Changing concepts of waste | Natural Language Institute

Changing concepts of waste

Written by Antônio Alberto Mazali | Teacher - 27/may/2016 #Lifestyle

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People often think of waste as a hygiene problem. However, this issue is not as simple as it seems to be at first glance. As a matter of fact, many developed countries, such as the Netherlands, consider waste to be a problem of development and governance, not hygiene.

First of all, we must define what waste is. In general, waste is referred to as material or substances which are no longer useful for the purpose for which they were produced, like packaging, food, industrial products, and so on. Organic materials excreted by humans, animals, or plants are a particular kind of waste, but those are not focused on by this article.

In the 19 th century, when people lived less concentrated in big cities than today, and when waste was completely biodegradable, the obvious solution for getting rid of waste was its removal to some distant place, in a public site. Its complete disintegration was accomplished naturally over time. In that century, waste was seen as a problem of hygiene, even by developed countries.

Would this sort of solution still be valid? Big Brazilian cities, like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasília, adopt exactly our forefathers’ process, placing waste in public sites, officially called an “aterro sanitário” but more properly named “lixão” by the population. There are more than one of these “lixões” in Brasília, where children and adults are mixed together, over a pile of waste, looking for paper, metal, and glass. Whatever they collect is sold to some local company that receives the materials and resells them to be recycled by someone else. Surrounding these piles of waste, shanty towns usually develop.

In the Netherlands, waste collection has been modernized. The main characteristic of the modernization process is the conceptual shift. For Dutch people, waste management has changed from being a problem of hygiene to being a problem of development and governance. Waste is not something to be removed, but something to be treated as a complex of different materials, which require proper management.

According to this concept, waste can be completely recyclable, either non-degradable waste, like plastic, that is converted into raw materials, or biodegradable waste, like food, that is converted in fertilizer. The process does not require a selective collection system. Even mixed waste can be sorted into its component materials in a center with appropriate machinery that does the most unpleasant part of the work.

This technology is being presented to sectors of Brazilian civil society and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) by some representative Dutch NGOs. This type of center could be implemented in Brazil by workers organized in a cooperative system. If such a project like that were implemented in Brazil, two big problems would be solved: first, the poor people that work in a pile of waste could work inside the center, as cooperative members, thus improving their quality of life. Secondly, the shame of having people living from “lixões” would be extinguished.


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