World’s Largest Open-air Landfill Closed: Threats and Opportunities

The world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho (“Gramacho Gardens”), located at Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro closed last June 2012. This was few weeks before the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. This landfill received about 9,000 to 10,000 tons of rubbish per day and reached up to 300 feet high across 14 million square feet. [1] For a city that has been an excellent tourist destination, this might sound absurd. But Jardim Gramacho has been in operation for 34 years and like other big landfills, it had been oozing toxic chemicals that threaten the nearby community and the sea. This resulted in added pollution of Guanabara Bay. [2]

The closing of the landfill had been postponed several times and finally advanced in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics alongside the UN Rio+20. [1] This was also done in abidance with the Kyoto Protocol and this act alone is said to potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,400 tons per year. [3] Rio, being one of the pilot cities for the newly developed international standard for inventorying GHGs-the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories (GPC), has found that the biggest contributors for its overall emissions are transport (39%) and waste (19%). [3] Closing of this landfill is therefore a critical step to meeting the city’s goal of reducing 20% of its emissions by 2020 based on 2005 levels.

But then where is the garbage from Jardim Gramacho sent? It was moved to the high-tech Seropedica landfill where wastes get treated and transformed into recycled water. [1] This new landfill is located 70 kilometers away from the city and is expected to have a 30-year lifetime and this presents opportunities for the recovery and use of landfill gas (LFG). [4] Since landfills have their own carrying capacities, continuous dumping of enormous wastes into this new landfill might later on cause further pollution problems at this site and the city will have to take necessary actions again. Currently, the Jardim Grimacho landfill is being used for biofuel production. The city made a deal with the Petrobras Company to purchase the gas and use it in running one of its refineries.

It is not surprising that environmentalists welcomed this act of closing Jardim Grimacho landfill, but not everyone is satisfied with it. The catadores, favela residents who make a living from recycling, for example, are challenged by the loss of income source from this landfill. There are about 5,000 catadores who depend on Jardim Gramacho for their livelihood. They generally earn about the minimum wage in Brazil (roughly $268/month) but this earning has increased about two-folds since they formed the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho that enabled them to create a decentralized recycling and to secure professional recognition for their services. [5] Despite being retrained and compensated, the catadores were still better off with their own recycling system. A solution to one can be a problem for another and meeting the demand for both is not a simple task.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujyvuD4HaU8

Meg Daupan
M.S. Natural Resources and Environment ’16


[1] Brocchetto, M. and A. Ansari. 5 June 2012. Landfill’s closure changing lives in Rio. http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/05/world/americas/brazil-landfill-closure/

[2] BBC News. 3 June 2012. Brazil’s biggest rubbish dump closes in Rio de Janeiro. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-18318714

[3] Fong, W. and R. Schleeter. 8 December 2014. Hundreds of cities poised to replicate Rio’s approach to measuring and reducing emissions. http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/12/

[4] CCAC. Solid waste management in Rio de Janeiro. http://waste.ccacknowledge.net/sites/default/files/CCAC_images/city_fact_sheet/Rio_MSW_FactSheet_0.pdf

[5] Benton-Short, L. and J. Short. 2013. Critical Introductions to Urabanism and the City. 2nd ed. NY:Routledge.

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