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The Professionals

What we can learn from Brazil's wastepickers by Kyle Wiens

July 3, 2014

Much has been made of Brazil’s poorly orchestrated World Cup preparations. Airports went unfinished, stadiums were badly conceived, and power shortages loomed. But while the mind-boggling corruption and inefficiency at the heart of these problems have garnered most of the attention, there has been at least one area of civic life in which the country was prepared to thrive: recycling.

By the time the global sports event ends on July 13, experts estimate that World Cup spectators will generate a staggering 320 tons of trash. Enter the catadores—waste pickers who earn a living by collecting recyclables from the nation’s trash heap, men and women who will dig through the garbage and pick out each aluminum can, plastic bottle, and glass container. And while their jobs may seem humble, their sweat and solidarity are helping to transform Brazil into a true world power in recycling.

A History in Trash

All across the globe, informal waste pickers tend to work alongside the efforts of city governments to collect garbage. Some pickers go door to door, collecting recyclables. Others sort through deliveries to the dump, looking for things to reuse, repair, or recycle. Some live and work on the streets, gathering appliances to fix, or cans and bottles to recycle. It’s hard work, especially for pickers who live in cities that antagonize them. Waste pickers are often cited for vagrancy or theft, just for collecting recyclables. In response, pickers around the world have started to band together to fight for rights and recognition.

The movement to organize waste pickers in Brazil began in São Paulo in 1980, when the Catholic Church helped start the Association of Paper Pickers, but it only came into the spotlight nine years later, when association members began protesting on behalf of their right to collect material from public roadways. The association’s work inspired other cities around Brazil to start similar organizations, which (among other things) is helping to end child labor in Brazilian dumps.

In 2001, the Brazilian government became the first to officially recognize waste picking as a profession—the same year that the most active catador organization, the National Movement for Collectors of Recyclables (MNCR), was founded. The results have been transformative: “A large proportion of waste pickers now earn more than the minimum wage,” says Sonia Dias, a waste specialist with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). Today, there are more than 1,100 waste picking associations in Brazil, representing somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 workers. And Brazil’s success has ignited a movement to organize waste pickers around the world—in Egypt, India, New York, and more.

A Future in Recycling

In 2009, filmmaker Sean Walsh spent a month following Claudinês Alvarenga, a carroceiro, or cart hauler, for his documentary Hauling. Alvarenga, a father of 27, drove the streets of São Paulo in an old Volkswagen bus, recovering materials from curbsides, businesses, and dumpsters. He fixed what he could, resold what was salvageable, and recycled all the rest.

“Haulers such as Claudinês and his family are the most vital and also the most marginalized group in this immense [recycling] industry,” Walsh says. “They are also the agents of a new environmental world order, which is growing ever more important to our sustainable survival.”

The truth is, catadores and carroceiros are remarkably good at what they do. Necessity has turned them into reuse masters, repair geniuses, and recycling experts. They can sort recyclables more precisely and comprehensively than a machine can, right down to different grades of paper. Because of catadores, Brazil is a world leader in recycling: The country has the highest recycling rates for used aluminum cans—around 98 percent—and is second in world for recycling PET, a plastic used in food packaging.

The work of pickers and repairers has also propped up Brazil’s burgeoning manufacturing infrastructure. And after years of struggling for recognition, the country finally seems to be gaining the world’s notice. During an annual meeting of Latin American pickers last year, Pope Francis acknowledged waste pickers for what they are: not garbage collectors, but recyclers.

“In this day and age we don’t have the luxury of disregarding leftovers. We are living in a throwaway culture where we not only easily disregard things, but people as well,” the pope said last December. 

That sort of recognition is incredibly important for a group that still is frequently stigmatized.

“The words of the pope could not be more right,” says Dias. “In Brazil we framed our struggle exactly in building the consciousness that the work performed by catadores is vital to public health [and] is an environmental service …”

While the Brazilian government’s decision to work with local waste picker associations during the World Cup was yet another victory, there have been some missteps along the way. In an attempt to “clean up” low-income neighborhoods near the stadiums, Brazilian authorities evicted and relocated hundreds of waste pickers. This event came after 300 waste pickers in Pinheirinho were evicted in 2012, a year after waste pickers in Chocolatão were relocated and forbidden from bringing their pushcarts with them to their new homes.

One thing is certain: Catadores will keep making inroads—economically, environmentally, and socially. And that’s a good thing, because there’s so much we could learn from these homegrown recycling and repair experts—namely, how to squeeze every last bit of life out of the stuff we make. It’s that same spirit that drives the DIY movement all over the world, from the growing culture of tinkering to the rebirth of repair. 

Illustrations by Ben Sanders

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