Circular Economy

How one Argentinian city overhauled its waste management to tackle one of the world's largest rubbish dumps 

Bariloche’s approach to improving waste management took several phases.

Bariloche’s approach to improving waste management took several phases. Image: Reuters/Enrique Marcarian

Reinier van der Lely
Program Manager, Delterra
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Circular Economy

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • The Argentinian city of San Carlos de Bariloche was declared one of the 50 largest rubbish dumps in the world back in 2021.
  • While Bariloche welcomed hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, the city lacked a sufficient waste management system.
  • Municipal authorities teamed up with nonprofit Delterra to create a more sustainable and circular system with higher recycling rates.

In 2021, San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina had a dismal recycling rate and the city’s waste site was declared one of the 50 largest rubbish dumps globally by CNN.

A lakeside town in the foothills of the Andes, Bariloche welcomed hundreds of thousands of tourists per year. But the city lacked an integrated, efficient waste management system, let alone a more sustainable or “circular” system enabling recycling and reuse.

No single intervention could fix Bariloche’s waste management – improvement required a holistic approach. In partnership with Rethinking Recycling, a programme run by the global nonprofit Delterra, Bariloche was able to comprehensively evaluate its waste management system.

How the city overhauled its waste management

The city did so using Delterra’s proprietary Circular Cities framework, which allows municipalities to pinpoint gaps in their waste system and create an action plan to make waste management both financially and environmentally sustainable.

“Delterra’s approach has organized our actions and helped us make progress,” said Bariloche’s Mayor Gustavo Gennuso. ”Faced with a highly complex problem, [Delterra’s] approach tackles it by steps whose effectiveness can be measured and consolidated.”

The Circular Cities framework maps the dimensions of waste management into two categories – performance drivers and performance enablers.

Performance drivers are tangible practices that directly impact waste management: think of things like waste collection, sorting, and selling to off takers, while performance enablers are activities that form a basis for successful implementation, such as a clear waste management strategy, regulatory framework and capability building for city employees.

A Framework for Circular Waste Management
Delterra's framework for circular waste management. Image: Delterra

Bariloche’s approach to improving waste management took several phases. First, the city worked with a Delterra team to pinpoint its waste management issues through site visits, focus groups and drawing on performance benchmarks, as well as waste and cost flow analyses.

Next, the city identified lagging dimensions with high potential for improvement. For instance, as the city grew larger, collection routes had become too long, resulting in patchy service. Bariloche relied on an informal sector of waste workers to separate its recyclables: it subsidized their work but had no formal contract with them, and operations were inefficient.

Based on the analysis, Bariloche has been able to design solutions addressing these areas. The city is now implementing behaviour change activation programmes that target both individual citizens and businesses such as hotels and restaurants, aimed at convincing them to prioritize recycling.

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It is also making operational and infrastructural improvements, streamlining collection routes, upgrading sorting centres and planning for a managed landfill. In addition, it has signed a formal contract with informal waste workers.

Thus far, in a pilot application of these measures, the city has observed clear improvement across various dimensions of waste management. The recycling rate in the city’s two pilot areas has doubled, and the city plans to expand its pilot recycling programme to 55% of the population by 2025. This is slated to improve municipal solid waste recycling rates from 1% to 10%.

Bariloche is now working with Delterra to scale its new waste management programme citywide. The city has launched a big generator collection route that will scale recyclables collection from 60 tons per year to 600 tons per year by the end of 2024.

"Faced with a problem of great complexity, [Delterra’s] approach tackles it by steps that can be measured in their effectiveness and consolidated”

Gustavo Gennuso, Mayor of Bariloche

The capacity of Bariloche’s recyclables sorting centre will be expanded to support increased material processing, with changes set to take place by mid-2023. The city has also officially recognized the waste worker group ARB as a cooperative, signing a productivity-based contract with them.

The Circular Cities framework recognizes that there is no quick fix for waste management. The improvements Bariloche implemented across each of these dimensions – whether generation and source separation or collection, sorting and treatment – represent critical first steps on the city’s path towards an efficient, circular and integrated waste management system.

As the Bariloche’s mayor put it, “The biggest challenge is to convince all the necessary actors that they have a specific role to play and that if one fails, all of them will fail.”

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That said, knowing where to start is critical. As Bariloche learned, cities looking to improve their waste management can do so by identifying which performance drivers and enablers offer clear opportunities for improvement that will create cascading benefits for the rest of the system.

Amid the ongoing UN negotiations for a global plastics treaty, governments are reminded of the necessity of maintaining effective municipal waste management systems. Doing so will require a coordinated, comprehensive approach – as Bariloche’s circular recycling overhaul shows.

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