Brazil, the third largest territory in the Americas and the fifth largest in the world, with nearly 200 million people, has suffered with the environmental problems generated by the traditional model of dumping their waste in landfills. That process unfortunately, turns worse by the inhabitants practices of simply throwing the waste away on areas without any control or care, constituting the so-called "lixes" (slang meaning "big garbage" in Portuguese language).

Overview of Municipal Solid Waste in Brazil

Ronaldo Martire | Grupo Combustol & Metalp


One of the most important issues discussed today, by the Brazilian Government, is the physical collapse of the current model, used for centuries, on the municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal and the possibility of applying modern methods that reduce social and environmental passives that brings the garbage.

In 2000, Brazil generated over than 125 tons of municipal waste per day. From that total amount, 69% was sent to landfills, while 30% was simply dumped into the so-called "lixões". This research also revealed that approximately 20% of the population still did not have regular services to collect their waste. Even as an aggravating factor, the Brazilian population is predominantly urban. According to the last census, approximately 2 / 3 of the population is concentrated in cities. To have a brief view currently, Sao Paulo, the largest city in Latin America and the most important South American economic pole, has a population of about 14 million inhabitants.

With the increase urban population trend, the current model to dispose MSW in landfills will quickly be exhausted. With the upcoming end of many landfills life in Brazil, especially in the southeast large cities (region where are located the important states as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, having more than 40% of the total population and just over 50% of Brazilian gross domestic product), some states and cities have been looking for more modern alternatives to disposal their MSW, which may also value economically that waste, which in most of the cases is today simply buried.

One of the opportunities that appears as alternative to the old landfills and "lixões" is the MSW’s Thermal Treatment with power generation systems, widely used in Europe and Japan for more than half a century. This type of technology is still unknown in several countries, facing technical resistance due to the image gotten with those types of plants built in the past decades by emitting pollutants such as dioxins and furans.

However, few have followed the control systems to meet the environmental technological evolution used in most modern plants around the world, which eliminates or reduces to the minimum, the pollutants generation left in the thermal treatment process of MSW, as an example. Plants that generate electricity or thermal energy operate in large cities such as Paris, Tokyo and Porto, treating the waste with environmental responsibility.

In Brazil, there is still no specific policy to encourage this type of thermal treatment plants or other possible technologies exist. Nevertheless, some private companies have been working hardly in order to elaborate sustainable projects in terms of economic, technical and legal aspects.

The main drivers adopted to select technologies which treat MSW with energy generation, are based today on by five factors:

The first is the price of the electricity charged around the country, which since 1995 has a trading and power generation free market. This police has greatly stimulated free competition and has brought investments from the Brazilian private sector and international companies.

The second factor is the possibility of trading carbon credits or certified emission reductions (CERs). Many companies that manage landfills in Brazil have been requested such credits and traded them in the national and international market, implementing systems that reduce the greenhouse effect.

Another point is the MSW disposal costs coming from the municipalities. Most of them have contracts with private landfills, which are charged to treat such wastes.

The fourth factor is the costs analysis to implement this type of plant. In other Brazilian industry sectors, large investments are viable only with the maximization of local content, which in turn, allows the use of more advantageous credit lines, in many cases encouraged by the Government. Big European companies, in the past, were consulted by governments and Brazilian companies for the possible installation of MSW thermal treatment plants. However, in many cases, the initial capital cost for investment was the main factor for the project non- viability, since the imports portion were high, having also government taxes to add on the total costs, increasing the required capital. This reality has changed in recent years, due to the opportunity that native companies have to develop themselves their own technologies on the environmental treatment area. Those companies are also doing business partnerships with foreign companies with the aim of increasing opportunities for local supply.

Finally, the fifth point to be noted is the type of technology to be used not only due to initial investment aspect, but especially considering the operational and expenses costs of MSW plants in Brazil. Chemicals for processing, labor cost to operate the plant, cost of fuel and consumables, are very important factors when you are analyzing an investment cash flow.

I have to mention an aspect of significant importance, too: the characteristics of the Brazilian MSW. Unlike Europe, for example, the Brazilian garbage has a high content of organic and inert materials, and in some localities they have a very high humidity rate. The reasons are some cultural factors, as the lack of sorting trash habits. Added to this fact, we must not forget the Brazilian geographical and social characteristics as well. While in some northern and northeastern cities the generation of garbage per capita is less than 400 grams (0.88 pounds) per day, in some neighborhoods in Sao Paulós district, this value can be over four times. This heterogeneity and diversity may prevent certain types of technologies, or turn them into solutions of low competitiveness against the traditional landfills.

Either way, it is inevitable that the Brazilian government create tools to stimulate the chain that can find creative ways to solve the problem related to the final destination of MSW. Brazil will have in the next year elections for the States Governors and for President. Many have included the related issues in their election platforms. In addition, the private sector is advancing rapidly in modeling investment economically viable, even without high fiscal and financial incentives for the establishment of major projects that use modern technologies in waste treatment. The join efforts between Govern and private companies may be the most viable solution to see an exponential growth in this market, virtually virgin here in Brazil and Latin America.

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