In the 1960’s, the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, was carefully planned, then built on what had been a cattle ranch in the country’s highland plateau. Brasilia’s dump, Estrutural dump, was not planned. The dump grew haphazardly alongside the city in a low, wetland area just twelve miles from the Presidential Palace. Today Brasilia boasts 2.5 million residents, and Estrutural has the distinction of being Latin America’s largest dump. On January 19th of this year, Estrutural dump closed and was replaced with an engineered landfill twenty miles away.
We often use the words “dump” and “landfill” interchangeably, but they are different. Unlike the engineered landfills that the developed world sends its trash to, dumps have no environmental or health safeguards. The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) believes that dumps are the world’s most polluted places and a global health emergency.
Droughts and water shortages plague Brasilia, and Estrutural makes the situation worse by polluting the groundwater. As rainwater percolates through garbage dumps, it picks up a range of contaminants from discarded garbage and delivers them directly to groundwater and streams. The engineered landfill that is replacing Estrutural has an impermeable liner that holds this toxic soup, or leachate, in. Leachate is collected and treated before it is released.
Anaerobic decomposition of garbage produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. At dumps methane seeps out into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. When methane builds up and is then exposed to air, it can explode. Modern, engineered landfills have gas collection systems to capture methane, which makes it safer. When this captured methane is used to create electricity, heat buildings or power garbage trucks, its threat as a greenhouse is reduced.
Dumps are big, open and porous. There are no boundaries to keep garbage in or keep people and animals out. Garbage blows out with the wind or washes away in rain. At landfills, only a small area, the “working face,” is open at any one time. Trash is tipped at the working face and then covered with dirt at the end of the day. Garbage is entombed by dirt. This keeps garbage in and rats away. Garbage dumped at Estrutural easily leaks out into the environment.
At dumps, recycling is done informally by waste pickers who scavenge through the garbage and collect anything of value. Two million people scavenge at dumpsites worldwide. Next to Estrutural dump is a shanty town where 40,000 waste pickers and their families live. Scavenging is filthy, dangerous work. One hundred fifteen people died at a dump in Ethiopia in 2017 when a mountain of trash collapsed. Waste pickers are killed in fires, explosions and by heavy machinery. They die young from diarrhea, malaria, cholera and yellow fever that breed in the unsanitary, mosquito-infested conditions at dumps. What is the appeal of scavenging? People can earn a living. A good waste picker earns three times Brazil’s minimum wage. No formal education is needed. Even children can scavenge, and they do.
At landfills, there is no access and no scavenging. Some waste pickers will be employed at sorting and recycling facilities near the new landfill where work conditions are much safer. Many won’t. Finding work for these people may be one of the hardest parts of closing a dump.
ISWA is on a mission to close the world’s fifty largest dumpsites and replace them with engineered landfills. In 2016 they published A Roadmap to Closing Waste Dumpsites to help developing countries make the transition from dumps to engineered landfills. The report covers the political, financial, technical, environmental as well as social requirements necessary to close a dump. There are forty-nine dumpsites left on their list.
Let’s hope ISWA reaches its goal soon. Most plastic in the ocean comes from developing countries with sieve-like waste infrastructure. These countries have dumps, not landfills, and trash leaks out of open dumps. Closing the world’s remaining forty-nine largest dumps will help plug the flow of plastic entering the oceans. Landfills are an important first step in solving our ocean plastic problem, but we need to do more than find a safe place to put our plastic waste. Landfills give us time to learn how to use plastic wisely. We can all help while we learn. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up plastic. Maybe it floated in from a dump on ISWA’s list. Throw it away. Keep that plastic out of the ocean. Send it to a landfill.