Cash for Trash

Brazil’s Unemployed Catadores Keep Recycling Rates High while Earning Much-Needed Cash.


CatadoresFinal_BW.jpgphoto michael fox

Eli Balim meticulously works her way through an enormous heap of garbage. Her hands – scarred from years of handling broken shards – quickly open each bag, toss the glass bottles into a waste-high dumpster, and pull out everything that’s useless, dangerous, or can’t be recycled. Her powerful body heaves the bag over the wall into a heap that will soon be sorted into piles of plastic, tin, and paper by one of the other members of the 20-person Vila dos Papeleiros Recycling Association.

When her shift ends at 5 p.m., Balim braves the evening city traffic, pulling her six-foot-long metal cart through the streets of the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre to collect another 100 kilos of recycling as the sun sets. En route, she passes dozens of collectors picking through the day’s trash. The scavengers cluster around piles of garbage on roadsides and street corners, hauling their recycling booties over their shoulders in thick plastic bags, on the backs of horse-drawn buggies, or in waste-high carts like Balim.

Like hundreds of thousands of Brazilians, Balim is a catador (collector) – an integral component of a complex web of individual recyclers, collecting cooperatives, middlemen, and packaging producers that consistently makes Brazil one of the top recycling countries in the world, with a tin can recycling rate of as high as 96.5 percent.

But this achievement is not just about saving the environment. It’s about economics. Recycling provides a living to families across Brazil who otherwise would have few ways of making ends meet.

Waste Not Want Not

Like almost everyone in the Vila dos Papeleiros community where she lives, Balim has been “pushing a cart” for decades – ever since she moved to the state capital 20 years ago. After living under a bridge for three months, she realized that she could squeak out a living collecting and selling recyclables. She bought her first shack in the Vila dos Papeleiros for 600 reais ($330) and has raised her three children in the community ever since.

Rusty metal recycling carts line the streets of Vila dos Papeleiros. Miniature backyards and gated front porches are used as tiny recycling warehouses. At the edge of the neighborhood, the industrial streets off the Rua Voluntários da Pátria are filled with middleman recycling purchasers, called ferro velhos, to whom the catadores sell their products. The ferro velhos join forces to sell large amounts of recyclables to other middlemen or directly back to the industry, as well as material producers, who turn the products into new materials.

The ad-hoc system is an anomaly – a recycling success story among a sea of global debris. Brazil has few national recycling laws (the Brazilian Senate is still debating solid waste legislation that has been on the table for two decades), but nevertheless has achieved recycling levels close to those of countries like Japan and Germany, which mandate robust recycling.

According to Brazil’s Business Agreement for Recycling Association, Brazil leads the rest of the Americas in its recycling rate. In 2008, the country recycled 47 percent of glass bottles, while the European average was 62 percent and the United States was about 40 percent. The same year, Brazil recycled 54.8 percent of plastic bottles. Only Japan topped the South American country, with a plastic bottle recycling rate of around 70 percent, while the United States hovered at about 20 percent. Most impressively, Brazil has topped the aluminum can recycling charts eight years in a row, with a consistent rate of around 90 percent. In comparison, aluminum recycling in the United States has dropped from 68 percent in 1992 to 54.2 percent today.

Jobs for All

What helps Brazil to achieve these impressive numbers year after year?

“I think it’s basically the unemployment situation,” says Mauro Wanderley Lima, coordinator of the Special Residual Project for Rio de Janeiro’s waste management company, COMLURB. “It’s what’s good for the environment, and there is a market for this material, which gives the catador a high value for the product, and there are a lot of people that don’t have any formal employment.”

According to Henio De Nicola, recycling coordinator for the Brazilian Aluminum Association, 180,000 families across the country “complement their salary or live off of the collection of tin cans.” Brazil’s National Movement of Recycled Material Collectors (MNCR) estimates that over a million Brazilians are involved with recyclable material collection.

Mamao_Catadore_BW.jpgphoto courtesy Mamão de CordaIn 2008, Brazil recycled more than 90 percent of its aluminum cans and
about half of its glass and plastic bottles. In comparison, the United
States’ aluminum recycling rate has dropped from 68 to 54 percent in
the last 18 years.

“It’s not bad,” Balim says. “I don’t make enough to eat meat every night. But that’s OK. I don’t really like meat anyway.” Balim and her fellow associates at the Vila dos Papeleiros Recycling Association (AREVIPA) tend to make roughly 400 reais ($225) a month, below the new 2010 Brazilian minimum wage of 510 reais per month. Those who, like Balim, work double-time can earn even more. Nevertheless, life collecting materials on the streets is not easy.

“All papeleiros (cart pushers) are deaf in one ear, from the car horns,” says Balim, “If they tell you they aren’t, they’re either lying or they aren’t a papeleiro.”

Meanwhile, drug and crime rates are through the roof in Vila dos Papeleiros. Taxis refuse to stop there, and the military police set up a post just inside of the vila last year to attempt to stop the trafficking. Elsewhere, the situation isn’t any easier. More than 1,000 miles to the northeast, on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero, 1,500 catadores make a living scavenging upon the endless mounds of Latin America’s largest dump – Gramacho. But while life may be hard, Brazil’s catadores are getting organized.

Spurred by the introduction of the aluminum can into Brazil in the late 1980s, and seeing the benefits of pooling their resources and cutting out as many middlemen as possible, catadores across the country began to organize into associations and cooperatives.

The MNCR was born in June 2001, when 1,700 catadores from around the country held the First National Congress of Recycled Material Catadores. By the following year, the federal government had officially recognized the profession of “catador.” Organized catadores could now receive contracts from businesses and local governments. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva pushed the door further open in October 2006 when he decreed that all government bodies must recycle and that their recyclable materials must go to catador cooperatives and associations.

Good as Gold

A latinha e oro, catadores say. “The aluminum can is gold.” And it is, with a price that has at times topped three reais per kilo, or about $1.50.

No other recycling product pays for itself the way the aluminum can does. It is the only product that can be recycled infinitely back into itself without losing quality; recycling uses only five percent the energy it takes to produce the same aluminum from a primary source. When the aluminum can was introduced into Brazil, aluminum recyclers were prepared to capture back as much value as possible.

“Since the beginning of the aluminum can industry in the [late] 1980s, private initiatives set up a collection chain of recycling, which has been totally maintained based on its own cost benefit,” says Henio De Nicola of the Brazilian Aluminum Association. “This was always accompanied by an educational push to motivate the collection of the tin can.”

The arrangement has been a success: Brazil tops the planet with its rate of aluminum can recycling.

“The aluminum can market in the United States is the largest market in the world,” says Renault de Freitas Castro, Executive Director of the Brazilian Association of Highly Recyclable Can Manufacturers (ABRALATAS). “It recycles 53 percent. Then you still have 50 billion cans in the market that are just being thrown away.”

He adds, “Where are these cans? You just need someone to get them. I doubt that no one in the United States is interested in collecting these cans and selling them. Together they are worth tens of millions of dollars. Perhaps what you need is an organizational effort with a system of collection and sale.”

A latinha e oro, trash collectors say: “The aluminum can is gold.” With a price of $1.50 per kilo, it’s true.

With a campaign to bump up the aluminum can recycling rate to 75 percent by 2015, the US Aluminum Association may be poised to do just that. In the meantime, the country’s low aluminum recycling rate begs the question: Why isn’t there a higher recovery rate in the United States already?

Kicked to the Curb

“There’s no firm explanation for the decline in the recycling rate,” says Nick Adams of the US Aluminum Association. At least part of the problem, he says, is the loss of neighborhood recycling centers.

“The centers were dropped with the advent of curbside recycling, because instead of going there, people just put their recycling on the street… so there’s no economic incentive. It’s just about being a good citizen,” Adams says. He adds that the fees for trash pickup are usually so small that they don’t give people an incentive to recycle. In some places, the curbside recycling bins simply aren’t big enough.

Also, recycling rates across the United States took a major dip in 2008 and 2009 when commodity prices of recycled materials tanked. The drop in commodity prices hurt the garbage companies that expect to make a profit from the glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic they collect. Municipalities were also impacted, since they typically expect to break even – if not earn money – from curbside recycling programs.

Some programs are starting in the United States to take advantage of a market-driven approach. RecycleBank works in partnership with local municipalities to set up a program that provides a financial incentive for consumers to recycle. A bar code is placed on homes’ recycling bins, and when the company picks up the recycling, a scale measures the amount of material and gives a credit to that household. The household then receives coupons for discounts on merchandise based on how much it recycles.

But according to Jack Macy, Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, “you can’t just rely on the marketplace. Public policy is really important. The reason that California is ahead of the rest of the country [in recycling] is because the state enacted legislation with ambitious goals with teeth.”

One example are “bottle bills” or “container deposit laws,” whereby a five- to ten-cent container refund value provides a monetary incentive for the public to return their containers for recycling. Deposit laws also provide an incentive to the manufacturers to encourage recycling, as they get some money back off the bottles that are returned. “The states that have the redemption have higher recovery rates,” Macy says. He points to California, which enacted its bottle bill legislation in 1986. As of June 2009, California had an impressive bottle recycling rate of 85 percent.

Right now, Brazil doesn’t need bottle bills. Low-income Brazilians already have their economic incentive for recycling. But that doesn’t mean the government can’t do more to further encourage recycling.

Some Brazilian cities are taking the legislative challenge head on. Just over a decade ago, the Rio de Janeiro state legislature passed a law mandating that “all businesses that use plastic bottles and packaging in the sale of their products are responsible for the final environmentally responsible destination of said bottles and packaging.”

Brazilian businesses have to collect 25 percent of what they put on the market. This was a bold legislative move, demanding that companies pick up part of the bill for the negative externalities generated by producing and selling plastic packaging. “If you produced it, you’re responsible for it to its final destination,” says Wanderley of Rio de Janeiro’s waste management company.

Unfortunately, in Brazil that’s easier said than done. According to Carmen Lucariny, advisor to the President of the Rio de Janeiro State Environmental Institute (INEA), only Coca-Cola is close to meeting the mandate. In 2008, INEA took matters into its own hands. If producers would not comply with the law, they would be forced to participate in the new Rio Ama os Rios’ (Rio Loves Its Rivers) Eco-barriers program and pay 250,000 reais ($140,000) to sponsor an eco-barrier. The eco-barriers are made of recycled material and are installed in Rio de Janeiro rivers to capture floating debris so it can be collected and recycled. Nine eco-barriers have been installed, with 16 more planned.

The funds for the eco-barriers also pay local cooperatives to collect and recycle the debris. Lucariny says that some groups of “ecogaris,” or eco-catadores, pull 200 tons of debris a month out of the city’s rivers.

The catadores understand that recycling is economics. You have to make the best of what you have and reuse what is available.

For the Federation of Recycled Material Catador Cooperatives, the two-year-old program has been an undeniable success, helping to clean up the environment while offering a steady source of income for the low-income cooperatives that participate.

São Paulo has taken a different route to enforce the city’s mandate that producers collect 50 percent of their plastic packaging. Since May 2009, the city has fined industry 350,000 reais ($205,000) for failure to comply.

This type of robust government action is becoming more common. British Columbia, for example, integrated “product stewardship,” also known as producer responsibility, into its 2004 Recycling Regulation. These “polluter pay” policies cover everything from beverage containers to tires, pharmaceutical products, electronics, beer containers, flammable products, and used oil. The legislation mandates that producers of designated materials take full responsibility for managing their products at end-of-life. In many of the programs, a deposit fee is paid at the time of purchase, which is refunded for returned containers or product. Each industry is free to develop its own stewardship program, but it must be approved by the Canadian Ministry of Environment.

According to a 2008 Environmental Ministry Economic Impact Report, the stewardship programs have created 1,600 jobs, avoided 267,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and kicked the beer container recovery rate up to 90 percent.

These are powerful steps forward, but there is still something missing.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

“Yes, recycling is part of the solution,” says Eduardo Bernhardt, of the Rio-based environmental education organization, the Recicloteca. “But in our understanding, a more practical solution would be the logic of the three R’s: Reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

Sifting through endless piles of debris, this is something that Brazil’s catadores probably understand better than anyone else: Recycling is economics. You have to make the best of what you have, do your best to fill in the missing pieces, and reuse what is available.

Back at AREVIPA, Balim wipes the sweat off her forehead and bends down to pull an almost-new pair of shoes from the bag of trash by her feet. Beside them, she sees a plastic bag filled with old puzzle pieces and lifts it up to take a better look at it.

“These are for my daughter,” she says, holding them up with a smile. “She has tons of these at home, but sometimes they’re missing pieces.”

Michael Fox is a freelance reporter and documentary filmmaker in South America. He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots. His writing is available at

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