An incinerator for urban solid waste has been proposed by the municipal government of the city of São Bernardo do Campo, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. The so-called Usina Verde plant would be composed of a Waste Processing and Re-utilization System (Spar) and an Energy Recovery Unit (URE) to generate energy, providing heat to a thermoelectric plant which was also to be built. Its implementation was proposed through a 2012-signed public-private partnership (PPP) in the waste sector between the municipality of São Bernardo and the consortium SBC Valorização de Resíduos Revita e Lara.
The project was going to be located in the neighborhood of Alvarenga, area of the city's former landfill. An estimated two million tons of waste was discarded there between the 1970s and the year 2000, leading to severe environmental degradation and the arise of informal settlements. During this period, many families in the area lived from food collected on the dumpsite and the selling of recyclable materials. The shutdown of the landfill in 2000 came with political promises to improve livelihoods for the community and to give support to the recycling sector in the region and recently formed wastepicker cooperatives and associations. However, after the municipality in 2009 was judicially condemned for having polluted the area of Alvarenga, São Bernardo’s mayor announced the construction of the incinerator along with a number of environmental remediation measures.
Wastepicker organizations opposed the project for several reasons. They first argued that burning waste jeopardized recycling jobs in the entire “ABC region”, which encompasses seven municipalities in the state of São Paulo. They also criticized that the municipality had not included them in initial conversations and hearings about the project. Wastepicker cooperatives also denounced that once they opposed incineration plans, they started losing support from the municipal government, which stopped providing trucks for them to collect waste around the city. Wastepicker groups then however also started negotiations with the municipality about conditions that would allow them to work in waste separation in the plant.
This conflict is one of the long-lasting cases against incinerators in Brazil, in which wastepickers have been playing a crucial role. One of the first oppositions happened in 1995 in the neighborhood of São Matheus, city of São Paulo, close to São Bernardo. From then on, the wastepickers in Brazil have been positioning themselves against incinerators and in 2009 the National Movement of the Pickers of Recyclable Material (MNCR), made a public statement in this sense. In August 2010 the National Solid Waste Policy was enacted under much criticism from the movement because it provided for incineration as an environmentally adequate solution to waste, despite promising the prioritization of recycling. As a response, the Anti-Incineration Coalition was formed in a meeting in São Paulo, attended by 30 representatives from 15 social organizations as well as MNCR and GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), which have since given its support to the Coalition. The Coalition is made up of a wide scope of people and organizations: the MNCR, which itself represents 23 states, Polis Institute and Projecto Colecta Selectiva Brasil-Canada (both of them GAIA members, as is MNCR), and many other organizations, networks and individuals interested in waste issues. They then launched a “No to Incineration” campaign-website with information about incineration issues.
In 2011, two coordinators of the MNCR in Diadema and San Bernardo, Maria Mônica da Silva and Francisca Maria Lima, filed a public lawsuit against Cetesb (São Paulo State Environmental Agency), demanding the suspension of the project in São Bernardo. They argued that the incinerator contradicts with the National Solid Waste Policy, which should encourage reuse and recycling. In addition, they argued that its planned location in former landfill area of the Alvarenga neighborhood, on the boundary of the two municipalities, has been designated a preservation area for the recovery of water reservoirs polluted by the landfill. They particularly expressed the opposition of women wastepickers to the incineration project. The announcement of the filing of the lawsuit was made during a demonstration held in São Bernardo, which brought together 300 people from wastepicker, environmental and other civil society movements. Further demonstrations took place in the following.
In April 2013, a public debate about incineration took place in São Bernardo. 150 wastepickers that went to the debate had to wait outside because there was no space for them in the venue. The 30 wastepickers that managed to enter the venue protested wore masks to call attention to the pollution produced by incinerators. In November 2014 another demonstration was conducted by women wastepickers of the MNCR in the streets of São Bernardo do Campo. Fearing a precedential case, wastepickers from the entire region joined these mobilizations, together with academics and worker unions, in order to increase public pressure on the municipality. Despite that, constructions were about to start in 2016 as the municipal government had found an old law from the military dictatorship, classifying incinerators as "industrial activity essential to the provision of public services" to support its intention to build the plant – close to a water reservoir and in an area of underground water recovery.
In 2017 the project surprisingly became discarded as the municipality of São Bernardo and São Paulo’s environmental agency Cetesb refused to authorize the project and stopped the licensing process of the incineration plant due to a lack of documents from the operator SBC Valorização. As a speaker of Cetesb pointed out, the operator had failed to provide an analysis of the project’s atmospheric emissions - which had been requested by Cetesb since 2014 and was condition for the project’s preliminary license, but despite several extensions never delivered. Moreover, the project report also lacked the mandatory listing of at least three alternative locations to the one that was controversially proposed.
At the same time, however, the municipality became accused of irregularities in the PPP by the new municipal government, which started to carry out a legal dispute with SBC. The company, which was also in charge of public waste collection, had been running services at a minimum level for several months, claiming that it was lacking money to pay its employees and fuel its trucks, while São Bernardo more and more slipped into a waste crisis. The municipality in turn stated that SBC would have already received sufficient resources, including payments for the incinerator project and for remediation measures of the former dumpsite – both never realized. Finally, the contract was canceled and a new company was contracted for waste collection. That was followed by a juridical conflict in which SBC demanded an external auditing of the contract and a compensation of R$ 123 million. The consortium moreover claimed that the incineration project and its licensing process could not be further advanced due to irregular settlements in the area of construction and hence demanded its expropriation through the municipality.
Since then, incineration projects have been advanced elsewhere in the state of São Paulo, while the area of Alvarenga still awaits adequate remediation measures – 18 years after the municipality had signed the first Conduct of Terms of Adjustment (TAC) after almost no measures for remediation have been implemented. The area instead still suffers from past pollution, continues to be used as a clandestine dumpsite, and remains excluded from public waste collection services.