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Plastic polluter: Brazil recycles 'almost nothing'

Agence France-Presse
Plastic polluter: Brazil recycles 'almost nothing'
Men work in the recycling of plastic bags at CoopFuturo, a sorting collective which receives rubbish from the local government collection service and then sells the material to specialized recycling companies, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 21, 2019.
AFP/Carl De Souza

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Standing among sacks of used supermarket shopping bags, soft drink bottles and detergent containers, Evelin Marcele is scornful of Brazil's efforts to recycle plastic waste.

"Almost nothing," said the 40-year-old director of CoopFuturo, a sorting center for recyclable material in Rio de Janeiro, where plastic makes up 60 percent of the roughly 120 tonnes of garbage delivered to the facility every month.

Brazil is the fourth biggest producer of plastic rubbish in the world, beaten only by the United States, China and India, according to a recent report published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

But the Latin American country recycles just 1.28 percent of the 11.4 million tonnes it generates every year, which the WWF said was well below the global average of nine percent.

An estimated 7.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in landfills.

"People are consuming more, generating more garbage and the governments didn't prepare the cities with the infrastructure that was required to deal with this problem," Anna Lobo of WWF-Brazil told AFP.

"Ninety percent of Brazil's population has heard about sustainability and say they understand the problems in the environment. In reality few people change their habits." 

The world currently produces more than 300 million tonnes of plastics annually, and there are at least five trillion plastic pieces floating in our oceans, scientists have estimated.  

At a UN meeting in Kenya in March nations committed to "significantly reduce" single-use plastics over the next decade. 

But Brazil is "way behind," said Marcele as CoopFuturo workers wearing black gloves rummaged through a pile of rubbish bags to find material that could be recycled. 

More government investment in infrastructure -- such as sorting and recycling plants -- and individual action was needed.

"Infrastructure, help -- we don't have either," she complained. 

Political leaders "are not worried about this, they're worried about other things."

Bad habits 

Brazilians are huge consumers of throwaway plastic, particularly carrier bags which are free in much of the country and are offered for even the smallest purchase. 

At supermarkets in Rio de Janeiro plastic bags are often lined with a second one to ensure they do not break. 

Most people do not bother with reusable shopping bags that are on display and cost as little as 5.50 reais ($1.35). 

Buying a fresh juice at one of the ubiquitous bars in the beachside city results in the use of at least one plastic cup and lid -- and a plastic bag to carry it in.

A take-away meal is often accompanied by a plastic packet of plastic cutlery and a plastic carrier bag. 

"Right now I don't have any other way of taking my shopping home," said Israel Washington as he sat at a bar next to several plastic bags full of groceries.

"I should have a (reusable) bag with me but I don't."

But he also blamed the government.

"Their focus isn't the environment, they are more worried about arming people."

Banning plastic 

Legislation introduced in parts of Brazil has had some success in forcing Brazilians to adopt better habits.

Rio recently prohibited the use of plastic drinking straws, while Brazil's biggest city of Sao Paulo has banned petroleum-based plastic bags.

The Senate is now considering a proposal to outlaw the manufacture, distribution and sale of throwaway plastic, including straws and carrier bags, across the country.

CoopFuturo is one of 22 collectives involved in sorting rubbish in Rio, a city of more than six million people.

They receive rubbish from the local government's Coleta Seletiva, or Selective Collection, service and then sell the sorted material to specialized recycling companies.

But of the 40 percent of household waste that is potentially recyclable, Coleta Seletiva and independent collectors only get seven percent, an official said, blaming households for not separating their garbage properly.  

Environmental activists are trying to encourage Brazilians to take responsiblity for their waste. 

But many people still "don't recognize the problem that rubbish causes in the sea," said Paulo Salomao, a biologist at Rio's aquarium.

"So far people don't have the awareness to change their habits," said WWF's Lobo. 

"People don’t stop to think about it."

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