By David Arón López, consultant, environmental engineer and 2012 Americas Project Fellow
Much has been said about the need to overcome, once and for all, the problems with public services that plague many Latin American cities, including municipal garbage collection — a part of municipal solid waste management. The situation has been analyzed from numerous points of view, and the truth is that we understand the root of the problem: There is a limit to an individual’s capacity to pay for the service provided. We are not talking about the willingness to pay, but rather about citizens’ real ability to pay for a modern and efficient public service.
According to the latest report on solid waste management from the Inter-American Development Bank, Latin America and the Caribbean suffer from inadequate service characterized by unreliable and irregular garbage collection. The report cites all too familiar reasons: lack of political will, inadequate investment, poor urban planning, etc. It also offers updated data about the unit costs of collecting, transferring and disposing of solid waste as well as per capita charges.
The unit costs are normally transferred to the citizen through taxes or tariffs. However, in most Latin American countries, a cross-subsidy system is more common, where a portion of the population subsidizes the service for the rest. Most often, industrial and commercial users are charged at above-average rates, whereas residences and low-income groups are charged at below-average rates. So we could suppose that 20 percent of the population, including the commercial and industrial sector, pays close to 100 percent of the costs associated with waste management.
This generates problems in the provision of a quality service. Good management practices are limited financially, holding back the development of new technologies, the development of recycling alternatives and the sustainability of the sector.
Achieving the decentralization of citizen responsibility is the biggest challenge not only in waste management but also in public services as a whole. This type of decentralization refers not to the transfer of government functions to citizens, but rather to the need for the citizen to see herself as an active participant in the urban system. In this sense, the municipal government should support its citizens as a means to address inequalities and poverty through social and economic inclusion.
For example, the citizens of Curitiba, Brazil, are committed to the cleanliness of their city and therefore shape their behavior accordingly. In 2010, the city actually recycled very little, only around 30 percent of the total solid waste produced. However, recycling, no matter how small the quantity, seems to have an effect on people’s behavior. They become more responsible about their actions: They consume less, take care of public spaces and are more committed to cleanliness overall. This experience led to the implementation of a pilot program — a house-by-house collection model — in the neighborhood of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela. Through this program, residents of a low-income neighborhood were empowered to become active participants in their neighborhood’s waste management, therefore promoting the same behavior in their neighbors as well.
In order to overcome poverty and encourage social inclusion, there should be a redistribution of citizens’ responsibilities, creating a virtuous circle: If a person feels included, their commitment to their community increases, and so does their willingness to contribute.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.