Top 4 Environmental Issues in Rio De Janeiro: How to Solve Them With Circular Economy?

Every day an estimated 150 metric tons of industrial wastewater flows into the bay of Rio de Janeiro—enough to fill about 7 large tanker trucks.

Urban runoff and industrial wastewater are major sources of pollution. Regardless of these horrifying facts, Rio de Janeiro continues to retain its status as one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere due to its beautiful natural settings and tourist attractions.


Ipanema beach is a popular tourist attraction in Rio de Janeiro (TripAdvisor)

Being a huge city in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro has a vast population of approximately 13 million people.

However, housing shortage along with rising concerns of pollution have long plagued Rio de Janeiro.  Recently with the 2016 Olympics, many of these concerning issues have been exposed and brought to light. Environmental issues, such as air pollution, wastewater pollution, and trash pollution all pose a major threat to the safety of Rio de Janeiro’s citizens.


As the population in Rio de Janeiro expands, housing shortage also intensifies, leading to severe crowding, segregated neighborhoods, rising numbers of homelessness, and increased poverty.

More than 50 million Brazilians live in inadequate housing, this led to a proliferation of slum housing over time.

Due to housing shortage, millions of families often find themselves forced to construct their own homes from scrap materials. These shantytowns develop into favelas, which are low-income slum neighborhoods often located on the outskirts of a large city.

  • Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil located in Rio de Janeiro, is home to between 6,000 to 15,000 people. Favelas often house high rates of diseases, crime, gang violence, and unemployment.

Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil (Wikipedia)

People earning less than US$1,000 per month account for about 90 percent of this deficit.



The air pollution in Rio de Janeiro is responsible for thousands of deaths (Global Citizen)

  • People exposed to pollution have higher risks of lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and other diseases.
  • In 2014, based on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) methodology on estimating mortality, an estimate of 5,400 people died in Rio due to air pollution.

Thousands die annually in Rio’s metropolitan area because of complications related to air pollution.

Due to the 2.7 million vehicles on the road, Rio de Janeiro has surpassed the World Health Organization guidelines for particulate matter (PM) levels within the air.

  • Rio’s state environmental agency shows that Rio’s Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 levels surpassed WHO’s annual limit 83% of the time.


Since the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many environmental issues within Rio de Janeiro have been brought to light, especially that of water pollution.

Roughly half of the houses in the Guanabara Bay drainage basin—Rio de Janeiro and the surrounding cities—remain unconnected to sewage treatment plants.

Due to the poor sewage system, raw sewage from millions of people in Rio flows untreated into the bay and other water sources, resulting in high levels of pathogens and pollutants. In some locations, islands of toxic sludge are evident during low tide.


Extraordinary amounts of sewage waste present in water sources of Rio de Janeiro (

Not only a poor sewage system but also the industrial wastewater from 17,000 industries surrounding the Guanabara Bay is to be blamed for high levels of water pollution.

  • Approximately 150 metric tons of industrial wastewater – enough to fill 7 large tanker trunks – along with raw sewage flow into the bay every day, resulting in bacteria levels 1.7 million times more than what is considered alarming in the US and Europe.


Annually, Rio de Janeiro generates approximately 3.5 million metric tons of waste and only 1.9% of it is recycled.

  • Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in South America located in Rio de Janeiro, is piled nearly 300 feet high and spans across 14 million square feet. Every day, approximately 8,000 tons of trash – the weight of 4 elephants – is delivered to Jardim Gramacho.

Jardim Gramacho, South America’s largest open-air landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Inhabitat)

  • Every day approximately 90 tons of trash floats downstream to pollute Guanabara Bay of Rio de Janeiro, threatening the wildlife in the ecosystem.

Due to the pollution present within Rio de Janeiro, government authorities, as well as the community have made countless efforts to reduce the detrimental effects of pollution.


  • The Rio de Janeiro Low Carbon City Development Program, an ISO-certified framework,  was launched in 2016 in collaboration with the World Bank, to develop a framework for climate change mitigation actions. Some of their actions included promoting greener urban transport through the Bike Rio system and the new Bus Rapid Transit Lanes.
  • In 2012, Rio de Janeiro launched its first bus rapid transit (BRT) system that provided fast and high-capacity transportation for millions of citizens, benefiting 220,000 people every day. Following its first bus rapid transit, two new bus rapid transit systems were launched in 2014 and 2016.

Transoeste, Rio de Janeiro’s first bus rapid transit system to improve public transit (Bus Rapid Transit – Centre of Excellence)

  • By 2050, Rio de Janeiro hopes to reduce its emissions to nearly nonexistent. To reach this goal, Rio de Janeiro transports approximately 10,000 tons of trash to The Santa Rosa Center for Solid Waste Treatment, known as CTR Rio, every day to generate energy from the burning of the trash.
  • Started in 2018 and sponsored by the Rio government and the Banco Itaú, Bike Rio is an improved public bicycle sharing system which was created to improve urban mobility, environmental quality, and result in economic benefits.

Orange bikes from the Bike Rio initiative for improving air quality (Veja Rio – Grupo Abril)

  • Habitat for Humanity, an international charity fighting global poverty housing, has worked to improve the lives of slum dwellers in many cities including Rio de Janeiro, through house improvements and slum rehabilitation, providing access to decent housing, and providing access to water and secure land tenure.
  • The Catadores (trash pickers) contribute much towards the amount of trash recycled in Rio de Janeiro. Approximately 5,000 cartadore live near the Gramacho Dump, and every day these citizens forage through the landfill for recyclables to sell.

Catadores (ragpickers) picking through trash in Rio de Janeiro (

Despite these initiatives, the people of Rio de Janeiro continue to suffer from the crisis of the housing shortage and pollution.


A circular economy is a closed-loop system in which goods and materials retain their values through respecting and restoring the environment by reducing waste, reusing goods, and recycling materials that cannot be reused.


Circular Economy model (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

Contrary to our current linear system of “take-make-dispose”, a circular economy aims to extract value from waste through regenerating energy.

Implementing circular economy based solutions can increase jobs in the renewable energy and recycling sectors, which will help bring people out of poverty while creating a cleaner and sustainable environment.


Millions of vehicles are contributing to climate change and adding to the existing problem of air pollution every day. A more extensive circular economy approach can be taken to reduce these effects:

  • Establishing carpool lanes to reduce the amount of gas emissions by reducing the number of vehicles on the road.
  • Installing catalytic converters on cars to convert toxic gases into less-toxic pollutants.
  • Improving public transport by encouraging the use of electric vehicles in public sectors and transitioning to electric vehicles in private sectors.


  • Establishing a proper sewage system by investing in more sewage pipes that connect to wastewater treatment plants to reduce the amount of effluents discharged into the river.
  • Microbial digestion of the waste to regenerate energy in the form of methane.

Anaerobic microbial digestion of the waste to generate energy (Environmental and Energy Study Institute)

  • Employ citizens and students through Citizen Science programs to track levels of bacteria as a way of empowering citizens while protecting the environment.


  • Establishing waste banks that collect waste against an incentive will both empower citizens and help in reducing the amount of trash by recycling.
  • Segregating waste at source to reduce the amount of recyclables that end up in landfills.
  • Creating more recycling facilities and powerplants to increase the rate of recycling within Rio de Janeiro.
  • Improving waste management systems in the collection, segregation, and recycling of waste by employing more citizens to improve both the sustainability of the city and provide a living for the people.
  • Hosting fairs to promote environmental education and encouraging citizens to buy less plastic and engage in proper segregation and disposal of waste.


The Earth5R team raised awareness of effective circular economy models through an upcycling workshop in Bangalore, India.

The goal of the workshop was to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills by creating awareness of the need for upcycling waste.


Earth5R team educating students on the need for upcycling waste in Bangalore, India (Earth5R)

In the workshop, children were taught to upcycle waste by making paper bags. From this activity, environmental, social, and economic benefits emerged:

Environmental: Less waste in landfills through upcycling

Social: Children were educated on the 5Rs (Respect, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Restore) and the importance of upcycling

Economic: Creating a source of income from upcycling the waste


Upcycling workshop by Earth5R at Bangalore, India teaches children to upcycle waste by making paper bags (Earth5R)

From this circular economy model, children were inspired to think creatively by discovering new ways to reuse waste. Through this activity, a path towards a sustainable and zero waste future is paved for the next generation.

Thus, early education in a circular economy can prove to be beneficial not only in India but also in all parts of the world including Rio de Janeiro.

Reach out to Earth5R to know more about solving environmental issues by creating a circular economy based sustainability project.


Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.

Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes, and create social and environmental impact.

Reported by Claire Hsu, edited by Riya Dani

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