Advancing Sustainable Waste Management (SWM) in Latin America and Disseminating the Results to Other Developing Regions

President's Global Innovation Fund
Nickolas J. Themelis
Additional locations: 
Beijing, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Amman, Mumbai

The transition from non-regulated disposal of solid wastes to Sustainable Waste Management (SWM) is a major and pressing environmental issue for rapidly growing urban centers. Academic institutions can play a very important role in advancing waste management technologies and, equally important, in informing the public and policymakers as to the need and means for doing so. Since its formation in 1995, the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) has conducted research and educated dozens of engineers and scientists in the area of waste management (see list of 2001-2014 Theses after References). In 2002, EEC founded, with the help of the U.S. Energy Recovery Council, the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT) that by now has sister organizations in thirteen nations, including China and India. Five of the most active are in Brazil, China, Germany (E.U), India, and the U.S.

Principal Investigator

Nickolas J. Themelis
Stanley Thompson Prof. Emeritus; Director, Earth Engineering Center

In 2013, EEC was awarded a PGIF planning grant that allowed us to organize, in collaboration with the Columbia Global Centers (CGC), one workshop in Rio de Janeiro (August 29, 2014) and a second in Santiago of Chile (Sept. 2 2014), and also participate in several waste management meetings in Latin America and the Caribbean region. The workshops were attended by over two hundred people, were co-funded by KCI Company, in Rio, and Universidad del Desarollo (UDD), in Santiago, and led to the formation of the organization WTERT-Chile, headed by Prof. Alex Godoy, Director of Sustainability and Resources group at UDD of Chile; Prof. Godoy is a co-PI in the proposed Project.

Another outcome of the planning grant is the development of WTERT-Argentina, to be headed by Prof. Hugo Nielsen of University of San Martin. Discussions are already under way for the formation of academic-industry organizations in other Latina America and Caribbean nations and Prof. Nickolas Themelis was invited to address a meeting of senior waste managers, in Jamaica, organized by the Inter-American Development Bank. Another outcome of the planning stage was the conduct of a 2014 M.S. thesis (Andres Estrada), at Columbia, on the application of a waste-to-energy low cost technology developed by WTERT-China.

Part of the problem of advancing waste management in developing countries is the need for planning, policies, and funding for essential infrastructure. Another part is lack of credible information to policymakers and the public. Academic institutions in a country 3 can help in different ways, as has been demonstrated by the EEC in the U.S. The EEC studies have shown that there are nations at a relatively lower GDP/capita who are doing a much better job in managing their wastes and recovering valuable resources because they have in place better planning and regulations.

The objectives of this Project are to:
a) to identify and characterize the obstacles to sustainable waste management in selected Latin America nations (starting with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica) and ways to overcome them;
b) encourage/nurture the formation of national academia-industry waste management organizations in Latin America, similar to existing ones in thirteen countries ;
c) disseminate the findings of this study to other developing regions, using the existing WTERT web network, publications, and a 2016 international meeting at Columbia University.

The project team will collaborate with Latin American universities and research institutions in exploring ways and means for the recovery of materials and energy from municipal, industrial, construction and demolition, and agricultural wastes, thus reducing the conversion of greenfields to landfills, improving the local environment, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The overall rationale of the Project is to transfer the information accumulated by the existing WTERT groups, both in developed and developing nations, to Latin America and, eventually to other developing regions.

Various obstacles to SWM have been cited, such as lack of infrastructure, inadequate legislation, and financial resources. Specific issues, such as information dissemination, development of human resources, source separation or recyclables, and use of the informal recycling sector will be explored in order to arrive to sustainable solutions. It is expected that the Project will lead to the development of a “SWM vision map” that will include criteria for technology selection (based on availability of different technologies and capital resources of selected municipalities), creation of “green” jobs, social and technical entrepreneurships, capacity development, and formulation/implementation of planning, policies and regulations. An overriding goal is to create university-industry national organizations such as have been shown to be useful in the U.S. and other countries.