Cities and Urbanization

Track your trash: how São Paulo is reducing waste with technology

Garbage recycler Marilene Barbosa, 44, throws a bag of trash onto a pile under the Glicerio viaduct in downtown Sao Paulo March 14, 2014. Brazil generates 250,000 tons of waste every day, according to official estimates, and the city of Sao Paulo is the biggest contributor to that with 19,000 tons. Under the Glicerio viaduct, workers known as "catadores" select material to send to recycling centers, amounting up to some 100 tons each month. Picture taken March 14, 2014. REUTERS/Nacho Doce (BRAZIL - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY) - GM1EA4N0A4F01

Sorting out the trash in South America's megacity Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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More than 2 billion tons of waste is generated around the world every year – and disposing of it presents a huge challenge. In Brazil, for example, 41.3% of all waste is improperly disposed of, which has enormous impact on public health and the environment.

São Paulo – one of the largest metropolises in the world with 12.5 million inhabitants and more than 300,000 registered companies – generates 20,000 tons of waste per day, accounting for 8% of all waste in Brazil. In April 2019, the city enacted a law to direct its waste management policies using data on public and private waste management.

Waste Generation Is Rising Globally
Image: World Bank/Bloomberg

The law requires all companies and buildings in the municipality to declare the waste they generate and who they hire to transport, treat and dispose of it. Along with data on water, energy and floor space used in waste management as well as the number of employees and collaborators – is then analysed and made publicly available with the help of blockchain software provided for free by a local start-up.

The program – named CTR-E RGG (Electronic Generator Waste Transportation Control) – is expected to reduce the shipment of waste to landfills by 18% and save up to $30 million annually, as well as create opportunities for private waste management businesses.

And it’s working. Before the programme, only 3% of São Paulo’s waste was recycled, while just 16,000 of the city’s 300,000 companies hired a specialized manager for the transport, treatment and disposal of their waste. In the law’s first 90 days, this number jumped to 35,000 companies. Before the law, there were 80 licensed waste management and transportation companies; now, 400 unlicensed companies are seeking permits, licenses and other necessary qualifications.

Now hiring: more companies in São Paulo are employing private waste managers.

With the help of technology – software, smartphone apps, QR codes on containers, dumpsters and trucks – São Paulo public authorities and businesses are able to locate, integrate and share more than 100 different waste treatment solutions. More trash is being recycled and reused. And all of this was achieved without a single fine being issued in the first three months.

The next goal is to include the municipalities around the city of São Paulo, which, together with the state capital, generate 15% of all waste generated in Brazil. In fact, if greater São Paulo were a country, it would be the 55th-most populous in the world at 21.5 million inhabitants in an area of ​​7,946.84 m2. This shows how such a solution – legislation, technology and enforcement – could be scaled to solve the world’s waste problem.

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Waste will continue to exist – and continue to have an impact on the environment and on society. But while it can be difficult for society to keep up with technological advances, the example of São Paulo shows technological advances, combined with legislation and commitment, can help us keep up with global challenges like waste.

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Cities and UrbanizationFourth Industrial Revolution
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