How Brazil rewards 'invisible environmentalists' for cutting waste

How Brazil rewards 'invisible environmentalists' for cutting waste

Sao Paulo street art
Brazil's "waste pickers" that seek out recyclable materials are benefiting from new living wage programs.

Each morning when Rosie Ribeiro Oliveira arrives at the new EcoCitizen recycling cooperative in her neighborhood of Parolin in Curitiba, Brazil, trash literally is everywhere. And that's a good thing.

"I spent 13 years in the streets gathering recyclables," said the hard-working mother of five, "and I had to bring my kids to help me. Now I come here to work and my kids can go to school."

Oliveira is one of more than 200,000 independent catadores, or waste pickers, in Brazil, a country that now registers "waste picker" as an official occupation. Since joining the EcoCitizen cooperative in February, she works three four-hour shifts per day at the government-sponsored warehouse, dropping off and picking up her five girls from school during breaks. "I like to work alone," said Oliveira on a break near her workstation. "For me, it’s faster."

Curitiba, a city of 1.9 million with a tradition of progressive environmental and social policies, is leading the way globally in efforts to improve working conditions and social acceptance for the people who recycle society’s waste. The city’s rapidly developing EcoCitizen program receives and processes recyclable materials at 19 warehouses, where more than 600 members separate paper, plastics, glass, aluminum and other materials.

Run by Curitiba’s Department of Environment, the EcoCitizen program eliminates waste pickers’ need for sometimes-unscrupulous recycling middlemen, raises salaries, greatly improves working conditions and leads to a cleaner city, advocates and officials say.

With investments of more than $6.5 million from the Brazil Development Bank, the EcoCitizen program has expanded from four recycling warehouse co-ops in 2007 to 13 in 2012 and 19 today. Two more will open by the end of this year, with 26 expected to be in operation within a few years. The percentage of Curitiba’s recyclable materials handled by EcoCitizen co-ops has risen from 15 percent in 2013 to 70 percent today.

Millions of informal waste pickers worldwide make a living by collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials that have been thrown away. In some cities, these "invisible environmentalists" supply the only form of solid waste collection, at little or no cost.

Yet despite providing a valuable community service, they often have a negative public image, viewed as spreading trash and blocking traffic with their collection carts. They often live and work in deplorable conditions, rummaging through trash heaps in streets, dumps and landfills.

That is changing. In Pune, India, waste pickers privately formed the 9,000-member cooperative SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), which now holds government contracts to collect waste at 400,000 residences. After protests and demonstrations, SWaCH workers have gained medical insurance from the city and, in recent years, worker identity cards and life insurance.

Activists in other countries — from Bangladesh to China to Nicaragua — also are successfully campaigning to improve the lives of waste pickers while making recycling more efficient.

Lessons from Brazil

Curitiba calls EcoCitizen co-op members environmental "caregivers" and provides them with a modern warehouse, a city uniform and tools such as paper shredders, balers, digital scales, trash compactors and forklifts. Working out of the 19 co-op warehouses, member teams remain autonomous, operating like small independent businesses paid to both receive and process recyclables.

On a recent day in front of an EcoCitizen warehouse, Antonio de Ribera — wearing a bright green EcoCitizen vest — unloaded a giant 500-liter bag of recyclables from a "Trash That Is Not Trash" truck. Trash That Is Not Trash is Curitiba’s primary recycling collection program, picking up door-to-door for free up to three times per week. "It will all be separated by 10 p.m.," said de Ribera.

Earlier, across town in a different bairro, two trucks from Green Exchange, Curitiba’s second-largest recycling collection program, had rolled up curbside, where a line of waste pickers waited with carts loaded with recyclable materials.

Green Exchange trades 2.2 pounds of locally grown fruits and vegetables for every 8.8 pounds of recyclables at rotating sites around the city. By 10 a.m., one truck had distributed 223 pounds of bananas, oranges, beets and squash, and the other had collected 891 pounds of recyclables, headed to EcoCitizen co-ops.

"Now by contract, the majority of Curitiba’s recyclables belong to the EcoCitizen members," said Sanitary Engineer Marina Rymsza Ballão, supervisor of Trash That is Not Trash. "It’s like money delivered to them."

According to EcoCitizen Program Manager Leila Zem, the steady stream of recyclables that city trucks deliver to co-ops averts the glaring "home depot" problem: Many informal waste pickers store recyclables in their backyards or even in their homes, while others sleep or live with recyclables in warehouses. This attracts rats and insects and, during rains, causes water pollution, as many waste pickers live in marginal land along Curitiba’s rivers.

Waste pickers also often face exploitation by middlemen, said Zem, who rent or lend them carts and later cheat them when weighing and paying for what they collect. EcoCitizen co-ops eliminate the middleman by providing free electric recycling carts and having teams weigh their own recyclables and negotiate their own deals with recycling companies.

The EcoCitizen program raises member incomes well above minimum wage, which is equivalent to $199 per month. On average, members make around $400 per month, but incomes can range up to $800 per month. While members are paid for their individual work, teams pool what they separate and then sell it in bulk to large recycling corporations, negotiating far better deals than the thousands of individual pickers on the street.

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