Recycling in Latin America

One of the consequences of industrialization is the production of enormous amounts of waste products.  These could be the residues that are accumulated during the manufacturing process as well as ancillary products of consumption (such as newspapers, cartons, cans, batteries, tires, etc).  These waste products may cause environmental, pollution and health problems if they are properly disposed of.  For some of these waste products, recycling can be an effective way of management.

To promote the practice of recycling, both rewards and punishments can be used.  The simplest form of a reward is to educate the people about recycling as a basic obligation of responsible citizens to preserve the environment.  Sometimes, monetary incentive can be attached.  For example, in some places, beverage containers require a small deposit which can be redeemed upon presentation of the container to recycling centers; even if the consumers themselves do not bother to return the bottles, there may be an ancillary system of small enterprise bottle collectors who do so.  On the punishment side, there may be rules and regulations against the disposal of certain types of products, with the appropriate law enforcement mechanisms in place.  External social pressure can also be applied to make turn non-recyclers into social pariahs.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Latina study.  This is a survey of 48,885 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Lima and Venezuela, conducted during 2001.  During this survey, the respondents were shown the statement: "I recycle paper, bottles and so on."  According to the TGI Latina study, 24.0% of the respondents indicated that they completely agreed with the this statement.

In the next chart, we show the breakdown of the responses by country.  Clearly, there are wide variations in the practice of recycling across countries, being a function of the system of rewards and punishments that are in place.  The Latin American leader is Brazil.  According to the Brazilian Aluminum Association, about 80% of the 9.5 billion aluminum cans sold in 2000 were recycled.  This would put Brazil right among the ranks of world recycling leaders such as Japan.  Whereas Japan's system is based upon responsible citizenship, Brazil uses economic incentives.  In the major metropolitan areas, there are many recycling centers which buy back recyclable materials for cash or discount foods.  An enterprising aluminum can collector can make as much as five times the minimum wage.

In the next chart, we show the breakdown of the responses by age/sex.  Recycling behavior is more prevalent among older people.  These data informs no further on this matter.  We do not know if one's sense of citizen responsiblity grows as one ages, or homemakers are more budget conscious, or any number of other hypotheses.

In the next table, we show the breakdown of the responses by socio-economic level.  Recycling behavior is more prevalent among the lower economic class.  On one hand, one would expect civics to be taught and preached better among the better educated and more affluent.  On the other hand, the economic incentives from redeeming recyclable materials will mean so much more to the poor.  These data would therefore suggest that recycling in Latin America today functions through economic incentives for recyclers.

A most interesting story about the business of garbage picking in Mexico City is found in The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now by Alma Guillermoprieto.  A megapolis of twenty million people obviously generates a staggering amount of garbage a day.  As the garbage is transferred from receptable to streets to transfer points to garbage dumps, impromptu recycling takes place.  At the garbage dumps, garbage picking is an organized business.  Guillermoprieto summarizes the life and times of Rafael Gutiérrez Moreno, known as El Líder of the garbage pickers (pepenadores).  He consolidated position by distributing large amounts of bribes to all levels of government and he provided the leading political party (PRI) with large turnout of voters and demonstrators.  In turn, he ran his fiefdom as an absolute dictatorship.  While he built himself an extravagant mansion but he also rewarded his followers with good housing and vacations.  He was a lecher who took his pick of young girls within the community, and declared that he wanted to be father of one hundred and eighty children.  Finally, El Líder was shot dead in his bed by his wife, whose sisters and nieces had been raped by him.  Such was the story about garbage.

(posted by Roland Soong, 2/23/2002)

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