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Don’t toss trash

On any day in Sao Paulo (and other Brazilian cities), you can see people pulling homemade carts through the city, laden with recyclable materials. These are catadores (informal recyclers), who number in the thousands in Sao Paulo.

IMG_0611 cart1As the largest cities grow faster than the local infrastructures, governments face challenges in keeping up with waste and recycling collection.

dumps1Seeing an opportunity, individuals began an informal recycling program, where they collected the waste and then sold it to junk yards and others willing to pay. As the numbers increased, and the government saw the benefit, the government stepped in and helped to organize cooperatives, where individual informal recyclers banded to work together (I’m sure the government gets some kickback from these cooperatives).

The catadores‘ free market approach is more economical than Brazil’s government-run curbside collection programs, and cooperatives enable members to sell to larger dealers at higher prices. The few cooperatives that already exist have demonstrated great success. In São Paulo, for example, members of a cooperative receive 40 percent more money than they would have earned on their own.

dumps2Today, there are some 500 cooperatives in Brazil, with more than 60,000 individual members (and some 40,000 who haven’t joined cooperatives, though their existence is threatened by the more powerful, organized cooperatives), forming a national movement that helps to shape public waste policies.

The catadores gather recycling from buildings and businesses, picking up any castoff items, but also pick through the garbage at massive city dumps.

catadores1In São Paulo, catadores reportedly collect 90 percent of recoverable materials, and constitute an essential recycling infrastructure for the city. When we moved here and our goods were delivered, we called our zelador (condo manager) and asked how we should dispose of the cardboard boxes that filled our rooms. She told us to break down the boxes and put them on the landing in the service elevator area and they would be taken care of. We broke them down and piled them in the foyer, and within an hour they were gone. Apparently, the condo association has a catadores they deal with; they gave him a call and he came to gather the treasure trove. Super-slick for us, and benefited him.

Some of the trash is taken for recycling, and other trash items are used to create new pieces of furniture (sofas, tables, chairs) or even artwork. Because the mere collecting of trash doesn’t pay a living wage, many members of the cooperatives are working together to create art or furniture, which is then sold to create additional income. It’s become a culture of “garbage is not garbage,” say some catadores.

There is also a move to help catadores become less “invisible” to the people whose cities they keep relatively clean. Learn more about it here, with a street artist who is helping to “pimp” the carroças of these enterprising folks.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 10.57.00 AMGiven that the population of Brazil creates some 2 million cans for recycling every hour, it amazes me that the government reportedly spends less than 4 percent of its budget helping to build this program. I suspect that after one week without recycling,  Sao Paulo would grind to a halt. Apparently, the can I empty today has a 98 percent chance of being melted, reformed, refilled, and back on the shelf in 33 days! That’s how efficient these cooperatives can be.

catador sao pauloBrazil has a reported world record of 98.3 percent of its cans recycled per year. In other words, over 98 of every 100 cans produced in Brazil make their way to the recycling plant before hitting the rubbish heap. Mind-boggling!

One reason for this rate is that for every 75 cans, a catador gets approximately R$3 (depending on the region) whereas a kilo of paper or 20 plastic PET bottles fetch just a few cents. The catadores are paid enough for it to be worthwhile for them to eek out a living on collecting cans (rather than other material), but sufficiently poorly to ensure recycling is a highly profitable activity.

Because cans are so profitable, however, other trash is left uncollected. The government is being called on to make all trash collecting more profitable, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for action on that front anytime soon. Though, I have to say, these collectives have a very powerful bargaining chip: stop working.

PS5Tom and I are spoiled. We take our trash out at any time during the day and put it in one of two trash cans in the service elevator foyer. Twice a day, maintenance men and women come and empty the trash. Abracadabra! We are free from concern. Knowing who takes up our trash, however, we are always willing to leave out items that they, or someone they know, might be able to use. We never throw useful items in the trash, but place them next to the bins. Those, too, are always taken.

It’s magic for us, but we are well aware of who is on the other side of that magic.