Pay a visit to any of South America's cities and you will quickly be struck by the contrasts. In Buenos Aires you will see piles of rubbish at the feet of glass towers. In Rio de Janeiro, large favelas face towards multimillion dollar penthouse apartments. In Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, the super wealthy travel by helicopter, spending their working days in the sky while the unemployed struggle to survive on the streets.
During our stay in Sao Paulo we were inspired to try and understand what these contrasts mean for the people that live there. Specifically, we wanted to meet Sao Paulo's waste pickers, who make a living collecting rubbish and picking out the valuable material for sale.
We first learned about waste pickers, as they are called, through a documentary based in India. We were confronted by the health issues that people working in land fills or collecting on the streets must risk (infected cuts, respitory disease etc). Some waste pickers live and work on municipal dumps – as many as 20,000 people in Kolkata, India. Bear in mind that some of these landfills are massive (Rio closed the world's largest open landfill last year).
We wanted to understand what working on the streets is like for Sao Paulo's poor and to also better understand if and how people are able to make a living from collecting waste.
Our friend Miranda kindly organised a meeting with the Pinheiros Collective, a small group of waste pickers that had a work space near where we were staying.
The Pinheiros Collective was formed by a small group of waste pickers who at the time were either living on the streets or in shared lodgings. Using carts that they pulled by hand, they would walk the streets at night, collecting trash that had been put on the streets by businesses and households. The trash would then be picked through to determine what was valuable and could be onsold.
In effect, the waste pickers provide an informal trash collection and recycling service. They make money by selling materials such as copper, aluminium cans, paper and plastic bottles to companies that can reuse them. We saw that in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo they contributed to improved environmental sanitation by removing waste from urban areas unserved by municipal garbage collection.
After a chance community event, six waste pickers were inspired to combine their efforts and form a collective. Through a bit of lobbying they secured some council land and by pooling their resources, over time they saved enough money to purchase vehicles to collect rubbish.
The co-op now employs 21 staff. It has successfully sought registration with the government and has been awarded small grants from banks. Working conditions have steadily improved. The staff now use a compactor to compress materials into sellable bricks, where before they had to do it by hand. Work hours are now during the day thanks to the vehicles and a kitchen has been built to serve lunches for the staff.
The impact on their quality of life is impressive. The members of the collective are now earning twice the minimum wage, around USD700 a month, enough to feed a family. They have all moved off the streets and are pooling funding to build humble apartments for their families. Fees are also collected from each member to provide accident/health insurance.
It is not all milk and honey though. Their work place is located under a bridge, which periodically floods and hosts a swarm of mosquitoes. The staff complain of a lingering prejudice against waste pickers and shared stories of bullying from the police. The collective is pushing to be recognised as a legitimate workforce that provides a valuable sevice but struggles to engage with the government.
The Pinheiros Collective is a good case study as it reflects similar group actions taking place across Brazil. Waste pickers are evolving into a politically mobilised and networked labour force. They have a national body that organises events to share success stories and lobby government to recognise their services and remove the social stigma that many waste pickers face.
It is inspiring stuff. Hope you enjoyed this post. We really appreciated the time given to us by the staff and enjoyed being able to share such a positive story. We think its an interesting model for service provision in poor communities, easily replicated with a bit of support. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you would like to learn more about waste pickers we recommend the following as a starting point:
Many thanks to Miranda for her patient translation and shared interest in our slightly unusual idea. We couldn't have managed it without you!
Thanks for reading.