Fifteen years of strong economic growth in Brazil has increased citizens’ consumption of goods along with their disposable income. According to recent data, Brazil is the largest world market for personal care products, and the third largest world market for electronic products, pet care, and home cleaning products. With at least 60 percent of the population now considered middle class, consumption will only increase—and along with it, waste.

Brazil’s economic growth is a popular story, and for good reason: the GDP per capita variation from 2003 to 2012 in the country was a remarkable 20.8 percent. But if there’s a downside to this good news, it’s that the country’s waste generation, linked to this growth, is also on the rise. The Brazilian Association of Waste Management Companies (ABRELPE) calculates that from 2003 to 2012, Brazil generated almost 63 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW)—a 21 percent growth over the previous 10-year period. During the same period, the population growth was 9.65 percent—waste generation increased two times more than the population.

Waste collection procedures have not yet caught up with this drastic growth. Almost 10 percent of the MSW generated in Brazil is not even collected. Almost half of the MSW is going to inadequate disposal sites like opens dumps and uncontrolled landfills, and only 3 percent is recycled effectively.

To rectify this, ABRELPE estimates that Brazil needs a $2.75 billion investment in modern solid waste management. This investment need generates significant business opportunities if federal, state, and municipal governments create the right environment to attract the private sector.

A legislative remedy

The first steps toward this solution have already been taken. In 2010, the National Waste Law (no. 12.305/2010) was passed to establish a series of new procedures for waste management. The law requires waste management companies to develop integrated waste plans; introduces the waste hierarchy principle; requires some sectors to implement a producer responsibility system; and creates many other important incentives and directives.

Once implemented, this law will:

  • improve natural resource conservation;
  • promote economic development within the industry by stimulating new businesses related to recycling, recovery, and treatment activities;
  • improve environmental and public health by the closure of open dumps and inadequate disposal sites by August 2014;
  • promote social inclusion; and
  • mitigate climate change effects by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

With this law, Brazil has an opportunity to achieve new waste management standards through systems, technologies, and practices tailored to local characteristics and demands. This leap forward may ultimately break the existing paradigm, moving a linear waste management system to a cyclical system featuring recycling, reuse, and recovery.