Collecting Recyclable Waste

Collectors of recyclable waste fear the end of the landfills and organize in cooperatives.

In Brazil we have no selective collection of garbage or household waste implemented. People buy their goods and get it packed in plastic bags from the supermarket and other shops. The plastic bags are generally used for storing and disposing of all garbage, no selection, nothing and put into the streets the day the waste truck is passing. The garbage collector dumps his load on a (legal or illegal) landfill.
The number of landfills in the country is unknown, but the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) asserts that more than 60% of the towns do not treat waste properly. Recycling is also limited. “Only 900 of the 5,565 Brazilian municipalities have some kind of selective collection”, says Sérgio Gonçalves, Director of Urban Environment of the MMA.

In this story one part of the chain is forgotten. The catador (selective waste collector, scavenger). He/she walks the streets before the garbage truck passes and selects what he can use, read sell, for recycling. Plastic bottles, aluminium and steel cans, are the most popular items. Then there is the catador screening the landfill after the garbage truck has dumped its load. The goal is the same, collect to sell for recycling.

Before he left office Lula approved a law wich intends to change the disposal of garbage in the country. The end of the landfills, expected to occur by 2014, concerns a part of the approximately one million Brazilian catadores, who live by collecting recyclable materials. The law passed in 2010 requires that they be included in a new model for garbage collection. However, “They are afraid they will not succeed in participating in this process,” says Jairo Puppin, coordinator of inter-ministerial committee on the Social Inclusion of Collectors.

Recently, the daily lives of catadores (scavengers) mobilized artists and filmmakers. In 2011, the collectors were portrayed in the documentary ‘Lixo extraordinário’ (‘Extraordinary Garbage’), which competes for an Oscar with the presentation of the reality of the Gramacho landfill. The same landfill was the scenario in “Estamira” (2004), by Marcos Prado, and returns on TV with “As crianças do lixão’” (Children of the Landfill), by Robert Ziehe.

Gramacho landfill in Rio de Janeiro
In Gramacho, the more than 1,300 scavengers collect recyclable material among the garbage dumped by about 900 trucks – 9,000 tons per day. “I worked in a warehouse nearby, when my colleagues told me that there was a way to earn money easier and with no hassles. So I got here,” says Débora da Cruz Amaral, 26. She says that she managed to organize her life with the money paid by the collected garbage. “I bought a motorbike, a piece of land and the furniture in my house”.

About the end of the landfill, Débora says she is determined to pursue other opportunities. “Sometimes I can not believe that I have to stop here”. The lack of perspective is shared by her colleagues. “I do not know what to do,” says Isac Alves Rodrigues, 64, who worked for more than 20 years in Gramacho. “Maybe I’ll go to the Lixão de Bangu. But not to Seropédica (where a new landfill is being prepared). It is far too distant”, the scavenger complains.

Today, the collected recyclable material is sold to 42 depots in the neighbourhood. For the coordinator of the landfill, Lucio Viana, cooperatives of scavengers should replace the current system. “The cooperatives need to get legalized, they need to have the required documents, providing a fund of support and training to scavengers”, he says. The place must be deactivated before the deadline given by the federal government.

This situation can not be found on the outskirts of Brasilia, where the uncertainty of the scavengers has lasted five decades. About 10 km from the pilot plan, a complete town has arisen, its activities based upon the garbage dump. Ronei Alves de Lima, a member of the Movimento Nacional de Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (MNCR = National Movement of Collectors of Recyclable Materials) estimates that the Brazilian capital has four thousand scavengers and produces 2,400 tons of garbage a day. The main destination is the illegal landfill in Cidade Estrutural.
The situation in the “Lixão da Estrutural” is the same since 1960 and the scavengers are afraid that any changes are not well conducted. “To change it is of fundamental importance that the government implements selective waste collection”, says Ronel.

According to him, more than 20 cooperatives are operating in the Federal District. Ronei ensures that organizing the activity can yield more for the members of the cooperative. “At the landfill, you collect more, but it is more contaminated and with less value”, he added.

Cooperativeness also is the keyword for the scavengers of Serra, in Espírito Santo. The president of Recuperlixo, Maria do Carmo Cantilio, explains that the cooperative has more than 30 people, with its own trucks and warehouses. After 12 years of its existence, the contrast with the work that had been carried out in the open, in landfills, is great. “There you work among the vultures. Much has changed”, she added. Currently, the group recycles up to 20 tons per month. “It’s still very little. If we could collect selectively, we could realise 50 tons”, she says.

However, the cooperative’s president warns against what she considers risks. “I agree that they stop with the landfills, but that can not mean to enslave the scavengers”, she explains. “Here, we are not employees and have no boss. They (government and municipalities) have to consider to give us a hook and line to let us fish”, says Maria. She said a scavenger arranges about BRL 1,000 (625 USD), depending on his ability to work and places where he collects the material. In the cooperative, the average income is much higher.

Pride and change
Minas Gerais has 385 dumpsites and 227 controlled landfills, according to the Management of Environmental Sanitation of the State of Minas Gerais (Feam). Maria Madalena Rodrigues Duarte Lima, 50, working on a landfill began when she was seven. It was at the dump called “Céu Aberto” (Open Skies) in Itaúna in the midwest of the state, where she learned the trade. “We saw that scavenging was not a cool thing, but not so unworthy and shameful either, it was a job”, she says.

At 38 years, and after having roamed five landfills, she created a recycling cooperative, which was responsible for the change in her life. “Today I am proud to have passed through the landfill, because through this work I am a person who rescued my citizenship, I achieved things, my dream was to buy my own house, thank God, I managed the money for it thanks to what I got for the garbage”, she explains. She says she watched the movie “Lixo extraordinário” and identified herself with a girl who wore several clothes one over the other. “We took care to wear two, three pants, two, three blouses, wearing a long sleeved shirt, with just one thing in mind: protection”, she recalls.

Challenging the federal government
The coordinator of the executive secretariat of the Inter-ministerial Committee for Social Inclusion of Scavengers of the Ministry of Social Development (MDS), Jaira Maria Alba Puppin, said the Lei de Resíduos Sólidos (Solid Waste Law) is a milestone in policies in regard to these workers, but admits that the ones living in informality (not registered or legalized) fear the effects of the expected changes which will occur before 2014. “They are afraid they will not participate in this process, not being hired by the municipal administration”, says the coordinator of the committee.

To advocate the inclusion of scavengers in the collecting process of garbage recycling, she refers to a study by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea = Institute of Applied Economic Research), which suggests that Brazil fails to recycle for BRL 8 billion (5 billion USD) in material that is deposited in dumps and landfills. She said the government estimates that in 2007 the country had between 800,000 and 1 million scavengers. “I think that’s a cautious estimate”. According to her, there are only about a thousand groups with relations to public administration.

The Director of Urban Environment of the Ministry of Environment, Sérgio Gonçalves, said that “more then 60% of the municipalities dispose of the garbage in an improper way”. According to him, only 900 of the 5,565 existing municipalities in Brazil have some sort of selective collection, organized by companies or cooperatives. He points out that the government estimate that the total of scavengers organized in cooperatives is only 35,000. “The potential to organize is very big”, he explains.

He recognizes that the scavengers are fearful about the closing of the landfills in the near future, but notes that legal measurements will create a kind of market reserve. “The policy (National Solid Waste Policy) sets the motion in reverse: there is garbage, waste exists and the law says, use the scavenger. Empower him and put the scavenger as the protagonist”, he says. The director says the Law allows municipalities to hire cooperative scavengers without bidding. “It is in their hand. (…) The scavengers will have a more extensive market than they have today and well organized”, he argues.

In recent years, the inclusion of scavengers and the closing of garbage dumps advanced in the state of São Paulo. According to MNCR, Diadema, Biritiba Mirim, Arujá, Assis, Araraquara, Orlândia, Ourinhos and São José do Rio Preto are considered models of garbage collection with the participation of scavengers. In the city of São Paulo, there are no dumps and trash is destined to sanitary landfills. However, the MNCR says that only 1% of the garbage of São Paulo is recycled and that more than 20,000 scavengers without any support work in the streets.

Brazilian bureaucracy is not famous for its efficiency and fair-play, so I must say I share the fear expressed by the catadores, the selective garbage collectors. There is too much money involved and politicians and their friends smell the brilliant opportunity to rake in the money mountain. Cooperative or not, I am afraid the law ends the existence of the traditional Brazilian catador.