Rio cleans its waters for the Olympics by setting up a “circular economy”

At a test event, pollution was so high that 13 US rowers got sick

rio olympics

The Guanabara Bay, which will host sailing, rowing and even swimming events at this year’s Rio Olympics, is so polluted that at a test event in the summer, thirteen American rowers became too sick to compete. German sailor Erik Heil got such bad infections in his legs that he was left with deep holes in his shins. Another boat capsized after hitting what appeared to be a submerged sofa.

The waters hold not only furniture and raw sewage but dead dogs, dead horses and even, according to Brazilian sailor Lars Grael, dead humans. He says he has seen bodies in the water on four occasions. Meanwhile, an investigation by the Associated Press found that the level of disease-causing viruses in the bay is 1.7 million times that considered hazardous by US water standards.

Moreover, the bay is 19 miles long and cleaning it up could be ruinously expensive, especially when Brazil’s economy is in a nose-dive. In the third quarter of last year, it shrank by 4.5%.

Help, however, has arrived from an unexpected quarter: a Dutch civil servant. Arnoud Passenier has gone to Rio along with a delegation of diplomats and companies to present an innovative plan for cleaning up the bay.

Its underlying “circular economy” principle – converting the bay’s waste into money – has made it of interest to countries all over the world and particularly to the EU, which has just announced a $26billion plan to further the same idea.

The Alchemist

Arnoud Passenier is a driven, maverick public servant who, after 26 years in government, has managed to find the freedom within the system to operate almost without portfolio. He told Apolitical: ‘I’m not interested in making a lot of money for myself; I’m not driven to have an important position within government. So I said to my boss, “I don’t want to be a manager in the hierarchy. Give me a free position and I’ll work from that together with a large network of motivated people.”’

Arnoud Passenier ApoliticalAn idea of how he operates is given by the way he arranged something that became a building block of the Rio plan: ‘I wasn’t given this assignment. I created this with people in my network. Only a week before signing the agreement, I said, “Well, there are fifty-five parties involved, so please, Minister and State Secretary, would you like to sign this agreement?” Of course they did, because the plan fits perfectly into their political agenda, there was no political risk involved and saying no to such a large number of companies is impossible.

‘That’s [an important thing] about pioneering. You don’t have to wait for a mandate. Just create and, if you have success, people can’t say no.’

Turning waste into money

Mr Passenier’s plan for Rio came out of his work in the Netherlands on waste phosphorous – the stuff in sewage that makes algae bloom across rivers and canals, killing everything in them. It can, however, also be turned into struvite, a fertiliser.

So rather than go through the expensive business of clearing away sewage without polluting waterways, Mr Passenier is building a Europe-wide market in secondary phosphorus, allowing and encouraging its extraction and sale. In the ideal scenario, Dutch authorities no longer have to worry about the pollution and Rumanian farmers get a cheap source of fertiliser. Everybody wins.

That ideal, of course, requires a lot of legwork: getting private companies to do the recovery; other companies to buy the recovered extract and make things out of it; universities to refine the technology; European institutions to lift restrictions on transporting animal waste…

Because I’m a public servant, I can open doors that others couldn’t

Above all, it requires bringing very many people together and showing them how they can be useful to each other. That is where Mr Passenier excels. In 2011, he set up a European phosphorous network, the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform to encourage more trade in the material, and now all 23 Dutch waste water treatment companies are building installations to recover struvite out of sewage water and build networks to sell the stuff to farmers in Belgium, Poland and France.

The market is still in its infancy and there are still regulatory obstacles to trading organic waste but, at base, it is working.

He says he’s discovered that the key to getting results is to focus on ‘achieving a societal goal. That’s one of the tricks: I have no hidden agendas, I’m very honest and transparent in everything that I do. So that stops people thinking I’m a threat for them, or that they can’t trust me. That authentic way of operating is essential for effectiveness. And at the same time, what makes me stay in government is that I believe one of the elements of success is that I am part of the government. Because I’m a government official, I can open doors that others couldn’t, I can get people to the table to talk with each other, and that’s much easier as a government official than as a consultant or someone from a company.’

An Olympic opportunity

For Mr Passenier, the prospect of Olympic athletes doubling up with sickness after a dunking in the Guanabara Bay actually presented itself as highly opportune.

He had already begun repeating his work on phosphate with plastic waste, bringing together Dutch ports, where ‘plastic soup’ gathers, with both small 3D plastic printing businesses in Rotterdam or Amsterdam, or companies which like Vanderlande, a conveyor belt producer, which developed trays from recycled plastics.

Apolitical Rio Map

But he was looking for a means of seeing his ideas implemented far more widely than in a small country like the Netherlands. ‘How to accelerate all those ideas into real innovations? You have to have a dot on the horizon, where people are willing to speed up the process, to show results. And the Olympic Games came to my mind. I said, “Well, let’s help the Brazilians clean up Guanabara Bay.” I said it half-joking I think, because it’s really big. And, well, people got very excited.’

A Dutch delegation, including engineering firms, architects, NGOs and research institutions, went to Brazil to talk to the authorities there and, after some more back and forth, drew up an 250-page proposal with dozens of projects that could collectively remove the filth from the Guanabara Bay.

These range from the extremely high-tech to the incredibly simple, and from complex financial instruments to governance support.

Shipping company Royal IHC has put forward a craft called the Waste Harvester that scoops up plastic in an endless loop, never needing to dock. The plastic is processed and sold. In another, the Tauw Group together with Dow Chemicals and textile firm TenCate designed a screen to catch plastic soup under the eight-mile-long Rio-Niterói Bridge.

Apolitical Rio-Niteroi Bridge

The Rio-Niterói Bridge

At the other end of the scale is the Rio Carioca project. The Carioca river runs from the mountains through the favela under the Christ the Redeemer statue and down into the Bay at Flamengo beach, picking up sewage en route. With funds from the commercial Banco do Brasil, wetlands are being constructed to filter the water without the need for expensive pipes, and micro-finance is being made available for small plastic recycling businesses.

Says Mr Passenier, ‘So there’s a whole integrated project where you can protect the environment and make it a clean river again, and at the same time create business in the favela.’

Gold, Silver or Bronze?

At the moment, the plastic reclamation project in the favela is the only one actually in progress. The sticking point is of course finance. Development impact bonds have been proposed by the Dutch delegation with the support of the World Bank to attract private investment to money-making opportunities that would also clean up the bay. But the obstacles are legion. Quite aside from the state of the Brazilian economy, the authorities in Rio specifically have previously been given hundreds of millions to clean up the bay, to little effect. As Mr Passenier puts it, ‘$600million went down the drain.’

Nevertheless, other bay areas with perhaps fewer structural difficulties have been inspired to ask the Dutch team for help with their own waste: Jakarta, Ebreo Lagoon in Ivory Coast and the Magdalena river basin in Colombia, to name just three.

And the underlying idea of turning waste into money is gaining momentum, especially in Europe, where the European Commission has just announced a $26billion programme to shift the continent towards a ‘circular economy’.

That means that instead of waste being thrown away, it is turned into a useful product which can be sold. The Commission estimates that going beyond low-level recycling towards a circular economy would save the EU around $650billion annually, approximately the GDP of Switzerland.

Apolitical Circular Economy

The reason it has managed to garner so much support is the prospect of uniting environmental and economic concerns. Green policies are generally perceived as restricting businesses’ ability to make money; the circular economy holds out the promise of making a cleaner, less wasteful society a more profitable, more competitive one.

Mr Passenier exemplifies the potential. In his work on phosphorus and plastics in Europe, he connects innovative businesses with the world of financing and governance. As he puts it, ‘People were very surprised that someone from the Ministry of the Environment took that initiative. They’re used to the Ministry of the Environment saying what you should or should not do.

‘I do not care if people or organisations have a sustainability goal. If they have a goal to innovate because they can reduce costs or have a commercial advantage in the market or they want to improve their image, that’s OK for me. As long as they act in the direction of creating a circular economy, that’s OK for me. We’re very pragmatic with that.’

It is this pragmatism that has enabled him to bring together such disparate groups to try to clean up the Guanabara Bay, from Dutch shipping companies to Brazilian favela dwellers. The difficulties inherent in holding together networks of that size now occupy much of Mr Passenier’s time, but the goal is worth the effort: that the environmental benefits become a business.

(Picture credit: Flickr/Rodrigo Soldon)


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