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Green, clean and hated by locals: Inside Brazil's biggest landfill
A group of workers at a landfill in Caieiras pick through tech garbage for precious minerals, in Caieiras, Brazil, July 22, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/André Nery
What’s the context?
Waste is a huge driver of methane emissions but the Brazilian public widely opposes landfills despite their environmental benefits
- Government aims to replace dump sites with landfills
- Waste is a large source of methane emissions in Brazil
- Strong public opposition to landfills found nationwide
CAIEIRAS, Brazil - In Brazil's state of São Paulo, one otherwise ordinary town is known for its extraordinary landfill facility - the largest in the country - which produces renewable energy but has also generated staunch opposition from citizens and councillors.
The site near Caieiras is home to a large biogas power plant, which converts methane - a potent greenhouse gas produced by rotting garbage - into electricity, preventing it from being released into the air and so avoiding planet-heating emissions.
While the landfill has been hailed for its environmental benefits and held up as an example of the future of waste management in Brazil, locals in Caieiras complain about the smell and the impact on house prices in the surrounding area.
The latest available government data shows there were only 17 such green power plants located on landfills nationwide as of 2015, while debate about the broader impact of landfill sites on nearby residents is fierce across Brazil.
A government drive to close informal garbage dumps - where waste rots in the open air - and replace them with modern, managed landfills faces widespread resistance from communities.
For Eudilaine Souza, who runs a store in a neighborhood near the Caieiras landfill, "the worst thing about it is the smell".
The 52-year-old said she had grown accustomed to the garbage trucks driving past her business every day, but not the odor that wafts from the landfill - especially on warmer days.
"When it's hot, you cannot open the window or the stench comes in," Souza said in an interview. "It's terrible."
The landfill - which is run by Solvi Group, a waste management company - has been open since 2002, and collects garbage from several neighboring cities including São Paulo.
Three landfills run by Solvi in Brazil have green power plants, with four more under construction. The Caieiras facility started operating in 2016 and now generates enough renewable energy to supply about 300,000 people, according to the company.
Yet in interviews with Context, various residents of Caieiras - a town with a population of about 100,000 - said they did not care about the green benefits of the landfill and its biogas plant, and simply wanted it shut down.
Solvi is in a legal battle with Caieiras after councillors passed a 2020 law requiring the company to provide free electricity to the town as a form of compensation for the smell and the negative effect on property values.
The law was suspended by an injunction sought by Solvi pending a judgment by a São Paulo court on its legality.
Diego Nicoletti, technical director for Solvi, said he was aware of complaints from residents - but highlighted how the company gives 1% of its annual revenue from the landfill to Caieiras, creates local jobs, and collects garbage for free.
"Over the lifetime of the landfill, we will give 7 billion reals ($1.34 billion) to the town," he said.
"This is a direct impact."
About 40% of Brazil's waste rots outdoors and releases methane into the atmosphere, according to a 2021 study by Abrelpe, the national association of solid waste managers.
Brazil, which last year signed a U.N. pledge to cut methane emissions, is the world's fifth-largest emitter of the gas - responsible for about 5.5% of the total - found a recent study by the Climate Observatory, a network of civil society groups.
Waste is the nation's second-biggest source of methane emissions, which are expected to rise by more than a quarter by 2030 unless action is taken, said the Climate Observatory.
Brazil launched a waste management plan in 2010, aiming to shut more than 2,800 informal dump sites and replace them with landfills by 2024.
In landfills such as the one in Caieiras, garbage is buried with machinery to prevent it decomposing in the open air. The methane produced as it rots underground is captured and used to generate power so the gas does not escape into the atmosphere.
The government has projected that energy sourced from waste could almost triple by 2040 if all landfills were able to turn at least 50% of their emissions into electricity.
In most medium-sized landfills, it would be economically viable to install power plants like the one in Caieiras, said Fabrício Soler, a consultant for the U.N. Industrial Development Organization who specializes in solid waste management policies.
Yet the 2024 target to shut uncontrolled dumps appears set to be missed, as cities delay opening landfills due to concerns over costs and the potential impacts on residents.
Pushback from local communities is one of the main obstacles to the roll-out of more landfills, according to Abrelpe.
In August, citizens in Bujaru and Acará - towns in the northern state of Pará - protested against the opening of a landfill near them by closing down a major highway.
In Taquari, in southern Rio Grande do Sul state, similar protests erupted in May when plans for a landfill were unveiled.
"(Landfills) will always bring inconveniences," Carlos Silva Filho, head of Abrelpe, said in an interview.
"The point of equilibrium needs to be found, so it's fair to everyone," he said, explaining that disputes between local authorities and landfill administrators are common.
Company vs councillors
The relationship between Solvi and Caieiras' councillors has soured in recent years - and the two sides are now in deadlock.
Authorities say the deal made in 2000 between the town and Solvi, to set up and run the landfill, is no longer a fair arrangement and they want to renegotiate the terms.
Wladimir Panelli, a town councilman, said Solvi now benefits from several sources of revenue that were not included in the original deal - including the green energy it sells.
"This was a business deal. And business can't be good for one side only," Panelli said.
Caieiras officials are also concerned about the fact that Solvi had initially expected the site to become full and have to close by 2070, an estimate that has been revised to 2041. At that point, the land will be restored to a public park.
Authorities will then have to manage and pay for trash collection far sooner than envisaged, at a cost of about 15 million reals ($2.9 million) a year, according to Panelli.
"It is a lot of money for a town like ours," he said.
However, Nicolleti of Solvi said he did not believe the company needed to renegotiate its contract with Caieiras or provide free energy, pointing out that any revenue it makes benefits the town through the 1% funding arrangement.
Solvi also tries to lessen its impact on nearby residents by monitoring the wind direction to avoid shoveling waste when it blows towards the town, and funds several social programs, including one to bring recycling to the community, he said.
Yet such efforts are insufficient for many citizens in Caieiras, including Raulino Moreira da Silva, who moved there in 1997 when the landfill site was a eucalyptus plantation.
Da Silva - whose neighborhood is the closest to the landfill - said he had spent two decades hoping for it to be closed down. At 75, he might not live until 2041 to see that happen.
"They have to move it. Take it somewhere where there are no communities," da Silva said. "We are sick of it."
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling)
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