste Management Law that was passed in 2019, which is currently being signed by ministries before approval.

The initiative with Volver a la Vida is in line with the principles of Preal, a Latin America-wide e-waste recycling project which encourages reductions and proper disposals of such waste. The project also pushes for extended responsibilities for producers to ensure proper management of e-waste, said María José Crovetto and Gariné Guerguerian, consultants from the environment ministry, which is contracted as part of the project. Such responsibility could entail manufacturers funding collection and recycling programmes, or designing easier-to-recycle products, for example.

Ecuador and Peru: Grassroots recyclers app

Improving waste management and promoting inclusivity in recycling in Ecuador: these were the goals leading to the creation of ReciVeci, an app and platform that facilitates collaboration between citizens and grassroots, self-employed recyclers. Today, the app is available in the cities Quito, Cuenca, Guayaquil, and in 2023 began its expansion to Peru.

“ReciVeci was born out of the need to solve two problems: the generation of solid waste that is not being used, and the situation of grassroots recyclers,” explains Sofía Baque, the platform’s partnerships and community coordinator. The app allows citizens to locate nearby waste pickers through an interactive map and arrange a collection of the sorted materials at the user’s home, ensuring a direct, clean and safe transaction. This allows users to get to know their recyclers, “which creates a bond that fosters regular deliveries and a relationship of mutual trust,” says Baque.

A smiling woman holds a tray of glass bottles and plastic waste
The ReciVeci app, available in the Ecuadorian cities of Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil, allows citizens to locate nearby waste pickers and arrange a collection of the sorted materials at the user’s home (Image: ReciVeci)

The app, which began as a voluntary and collective project, obtained seed capital of USD 10,000 from investors after winning an urban entrepreneurship challenge in 2018. This funding enabled the development of a new version of the app, which was “more interactive and which allowed us to consolidate ourselves as a start-up”, Baque adds.

In addition to connecting waste pickers with citizens, ReciVeci’s platform is gamified, and users can accumulate points and redeem them for prizes, encouraging the public to recycle. The app also provides users their metrics, helping them measure and quantify their own impact on waste management.

Asked about impact figures, Baque says that, to date, they have recovered 150 tonnes of waste and have 2,000 waste pickers registered on the app. Lorena Gallardo, the initiative’s founder, recently told the Forbes Ecuador podcast that they have recovered 200 tonnes of recyclable material and, according to her own calculations, avoided the emission of 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide.