#PrayForAmazon Because it is Drowning in Waste

This guest post was written by Gabriela G P Otero, Technical Coordinator at ABRELPE, the Brazilian Association of Public Cleansing and Waste Management Companies and ISWA National Member in Brazil.

Manaus, a 2,2 million inhabitants city, is the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil and is located in the heart of the Amazon forest – recently subject to international concerns on its preservation due to fires and deforestation. However, waste littering in its rivers and creeks should take our emotions and concerns in the same level.

As a big city located in the North region, Manaus faces complex environmental aspects that can challenge any waste management system: a tropical monsoon climate with high temperatures and thunderstorms anytime anywhere; urban area covering four rivers basins with dozens of creeks called “igarapés”; 15% of the Manauara territory is subject to legal protection and more than 50% is considered rural area and still preserves native flora, therefore restricting land-use.

On the other hand, as any Brazilian municipality, the Public Cleaning Municipal Secretary struggles to provide at least basic daily collection and final disposal services for more than 1,600 tons of household waste. Apart from the 2% separate collection of dry recyclables rate, the final destination is at a sanitary landfill which was already expanded.

But our concern goes beyond what is collected at the door steps. On behalf of ABRELPE, the Brazilian Association of Public Cleansing and Waste Management Companies, and followed by two senior experts from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), I could experience the problem of waste littering in igarapés and rivers such as the Rio Negro, the largest left tributary of the Amazon River. With its origin in Peru, the Amazon crosses the rainforest and after a minimum of 6,400 km it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. As the largest river by discharge volume of water in the world, it represents 20% of the global riverine discharge to the ocean. It is water, but it can carry together amounts of waste.

Only in Manaus, the contractor commissioned by the municipal authority collects almost 30 tons of solid waste from 90 igarapés every day. Refrigerators, furniture, plastic packaging for cleaning products, cosmetics, tires, clothes, pans, pet bottles and Styrofoam containers from delivery services are just examples from the amount taken out of the water. Weekly operations are expensive and demand experienced cleaning workers, boats and heavy duty equipments. Ferries are then loaded with the waste collected by these operations and go to the Port of Manaus; from there it is transported by trucks for 25km to the sanitary landfill. 

Without an effective reverse logistic system in place for packaging and electronic equipments, or even charging a waste fee from citizens to cover the costs of such expensive cleaning operations, the municipality is trying to find ways through communication campaigns. Whatsapp messages, street signs and door-to-door approaches are some of the efforts taken by the Public Cleaning Municipal Secretary to prevent littering, with the results still to be measured. However, as we have seen with our own eyes and based on the evidence-based experience we have been building in a pilot project in Santos, Brazil, the road ahead is long and demands more incisive actions towards prevention than just communication.

Marine/river littering in urban areas has illegal settlements as major hotspots and so any intervention looking for prevention must be prepared to deal with people at social risk situation, drug dealers, lack of education and proper sanitation infrastructure. In other words, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the waste management/cleaning department of a municipality, but instead it must be transversal to all mentioned areas to achieve long-term real transformation. Whether in Santos or in Manaus.

ABOUT Gabriela G P Otero 

Geographer and Master on Science (University of São Paulo, Brazil), Gabriela Otero Sartini is currently Technical Coordinator at ABRELPE, the Brazilian Association of Public Cleansing and Waste Management Companies, a think-tank non-profit organization dedicated to raise the technical and social-environmental profile of the sector in Brazil and Latin America. View her LinkedIn profile here.