What we can learn from Brazil’s wastepickers

What we can learn from Brazil’s wastepickers | by Kyle Wiens

Excerpts: By the time the World Cup 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.

Illustrations by Ben Sanders

Illustrations by Ben Sanders

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.

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.

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