Do you know where your waste ends up? What is the secret place where the garbage trucks gather to spit out mixed piles of waste? In most countries in the world this place is called landfill or garbage dump. It is also a place that can tell you a lot more about the people and and the culture than your average tourist attraction.
We were in the middle of Brazilian countryside of Caxias do Sul, the second biggest city after Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. My friend Eduardo had made an appointment with, in his own words, “a sidekick engineer” of the Rincão das Flores landfill.
We had been driving a small dirt road for some time. Just a couple of kilometers before we had passed a run down prison. The place looked like it holds the most notorious criminals of the nearby states. In front of the prison wondered a pack of “I am gonna rip your head off”-looking dogs.
“Is the landfill after or before the prison”, I asked Eduardo. “I don’t know, but maybe we should ask these guys!” he said pointing at the car that was approaching us.
They were local farmers. We should have taken the other road nearby the prison. Eduardo started the car and we got to once more try the off-road capabilities of his Renault Mégane.
We passed the prison for a second time. “Should I take some pictures?” I asked while adjusting the manual settings of my camera. “Better not”, he said.
Rincão das Flores is one of the two landfills in the city of Caxias do Sul. The opening of the landfill in 2010 was a big step towards better environmental protection in the area, since to be honest, it’s a nice landfill.
The main garbage dump consists of layers of organic household waste (e.g. food waste and diapers), polyethylene carpets and layers of clay. The carpets and the clay are most importantly there to prevent rain from intruding the layers and the resulting soup of poo-poo entering the soil, groundwater or other waterways. All the liquid resulting of decomposition is directed to a waste water treatment plant next to the landfill.
I have taken people to see landfill sites during my work in waste management. Of course, there’s a lot of stuff that does not belong to this landfill. As you can see in the picture below, there is a lot of recyclable material (read: money) around the landfill. This might be due to the lack of education on recycling or to the fact that proper recycle bins are not available.
The official webpage of the company that runs the landfill suggests that technology behind the landfill is something unique in the state but also in all of Brazil.
Now, let’s take a look at a completely different landfill situated in another “Caxias”.
Jardim Gramacho in Duque de Caxias was the site of one of the biggest open-air landfills in the world. The city is bordered by Rio de Janeiro and during it’s active use it also hosted most of Rio’s waste. Jardim Gramacho closed in 2012 after 34 years of service and is now harnessed to produce fuel from the greenhouse gases generated by the rotting waste.
More than 2500 people worked in the landfill as catadores (pickers), forming the Association of Pickers of Jardim Gramacho or ACAMJG. The landfill worked like a stock market where recycling wholesalers told the pickers what they needed, and that’s what people did to survive.
Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário) is a documentary that follows the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who collaborated with the pickers of Jardim Gramacho to form beautiful art pieces made of recyclable materials. The works were then sold and the money created was given to the pickers and to the ACAMJG.
It is one of those documentaries everyone should see and it’s also available on YouTube:
Visiting a landfill might not be as pretty as a sunset on a beach or as cool as seeing a local artist playing in a cozy coffee shop recommended by your friend. But, I can ensure it will tell you a much deeper (and smellier) story of the country’s social and political life.