"Recycling is not a religion" - a Conversation with Antonis Mavropoulos

During his recent trip to Brazil, President of ISWA was interviewed by Mara Gama of Folha de São Paulo. View the English translation of the conversation below.

5 Sep 2019 -

Mara Gama, Folha de São Paulo: What is the greenest way to treat waste?


Antonis Mavropoulos: Simply speaking, the greenest way to manage waste is the one with the minimum health and environmental impacts, that is also financially affordable for the local population and in accordance with our waste streams and human resources. That means that all those conditions should be met, if we want to speak about the most sustainable way of treating way.


Do you think it is possible for organic waste treatment and source separation to reach a large scale?


Not only it’s possible, I would say it’s necessary because if we speak about municipal solid waste, the organic fraction creates the most important environmental and health impacts. In Europe we have a lot of experience for managing organic waste with source separation at all scales, from cities of millions to communities of hundreds of people. São Paulo, as I had the opportunity to see with my eyes, has already started a very important initiative linking street markets, food banks and decentralized composting and I believe this creates a role model that deserves to be studied in all Latin American cities.


Can you name three - four experiences that you consider exemplary in waste management?


First, I would start with the unbelievable progress that China had done in closing thousands of dumpsites in the last 10 years and substituted them with modern waste management systems. Second, I think the cities of Barcelona and Milan provide an archetype of what we call integrated waste management that combines extensive recycling through source separation, mechanical, biological treatment, bio-methanization and Waste to Energy plants for the residual stream. Third, I think it’s worth to study the concept of Circular Economy as it evolved in the city of Rotterdam and sets new standards for what we call material supply chains. And finally, I would like to mention the research and innovation policy for waste management that have been developed in South Africa, a country that shows how innovation is urgently required for the poorest countries and it’s not the privilege only for the rich world.


What are the trends for waste management today?


I think we have four major trends. First, global warming that redefines the way we evaluate waste management systems and the funding mechanisms. Second, Circular Economy that stimulates waste management to be adapted to resource efficiency and Circular loops. Third, Marine Litter that transforms our perception and our strategies and policies regarding plastics. And, final but most important, the rise of the fourth industrial revolution that reshapes the way we extract, manufacture, distribute, consume and finally manage the end of life products. I think that the combination of those four trends will result in a new landscape for waste management until 2030.


In a country like Brazil, which still faces the problem of dumps, I think is not possible to imagine a uniform evolution. What are the possible models of waste management?


There is no need for a uniform evolution as long as we can make sure that we can observe steady and continuous improvements in all the areas. At large, I think Brazil needs to develop four pillars. First, safe final disposal to sanitary landfills to protect the environment and human health. Second, better recycling and reverse logistics with the contribution of the informal recyclers to advance resource recovery. Third, organic waste management practices following the example of São Paulo. And, finally, Mechanical Biological Treatment and Waste to Energy infrastructure to reduce the landfills quantities and increase energy and material recovery. Our national member ABRELPE is working with the municipality of São Paulo on a relevant model that includes an ECOPARK at its core, where all the required technologies are combined.


Waste incineration is a controversial issue because of the environmental problems it causes and the burning of resources that could be used. What is your position about it?


In Europe and Japan there are more than 1000 incinerators that do not create measurable environmental problems and they are operational for 30-40 years or more. A well operated incinerator does not create environmental problems. The problems are created if the waste input is not suitable, if the operation is problematic or if the incinerators do not properly fit to the whole waste management system. Thus, our suggestion is don’t design incinerators but design a system and see if they fit with your local targets and priorities.

The reduction in China's imports of recyclables has had a major impact on the flow of recyclables from many countries, with repercussions in the United States, Australia and Europe. In your opinion, is there a possibility of an international recyclable market or should they always be treated locally?


The more local the material cycles the better for sustainability. Organic fraction cycles are only local. Metals, papers and plastics can be local or regional. The international recycling market is still active although the plastics share has been reduced. China’s ban highlights the need to rethink why we recycle and how. To consider that the purity of materials is in most cases more important than their quantities. And it obliged us to face recycling not as a religion but as it is: one of the available options with its own risks, costs and benefits.


The original interview conducted by Mara Gama appeared on the Folha de São Paulo website. View it here.



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