14, June, 2013

Turning Waste Into Resources: Latin America’s Waste-to-Energy Landfills

Waste management is typically viewed as a resource intensive activity. Yet some urban areas in Latin America have managed to turn this idea on its head by converting waste into energy and profit.

Latin America has experienced rapid economic growth, associated with urban migration and unplanned expansion of infrastructure and public service provision. Municipalities face the dual challenge of providing infrastructure that improves quality of life but that does so at an affordable cost. Effective municipal waste management practices are limited in the developing world, causing public health problems and potent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Waste to energy landfills are a solution that harnesses this duality, providing numerous benefits such as proper disposal of waste and reduction of disease, plus capturing biogas which can be put to productive use in the form of electricity generation, while also reducing the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. In turn, this electricity could potentially substitute traditional forms of energy used for public lighting or to fuel public works. This Brief examines how cities in Latin America have turned the problem of waste management into an opportunity.  It documents one of the first experiences of low-carbon waste-management infrastructure – a waste to energy landfill – in the region, through a case study from Monterrey, Mexico’s second largest city.  The story of Monterrey shows how the city turned its landfill waste into electricity that moves its subway and provides safer streets through public lighting, while at the same time shrinking municipalities’ operating costs and tackling climate change by reducing GHG emissions.

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Key Lessons:

  • External funding from international cooperation agencies and development banks was key to removing technical and institutional barriers to create the first-of-its-kind waste-to-energy project in Latin America. By bringing together a multi-stakeholder group, the pilot project was able to respond to multiple priorities.
  • Cities now have a model to follow, but not only for waste-to-energy landfills. Perhaps more importantly, they have a new perspective on how to change business models to re-evaluate their own resources and design public-private partnerships in areas that could attract investment to improve public service provision. In Latin America, these partnerships have been shown to attract investments as they are relatively safe and bring a stable source of revenue.
  • The case of Monterrey, and the Latin American cities that followed it, demonstrate that urban areas with more than 100,000 inhabitants are probably the ideal setting for waste-to-energy landfills. These initiatives have been shown to be innovative business models, turning municipal waste management into an income source, while improving the city’s environmental and social quality of life.
  • (Español) Existen algunas limitaciones en la conversión de vertederos de residuos en energía que pueden obstaculizar la aplicación efectiva, y que probablemente sean necesarios superar. Estas incluyen los precios bajos de la electricidad, el acceso limitado a la red eléctrica y las regulaciones locales que pueden imponer restricciones a los productores independientes de energía.

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