Waste management in Brazil

15th January 2024

Stella Consonni reports on the existing legal framework and the main challenges


In 2010, when the first national solid waste policy (PNRS) came into force, recycling was only an option, bearing in mind that, as a developing country, Brazil already suffers social and economic difficulties.

In 2022, approximately 82 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) were generated, representing 224,000 tonnes per day or 1kg per person per day. Only 3-4% of this was recovered, with over 90% sent to either appropriate landfills (50%) or dumps (40%). There are around 2,500 waste dumps, 100 million people without proper sewerage and 35 million people without potable water (Abrelpe and MDR, 2022).

Brazil is the fifth largest producer of methane in the world. In 2020, the waste management sector alone was responsible for 16% (over three million tonnes) of total methane emissions in Brazil, mostly resulting from inappropriate disposal of waste and treatment of industrial trade effluent and domestic sewage (SEEG).

On the bright side, a robust legal framework has regulated the sector, guiding it towards a sustainable infrastructure. More recently, the national waste management plan, amendments to the PNRS and relevant laws have cemented social inclusion and financial incentives. Moreover, both public sanitation and waste management is now covered by the national sanitation law.

Main challenges

  • Disparity among the five regions regarding population size, generation of waste, access to separated collection services and residual waste collection
  • Heavy reliance on landfill and/or dumps
  • Lack of public awareness
  • Poor infrastructure (lack of separated collection services and material segregation facilities)
  • High level of non-compliance with the producer responsibility obligations, owing to lack of enforcement
  • A public health/ sanitation system (including potable water and proper sewerage) that doesn’t cover the entire population.

The existing legal framework

The PNRS provided the foundation and principles on which the sector is based. Since then, it has been amended and complemented by the national waste management plan, the national sanitation law and other relevant legislation, adding financial incentives and transparency to a robust legal framework.

PNRS – Brazil’s first national waste management law

The PNRS established producer responsibility as a shared responsibility, where producers, municipalities, states and consumers of post-consumer packaging and/or products share obligations.

Producer obligation – reverse logistic systems

The reverse logistic (RL) system is the main instrument of the producer responsibility approach. It represents the logistics of the lifecycle of post-consumer packaging and/or products, from collection to their return back to industry for reuse, recovery or recycling. It aims to ensure that materials are collected, recovered and reintegrated into the manufacturing process, diverting waste from landfill.

Municipality and state obligation

Brazil is a federative republic, where states and municipalities have their own sphere of power and can design their own laws if they do not breach national laws. Under the PNRS, states and municipalities must develop waste management plans/laws to access funds from the national treasury.

Social inclusion – legal recognition of cooperatives and ‘catadores’ with financial support

Cooperatives and catadores (informal rubbish collectors) were given legal priority over private companies in the waste management infrastructure set by the PNRS. This was an important social aspect, as it formalised the role of catadores, along with financial/ technical support. This becomes especially important as the PNRS requires the mandatory closure of all dumps.

Currently, most cooperatives still operate with minimal equipment and require major financial/ technical support to improve efficiency. Most have a conveyor belt for manual separation and a baler, with no segregation equipment.

An exception is the Coopercaps cooperative in south-east Brazil, which has two mechanical segregation units, similar to material recycling facilities. Recently, Coopercaps founded a training centre, which provides on-the-job training on the segregation unit for cooperatives and catadores. It is the first of its kind in Brazil.

It is anticipated that more individual catadores will register and join cooperatives in the next few years, thanks to legal recognition and financial support. This should improve sorting capacity/efficiency and consequently increase the quantity and quality of materials reaching the recycling industry, raising recycling levels overall (Cempre).

The national waste management plan: targets and challenges

The national waste management plan is an important tool of the PNRS, published in 2022 to be renewed every four years. It sets increasing targets from 2024 to 2040. Initially considered too ambitious, it is now seen as a vital drive that engaged all parties in shared responsibility and spearheaded development of a sustainable waste management infrastructure.

Disparity between regions – five countries in one

Not all municipalities provided residual waste collection services – 7%, mostly rural cities in the poorest regions, did not. And only 75% offered separated collection services, predominantly in the wealthiest regions. Nevertheless, these figures also show a consistent (although slow) improvement (Abrelpe, 2022).

The difference per region is significant, but not surprising. The wealthiest regions (south and south-east) generated approximately 75% of total municipal solid waste, with the south-east alone generating half. These regions also had higher residual collection levels, sent to appropriate landfills, and a higher percentage of municipalities in these regions offered separated collection services.

By contrast, poorer regions generated less waste, with lower levels of residual waste collection. More than half of the waste collected was disposed of inappropriately, and barely 50% of municipalities provided separated collection services, which are three to five times more expensive than residual waste collection. Studies have showed that the tonnage of recyclables captured via separated collection services is typically low, so for many municipalities they are not financially sustainable. Moreover, ‘triagem’ (cooperatives and/or private companies) and recycling facilities are mostly concentrated in wealthier regions, affecting transport costs for poorer municipalities, especially rural ones. This highlights the importance of not only public awareness campaigns but also of infrastructure expansion (Cempre).

The circular economy approach – a sneak peek

It is recognised that the extraction/processing of raw materials is responsible for a significant amount of biodiversity loss and climate change impact. Brazil is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of plastic, producing approximately 500 billion single-use plastic items annually.

Draft legislation for both the circular economy and plastics in the circular economy was produced in 2022 – it is considered high priority and expected to come into play within two years.

Potential environmental, social and economic benefits

Abrelpe estimates that at least R$14bn is lost annually, through lack of an appropriate waste management system. The potential for a significant increase in job opportunities, enhancing quality of life for many people, is also emphasised. In 2022, the plastic recycling industry earned R$4bn and employed 14,700 people (Abiplast). Abrelpe estimated that, by meeting the PNRS targets by 2040, Brazil could prevent emissions of 30 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

In a nutshell

The sector continues to face major challenges. Although slow, progress has been made, aided by a robust legal framework that emphasises the potential benefits of a sustainable waste management infrastructure .

The reliance on landfill is still significant. However, financial incentives and scrutiny of compliance with producer responsibility and PNRS targets will help. Further infrastructure investments are expected across all regions, including disposal alternatives (such as energy from waste, anaerobic digestion and large composting facilities). Although appropriate landfills will remain the main disposal route until infrastructure catches up, dependence should decrease over time.

Circular economy laws will come into force soon, bringing more strength to the framework and moving the sector towards a sustainable infrastructure.

The opportunity for growth is evident. The existing legal framework is pushing the waste management industry in the right direction. The economic, environmental and social benefits it will bring to Brazil are substantial.

Stella Consonni PIEMA is an independent environmental consultant and translator

Image credit: Shutterstock


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