Establishing incineration as the solution to the waste problem has been a repeated proposal across Brazil and has provoked strong opposition by civil society and in particular the wastepickers movement. Minas Gerais has been on the front lines of this struggle and in 2014 became Brazil’s first state to prohibit the incineration of urban solid waste by law. However, this could be undermined by a new legislative project brought forward by the private economic sector. In addition, certain incineration projects are nevertheless taking place and are causing controversy. One of these projects is the burning of hazardous industrial waste by the company Ecovital in the municipality of Sarzedo.
While revendications by wastepicker organizations have a long history in Minas Gerais, mobilization against incineration intensified in 2013 when public-private partnerships in the waste sector of the Belo Horizonte metropolitan region and the possibility of incineration technologies were being discussed in the Legislative Assembly of Minas Gerais (ALMG). Brazil’s National Movement of the Pickers of Recyclable Material (MNCR), the Instituto Nenuca de Desenvolvimento Sustentável (INSEA) and a number of other organizations launched a series of protests and street demonstrations with more than 2,000 participants against the privatization plans and the possible adoption of incineration technologies by private operators, claiming that this would contradict Brazil’s newly adopted solid waste policy (as regulated by Lei 12.305). The MNCR also initiated a campaign for a legislative project (PL 4.051/2013) that would prohibit the incineration of solid waste and instead promote selective waste collection.  In an open letter, the movement demanded local deputies to support their claims and to stop another legislative project that would promote the utilization of plasma pyrolysis technologies, which, as opponents argued, even with the best available filters would release toxic gases and pose risks to public health. Moreover, incineration also jeopardizes the recycling work done by Brazil’s wastepickers, known as ‘catadores’. That is because the economically viable operation of incinerators depends on solid waste with high calorific value and would, therefore, compete directly with selective waste collection.  After one and a half years of intense mobilization and campaigning (at the national level as well), the proposed ban on solid waste incineration in Minas Gerais was finally adopted at the end of 2014 (through Lei 21.557/2014, an amendment of Lei 18.031/2009 which regulates the state’s policy on solid waste). With this, the state of Minas Gerais recognized the importance of the selective waste collection and of thousands of catadores in the state, who are organized into more than 150 associations and cooperatives.  However, there have been political attempts to overturn the incineration ban over the last few years, most notably in the form of the discussed legislative project PL 3893/2016. 
A particular conflict in this context has been the incineration of toxic waste by the company Ecovital Central de Gerenciamento Ambiental in the industrial district of the municipality Sarzedo, Minas Gerais. After obtaining a license from the Belo Horizonte metropolitan region in 2014 (as the prohibition only concerned urban solid waste), the company started the controversial burning of 3,000 tons of hazardous industrial waste in what it calls the “largest and most modern hazardous waste incineration plant in Brazil” . 
The incinerated waste stems from chemical production by the French multinational company Rhodia, which operated from the 1960s to the 1990s in Cubatão, located 600 km away in the state of São Paulo (see related case in the EJAtlas). It consists of a range of highly toxic substances such as hexachlorobenzene and the controversial pentachlorophenol (PCP) which was used among others as insecticide and fungicide until it was forbidden in Brazil in 2006.  Today, several areas south of São Paulo are contaminated by Rhodia’s substances, even though its operations have been stopped.  Despite this, there were no public hearings before Ecovital began its activities and details remained unknown and nontransparent to the local population. 
In the area surrounding the Ecovital plant there are the Imaculada Conceição and Riacho da Mata neighborhoods, a permanent protection area and community recreational facilities. Residents are first and foremost affected by an increase of diseases (e.g. respiratory, gastrointestinal, blemishes on the skin, …) as well as dust and bad smells that come from the plant’s smoke, which sometimes reaches unbearable levels and has already made people move away. These direct impacts add to a longer history of socio-environmental impacts and risks caused by polluting industries in the region around Sarzedo.  In 2015, residents and the local press reported the regular release of colored smoke, particularly at night, which was assumed to be caused by operational malfunctions that lead to the emission of potentially harmful iodines.  The presence of PCP has been particularly worrying. It is highly toxic for humans and animals and affects organs as well as the nervous and immune systems. 
The start of Evovital’s operations triggered vehement opposition by the local population and civil society organizations. Mobilization by residents has been centered around the local movement SOS Sarzedo and was supported by syndicates and organizations such as the MNCR, INSEA, the Observatório da Reciclagem Inclusiva e Solidária (ORIS), the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), and the environmental and workers rights organization ACPO, founded by former employees of Rhodia in the 1990s.  They denounced Ecovital’s incineration activities for the risks they pose to the environment and public health, and questioned the feasibility of impact-free toxic waste incineration (no filters can make this possible). They also note that, in general, toxic waste incineration is an outdated technology when it comes to environmental safety. Criticism has also been voiced about the lack of environmental monitoring (e.g. verifying whether the information provided by Ecovital was correct), as well as the lack of public participation in the licensing process. There is a general lack of transparency, especially regarding incineration procedures and the handling of hazardous substances. The movement has also problematized the choice to install such a plant in an urbanized area like Sarzedo (which is situated in the green belt of the metropolitan region with a lot of familiar agriculture), and the fact that before receiving its operating license from the local Conselho de Política Ambiental (COPAM), Evovital’s incineration plans were rejected by the states of São Paulo, Paraná and Bahia. In addition, the transporting of hazardous waste over more than 600 kilometers, shifting the environmental impacts from the metropole to the periphery, has been called into question.  Moreover, in 2016, the MNCR denounced the risks to residents on local television, calling for the Public Ministry to react. Meanwhile, local environmental organizations like AMDA initiated an administrative procedure inquiring about the regularity of public inspections and whether the company complied with all requirements, leading to a closer examination of the issue. 
Following an increase in public and political pressure and interventions by the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais and the municipality of Sarzedo, the movement had its first victory when the company had its incineration license for PCP and hexachlorobenzene temporarily suspended by COPAM in 2016. A civil lawsuit was opened and a new public hearing was announced. Up to that point, 500 tons of toxic waste had been incinerated.  Nevertheless, Ecovital continued to burn other types of hazardous industrial waste and also considered beginning the incineration of urban solid waste (which is currently still prohibited by Minas Gerais’ legislation, but could be permitted by the discussed legislative change PL 3893, as mentioned above).  In 2018, COPAM issued a decree prohibiting the storage, disposal, and processing of waste from outside the state if hazardous substance concentrations exceeded a specified value.  After that, residents continued to complain about air pollution and bad smells and criticized the monitoring efforts of public authorities, which claimed that Ecovital would now fulfill all legal norms and that problems were attributed to other companies in the industrial district. 
After Ecovital’s first environmental license expired in 2018, it requested a ten-year extension, necessitating a new environmental licensing process. Although the process was not yet complete (the results of the municipality’s air quality studies were still being awaited), the company had already been issued a preliminary extension allowing it to continue its activities. Following that, local politicians called on the municipal secretary to not support the extension as long as no new studies would be presented. In July 2019, the extension of the incineration license was debated in a public hearing in Sarzedo. This was again marked by community protests. More than 200 residents attended the hearing and, together with civil society organizations, demanded the complete closure of the plant.  In an open letter, the SOS Sarzedo platform, the NGO Cedefes, and CPT restated their concerns and denounced the negative environmental and health impacts associated with the incineration project as well as attempts by the company to manipulate public opinion.