With the Olympic Games just months away, Rio de Janeiro has a problem: rubbish. Hundreds of tonnes of unprocessed waste flow into the Guanabara Bay every year. The problem isn’t new but the prospect of Olympic swimmers and sailors taking to Rio’s contaminated waters have put the issue in the spotlight.
Previous promises from Rio officials to “regenerate Rio’s magnificent waterways” through investment in sanitation have not delivered results. Could the Dutch environment ministry have better luck? In an ambitious and diplomatically unorthodox move it has pulled together some of the country’s leading waste experts, including businesses and NGOs, to propose a variety of innovative solutions under the name Clean Urban Delta Initiative
“Guanabara Bay is so polluted that we need all hands on deck to solve this sooner rather than later,” says Yvon Wolthuis, a sustainability expert and co-developer of the Clean Urban Delta Initiative. “Plus, there’s so much happening in an urban bay environment like Rio that you can’t just rely on one governance model or technology to fix it.”
The initiative has backing from the World Bank and the Dutch Development Bank and aims to showcase Dutch water management expertise. It lays out 20 separate proposals to deal with Guanabara Bay’s water pollution and solid waste challenges.
The list of proposed solutions ranges from installing temporary water treatment plants and purifying water via “constructed wetlands” to creating carpets from recovered nylon fishing nets. The ideas put forward by the consortium are intended to be low-cost, high impact and quick to implement, says Wolthius.
One of these proposed solutions is a project to help Rio’s litter pickers get more value from plastic waste. Based on a collaboration between a group of local designers, environmental charity WWF and the non-profit Plastic Soup Foundation, the project revolves around a low-cost plastic shredder and moulding machine that waste pickers can use to make recyclable products like plastic statues.
An initial pilot is planned in a favela community on the Carioca River, close to the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. Daniël Poolen (nicknamed the “Eco Prof” thanks to a science show he presents on Dutch TV) is one of the driving forces behind the project. “Thousands of tourists climb up the hill beside this community every day,” says Poolen, “if the waste pickers can shred and mould the plastics they usually sell on, they can earn ten or twenty times what they earn now.”
He concedes that the Carioca River is only one of about 18 garbage-choked rivers that feed into Guanabara Bay. However, if local people see that money can be made by recycling plastic that would otherwise end up in the river, then they will be incentivizsed to do the same along Rio’s other river tributaries too, he says.
The problem is money. The price-tag for the litter picker scheme – which also includes an eco-trail along the Carioca River, with local people offering paid tours, and the renovation of Rio’s key water basins – is about 4m real (£700,000). YetBrazil is suffering its worst recession for decades and Rio’s state government, which is responsible for the Guanabara Bay’s clean-up, is struggling. As a result, the Plastic Soup Foundation is having to search out private funds to get the project off the ground.
Dutch dredging company Royal IHC, a member of the consortium, has run into a similar barrier. It has developed a low-cost, versatile vessel specifically designed for urban bay areas such as Guanabara. The catamaran-style “waste harvester”uses a system of interchangeable barges and on-board storage to continuously harvest surface waste without having to frequently return to shore to unload.
“We hoped that Rio would be a good case study to pilot this new technology, but the funding isn’t there”, says company spokersperson Marjolein van Noort.
Another consortium member, Dutch engineering consultancy firm Tauw, experienced similar difficulties. Its solution is based on the construction of small polypropylene tubes on the riverbed and a permeable grid above that catch and store floating rubbish. Despite interest from the Rio state government, the funding to install the firm’s “eco-barrier” wasn’t forthcoming.
Henry Raben, head of site development at Tauw, estimates that installing the system on the six most polluted rivers feeding into the bay would cost about £4.6m. “But the clock is now running. To be ready for the Olympics, we’d ideally have installed the geotubes about six months ago.”
Brazil is a “very complex” market, says Wolthuis, who takes heart from the fact that the Dutch consortium’s package of solutions offers a template for clean-up efforts in other polluted deltas around the world.
“Our focus has been on Rio, but these ideas could just as easily be applied to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta or Abidjan. None of these urban delta areas are currently addressing their waste problems from a joined-up, holistic point of view,” she argues.