In September 1997, Doña Juana, a major landfill in Bogotá, Colombia, became synonymous with the human and financial cost of badly-managed landfills: it collapsed, sending tonnes of trash downhill into the Tunjuelo River, exposing toxic materials and releasing noxious fumes that spread across the capital city.
Those living in the area and the hundreds of trash pickers living off the landfill sued for the health consequences of the incident— respiratory illness, allergies, skin infections and vomiting— and 2,000 victims were awarded 227 million pesos.
This was a cautionary tale in a recent UN Environment report that urged countries to progressively close open dumps, which expose the surrounding communities and those who work collecting materials to severe health risks.
According to the latest Waste Management Outlook for Latin America and the Caribbean, one third of all waste generated in cities of Latin America and the Caribbean ends up in open dumps or in the environment, polluting soil, water and air, and threatening the health of the population.
Only 10 per cent of all waste is recovered in the LAC region, where waste generation is predicted to increase by at least 25 per cent by 2050.
“The Latin American and Caribbean countries should consider waste management a top political priority as a key step to strengthen climate action and protect the health of its inhabitants,” said the UN Environment Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Leo Heileman.
The report cautions that over 35,000 tonnes of trash per day remain uncollected, which affects more than 40 million people, especially in impoverished areas and rural communities.
This has critical impacts on air quality for these communities and beyond: according to the GEO6, waste and sanitary landfills, as well as biomass burning, are among the largest air pollution sources in Latin America.
Organic waste represents on average 50 per cent of all waste produced in the region, but is the least managed, a situation that causes the generation of greenhouse gases, notably methane and carbon dioxide.
Methane, a short-lived climate pollutant, is a precursor to ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in urban smog and damaging to human health, crops and forests, and it is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas production from the waste sector.
Burning of waste contributes yet another short-lived climate pollutant: black carbon. According to the 2014 Regional Action Plan on Atmospheric Pollution for Latin America and the Caribbean, waste burning in garbage dumps is one of the most significant sources of black carbon in the region.
When inhaled, it is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer and even birth defects.
Waste burning also causes concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulphur oxides (SOx) and heavy metals in the air to rise.
But the report also portrays a region that has experienced a quantitative and qualitative improvement in waste collection coverage— services that cover more than 90 per cent of the population.
It tells the stories of successful experiences and lessons learned in efforts to close the waste management loop, including:
• thousands of tonnes of food saved from landfill in Mexico through a Food For All programme;
• an exchange of recyclables for food in Brazil;
• a requirement for producers to meet annual waste recovery goals in Ecuador;
• a composting plant in Argentina with the capacity to turn up to 2,000 tonnes of green waste per month into compost to cover sanitary landfills or fertilize plants; and
• a ban on plastic bags in Antigua and Barbuda.
In fact, by 2012, the Doña Juana Landfill in the Bogotá was home to one of the largest Clean Development Mechanism projects in Latin America, involving capture, flaring and utilization of landfill gas (LFG) for energy production onsite or in nearby industries.
Read the UN Environment press release here: A third of urban waste ends up in open dumpsites or environment in Latin America and the Caribbean
Read the full report here (in Spanish and English).
Banner photo by D’Arcy Norman/CC BY 2.0