The Discarded in Rio

For those of you who don’t know my research, I have been conducting research/working in solid waste management (i.e, trash, garbage) for over 20 years and researching how that ends up in our ocean (i.e., marine debris) for 15 years. Tragically when Malaysian Flight MH370 disappeared into the ocean, when they began looking for the plane, they kept finding debris. But the debris they found had nothing to do with the plane – it was just the normal debris we see in the ocean. These items brought the issue of marine debris to the forefront for some people who had never thought of it before. And sadly, the tragic story of Flight MH370 is still not fully known. I tell this story because events, sometimes tragic and sometimes happy, can bring attention to an issue. Some of you referenced these events as “trigger” events in your quiz answers (based upon the book, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was one of these events).

That brings me back to this post. Some of you may have heard about the pollution in Guanabara Bay near Rio. It was more publicized because of the Olympics – another very public “trigger” event. Everyone hoped that since the Bay would be used for the sailing and swimming, it would get cleaned up. Much of the sewer systems drain directly into the bay or from rivers into the bay. And it is also full of trash. The favelas, or areas of poverty, are communities that have grown organically, so there is no easy way to put in any infrastructure. Waste is simply put on the ground or into water courses (since then it will disappear) because there is no easy way way to get it out. People are worried about things like their next meal, so the trash is often less of a worry (understandably so). We are finding as engineers that in middle-income countries with rapidly developing economies, we are seeing a lag in the development of infrastructure. Yet, infrastructure is not likely going to look the same as it does here, even when it does get developed. Since people choose to purchase various materials and items, then they also decide what to discard or throw away, our solid waste generation is very much impacted by our culture and social structures.

A short film by Annie Costner (daughter of Kevin Costner of Dances with Wolves and other movie fame) called The Discarded, has, in my opinion, done a good job of showing some of the issues with solid waste (and wastewater) in places like Rio de Janeiro. There is no “away” here and there is no “away” there. The end proposes zero waste. What do you think of this concept? Is it achievable? If the Olympics and the tragic landfill event shown in the movie didn’t help this situation in Rio, is there something else that will? What is needed to get to the tipping point? What are some solutions or mitigation strategies you would recommend?

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One thought on “The Discarded in Rio

  1. After learning about the solid waste management system over the summer I believe that we can get really close to zero waste. The people and the government have made a long way way since dumping trash into backyards and in city streets. Recycling and composting habits are increasing and I personally find those bins in my house being filled more than the trashcan. A solution I’ve heard before that may be expensive but will eliminate waste being collected on land is to gather waste and “dump” it into outer space. Of course it will be more expensive, but we can make better use for the land not used to just hold trash.

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