Medina (2000: 52) has estimated that between 50 and 80% of the refuse generated in Third World cities is collected. The wide margin of uncertainty in this estimate and the fact that the figure is cited in many other publications are both indicators that knowledge of exactly how efficiently waste is being collected is very scanty. Wilson et al. (2009) remark that recycling rates in cities in developing countries are perhaps even more unreliable than those in the north, especially because by definition the informal sector does not measure its performance. Be that as it may, they did come up with a recycling rate in the range of 20–50% (Wilson et al. 2009: 634).
We wish we did have reliable data about the volume of waste produced and the percentages being collected and recycled (and, to measure the efficiency, the effort in time or money invested in handling the waste) but, in the absence of such data, we can only make an impressionistic estimate of the efficiency of the waste collection in both cities.Footnote 3 As an introduction to our survey, we shall sketch the respective systems of waste collection.
The formal system of solid waste collection in Belo Horizonte is a public–private partnership, in which the municipal waste disposal department is responsible for the collection and transportation of solid waste, but the management of landfills is partly outsourced to private companies and partly still under state management. The SLU (Superintendência de Limpeza Urbana, Department of Urban Cleansing) is responsible for the waste management in Belo Horizonte. Although the SLU itself is a state-owned municipal authority, it has been outsourcing many of its tasks to private contractors. Domestic waste is collected daily in the nine districts (Operational Sections) into which the city is divided, but recyclable waste is collected in only 36 neighbourhoods of these districts on one fixed day every week. In vilas, favelas, and other urban agglomerates with restricted accessibility, waste collection is carried out using handcarts in the accessible internal alleys, and garbage compactor trucks in the wider, adjacent roads. Undifferentiated waste is taken either to the sanitary landfill (CTRS) in the northern outskirts of the city or to one of the many semi-isolated landfills. The original landfill of Belo Horizonte, opened in 1975, was declared totally full and officially closed in 2007; nowadays, compost materials from the city are deposited there. In 2016, the SLU estimated that the daily collection amounted to around 2.2 thousands of tons of domestic waste, but of this only 18 tons was recyclable waste.Footnote 4
Recyclable waste is separated by households on a voluntary base, a choice that might explain the low rate of collected recyclables. Seven selected cooperatives and associations of waste-collectors receive, separate, and resell the materials. The SLU also covers the expenses of the machinery and the rent of the depots.
Alongside the formal collection of recyclable waste, the informal sector of waste collection involves scavengers, waste-collectors organized in cooperatives, waste-dealers, and resellers. Many scavengers look for recyclable materials, mostly tin cans or PET bottles, in bins, along the streets or in landfills, to resell to entrepreneurs who act as intermediaries with private factories. Waste-collectors operating in cooperatives or associations either work for the SLU in depots or, using their handcarts, collect the recyclable materials themselves from the undifferentiated waste put out for formal collection. The most lucrative materials are cardboard and plastic, since these are easily portable and better quality. Importantly, associations collaborating with the SLU are often provided with compression machinery that allows them to skip the agency of middlemen, and gives them a more competitive edge in the bargaining process. Nevertheless, most associations are loosely structured and recognize individual responsibility for the collected/selected materials to be resold. Informal waste collection, or waste collection operated independently of the formal SLU, is highly stigmatized, teetering on the brink of illegality, and hence discouraged. This attitude has hardened because of the inclusion of associations in the SLU system. In an interview, a waste-collector working at ASMARE for the last fourteen years commented that the materials collected by the SLU were poorly separated, dirty, and often virtually beyond recycling. This woman explained that people often want to help but lack the expertise to select what is and is not recyclable. Therefore, they end up making the waste-collectors’ job more complicated than it used to be, even if physically less challenging.
In Surabaya, waste collection of solid waste commences at the RT level. An RT is the smallest municipal administrative unit and is usually composed of a neighbourhood consisting of around 100 households. These households jointly pay a man or woman to go from door-to-door collecting waste, usually several times a week. This collector accumulates the waste in a pushcart and dumps it at a Tempat Pembuangan Sampah Sementara (TPS) or ‘Temporary Waste Disposal Site’, of which there are around 170 in Surabaya. At this point, the municipality takes over and municipal waste disposal department trucks transport the waste from the TPS to the final waste disposal site, a landfill on the fringes of the municipality. Initially, the municipality ran the landfill itself, but since 2012 it has hired a private company, PT Sumber Organik, to manage the landfill. Hence, the formal system of solid waste collection in Surabaya is a public–private partnership consisting of a simple chain from thousands of neighbourhoods, via the municipal waste disposal department, to a company that manages the landfill.
Composed of dozens of formal and informal roles in the waste treatment system, this practice is infinitely more complicated and varied than a formal system (Colombijn 2015). Waste-pickers (pemulung) and waste-dealers (pengepul) operate along the chain. Some waste-pickers might go from bin to bin along the thoroughfares searching for saleable waste, often specializing in one item, plastic cups for instance. More importantly, the people who collect the waste from the neighbourhoods divide their time between collecting waste and sorting it at the TPS. Other pemulung operate at the landfill or final waste disposal site. Some strongly environmentally aware neighbourhoods have erected a waste bank, at which household rubbish is collected and sorted. Directly reusable objects, like perfume and beer bottles, constantly rotate on their own circuit. Cows are herded onto the landfill to help processing organic waste.
As said, there is no way we can measure the efficiency of either the waste collection or the recycling rate in either Belo Horizonte or Surabaya.Footnote 5 However, from what we have observed, we have a good basis to surmise the following. In Belo Horizonte, the recycling rate is lower than in Surabaya, precisely because waste collection and the role of the waste-pickers in it are more formalized. In Belo Horizonte, the bulk of the materials from which the waste-pickers work is what has already been separated by the households. Naturally, this ‘proto-separation’ in the households is dependent on the goodwill of citizens and the upshot is that the majority of recyclables are only separated from the other waste on the day that the latter is collected by the municipal waste disposal department. On other days, residents tend to throw recyclables away with the rest of the rubbish instead of keeping them in their homes until the next date on which the Department of Urban Cleansing collects recyclable waste. We observed the same ‘selective selection’, occurring only on the days the municipal waste disposal department collected recyclables, in the Brazilian city of Florianópolis. As a consequence, most of the day’s recyclable waste that could have been sorted out is thrown away with the rest of the waste and never reaches the waste-pickers at all.
In Surabaya, in contrast, with the exception of the transportation of the waste from the TPS to the landfill, the state has almost totally withdrawn from waste collection. At every step in the movement of waste, somebody will be searching through the waste and selecting what can be sold. This search for recyclables by informal waste-pickers begins in the waste bins in front of the houses, even before the waste is collected. This widespread lack of regulation in Surabaya must be presumed to be the factor that makes the recycling rate there so much higher than in Belo Horizonte. Every movement of waste in Surabaya is open to market-driven private initiative.
While we feel confident that the recycling rate is considerably higher in Surabaya than in Belo Horizonte, we are less sure about the collection rate. However, it is plausible to assume that the collection rate is also higher in Surabaya than in Belo Horizonte. It is a given fact that municipal waste disposal departments in Brazil do not service poor areas (considered dangerous) or inaccessible areas (like favelas with narrow, winding alleys). Consequently, informal waste-pickers pay less attention to the poorer neighbourhoods in Belo Horizonte, preferring to work in well-to-do areas in which the waste offers richer pickings. In Indonesia, the neighbourhood organization, the RT, that is responsible for having waste collected door-to-door is ubiquitous and the pushcarts can navigate even the narrowest pathways. Judging by the efficiency of waste collection, the open market in Surabaya (the decentralized system of collection and absence of the regulation of recycling) seems to be more effective than the more centralized and formalized waste collection in Belo Horizonte. The flipside of the free market system is very apparent when we focus on the incomes earned by the waste-pickers.