Curitiba, Brazil: Waste management pioneer

Designed with sustainability in mind, Curitiba has been a role model for recycling strategies and social growth since the early 90s. With initiatives like the UN-award-winning Green Swap (Cambio Verde) programme created to engage citizens by rewarding them with bus passes for recycling, the city is estimated to currently recycle 70% of all waste. Recyclables are sold for reprocessing with a large percentage of the profits ploughed back into social infrastructure. The city also operates a waste-for-food service. To reference other related initiatives. 

Brazil’s eighth most populous city and capital of the south-eastern state of Paraná, Curitiba has been pursuing urban sustainability goals since the 1970s with waste management a local government priority.

Curitiba was awarded Global Sustainable City status in 2010 and named Smart City 2023 at the sustainability-focused World Smart City Awards. Over the last six decades, the city has pioneered numerous sustainability initiatives, initially under the leadership of then mayor and urban architect, Jaime Lerner with his legacy carried by current incumbent, Mayor Rafael Greca. 

These include the world’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system and development of parks that incorporate stormwater management infrastructure through to a pedestrian-first street plan and community-focused waste management programmes. 

With a metro population of almost two million, the city has been actively recycling is waste since the 1980s and is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 under its PlanClima climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy, which was launched in 2016.

The challenge

Uncontrolled housing development in the 1980s, which saw significant volume of waste left to decay in the streets, was the root cause of major health and safety issues exacerbated by an existing network of winding streets too narrow for the passage of municipality waste vehicles.

This prompted the formation of environmental education teams who collaborated with local neighbourhood associations to find ways for residents to handle waste collection and provide education on effective household waste management. In addition, the rise in  the number of ‘informal collectors’, for whom this is a vital source of income with waste being sold to aggregators, saw encroachment on areas managed by formal services providers, causing traffic congestion and other issues.

Despite regionally impressive recycling figures, the city continues to focus on urban solid waste disposal challenges, with a daily average of 1,800 tonnes of generated waste sent to landfill (and an average 1,400 tonnes of recyclables collected each month).

There is, therefore, a critical opportunity to ramp up focus on economically beneficial reuse of landfill-directed waste, which is roughly comprised of 40 per cent organic waste, 12 per cent plastics, four per cent paper, four per cent metal, and 20 per cent other materials.

Curitiba also offers special collection services, which include household toxic waste, plant waste, civil construction waste, unusable furniture, and animal corpses. Brazil is one of a handful of nations that permits controlled sanitary landfills and the development of technologies to replace landfills with more sustainable alternatives is a work in progress.

The response

In 1988, the city garbage dump was closed and replaced by a municipality managed landfill, with the collection and separation of  recyclable materials such as glass, plastics and paper introduced in 1989 under the Trash that is not Trash programme. The programme encouraged residents to sort their household waste into organic and inorganic categories.

The early 90s saw the launch of the initial Green Exchange (Câmbio Verde) programme, which rewarded residents in municipal vehicle-inaccessible communities for collecting and bringing recyclable household garbage and waste to dedicated citywide collection points. Residents associations work with local government to distribute bags and monitor the recyclables collected by each family. Under the initial paid garbage scheme, every eight to 10-kilogramme bag of waste could be exchanged for a bus ticket.

The programme, which is still in effect today, now also has waste collection truck routes in operation in some areas and more than 100 trading sites located across the city. Curitiba is part of the Ecocidadão Programme, which oversees  the city’s recycling parks, is responsible for receiving, sorting and selling the material collected by local community waste collectors.

Residents are reimbursed for every four kilogrammes of recyclable waste and materials with one kilogramme of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, as well as bus tickets. This helps support residents from low-income areas in particular; helps improve overall nutrition; as well as educating about the value of recycling and environmental preservation.

It also has the added benefit of guaranteeing the sale of locally produced surplus produce with funds from the Curitiba Department of the Environment (SMMA) used to buy surplus crops from regional smallholder farms.


Curitiba’s local co-operatives are remunerated by the municipality for the volume of material they recycle, and by the selling of these recycled materials to private companies, with the received funds ploughed back into community projects and services.

Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy (NSWP) does not encourage incineration and the total volume of waste generated in Curitiba is therefore disposed of in landfills or recycled.

Curitiba has an integrated municipal solid waste (MSW) programme MSW plan, developed in accordance with federal law in 2007 and updated in 2010 with establishment of the  National Sanitation Policy.

Collection of the city’s solid waste is outsourced to a private company that is, in turn, tasked with the cleaning of public spaces and roads, as well as the collection and transportation of organic waste to landfill.

Environmental education has been part of the Curitiba schools’ curriculum since 1989 and the younger generation is viewed as future agents of change. Children are taught from an early age about the importance of conservation, recycling and a wide range of environmental issues. Under the Special Green Exchange Program, schools can exchange biodegradable waste for school supplies and other items. Students are encouraged to bring recyclable waste to elementary school and rewarded with a toy or gift at the end of the academic year.

In tandem, and with the assistance of the Institute for Social Integration, waste sorting jobs have been given to low-income community members, helping reduce the rate of unemployment.


  • Curitiba has achieved a reduction of close to 70 per cent of landfill waste against the national recycling average of around three per cent.
  • The city’s Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan – PlanClima – aims to further reduce landfill rates to 10 per cent of total collected waste as it works towards 2050 goals.
  • A former, now capped, landfill has been repurposed as a solar panel pyramid array used to generate electricity for the city’s electric bus network.
  • For every 4 kilogrammes of  recyclable waste collected, residents are rewarded with 1 kilogramme of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs or bus tickets.
  • Waste management practices have created more than 2,000 private and public jobs with an additional 10,000 residents designated as (paid) waste collectors.

Curitiba Urban Planning and Research Institute (IPPUC); UN Habitat and Viable Cities Climate Smart Cities Challenge; Siemens Latin American Green City Index; Richard André, Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA); Optimization of Municipal Waste Streams in Achieving Urban Circularity in the City of Curitiba, Brazil report (2022)