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Uruguay has significant problems relating to the management of industrial, commercial and domestic waste. In the capital Montevideo alone, 1,500 tons of solid waste are collected every day. Rather than tackling the root causes of this waste problem and putting in place processes to reduce the amount of waste generated and increase the recovery and recycling of materials, the Uruguayan government proposes to address its waste problem and provide energy through the construction of new waste-to-energy incineration plants.
53 corporations have expressed an interest in building industrial plant for final waste disposal and electricity generation from biogas, and the President of the Republic and the Planning and Budget Office, in agreement with the Conference of Mayors (local governors) has begun a process of evaluation. Italian corporations have been most active in lobbying the government for contracts for plant construction.
However, the nationwide waste-to-energy programme is currently stalled and technical studies conducted by Uruguayan ecologist organisations and the workers’ central union PIT-CNT have concluded the project is economically unviable. The studies indicate the plants will fail to produce a high volume of electricity. For the whole metropolitan area they estimate a production of only 80MW per year as Uruguay’s humid weather would necessitate that the plants use additional fossil fuels to burn the waste. This would significantly increase costs, thus rendering the project unviable.
Friend of the Earth Uruguay estimates that an incinerator burning 200,000 tons of waste annually would produce 6,000 tons of fly ash (highly toxic waste), which would need storage in special toxic treatment containers to prevent it from polluting local land and water supplies. The incinerator would also produce 60,000 tons of slag. As well as risking toxic air and water pollution in Montevideo (population 2 million people), waste-to-energy incineration would destroy the livelihoods of the 6,000 families of waste classifiers who live on waste collection and recycling in the capital.
Friends of the Earth Uruguay is working with other environmental organisations, PIT-CNT and the Union of Classifiers of Urban Solid Waste to resist the project, in coordination with GAIA and Taller Ecologista de Rosario (Argentina). Friends of the Earth Uruguay is campaigning for a Zero Waste policy based on a decentralised and socially-inclusive waste management system that recovers recyclable material. There are already successful initiatives implemented in small cities that could be applied nationwide. The lack of such a policy opens the door for incineration projects.