This is our most recent article on the new coronavirus and its impact on the favelas. It’s also part of a series created in partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University in California, to produce articles on human rights and socio-environmental justice in the favelas for RioOnWatch.
During Brazil’s coronavirus pandemic, one of the groups that has been hid hardest are waste pickers, who salvage materials for recycling. They are among the most vulnerable categories and are subject to social prejudice in Brazil. As they rely on income from the collection of materials, with no other sources of funds, few feel they are able to self-isolate during the quarantine. They also face challenges from the sale of the waste collected and with the risks of exposing themselves to the virus through contact with these materials. Facing adverse working conditions, waste pickers are responsible for around 90% of recycling in Brazil and, despite their invisibility, perform an essential service for the sustainability and health of our cities.
Edson Freitas, president of the Recyclers Association of Rio de Janeiro (Associação dos Recicladores do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, ARERJ) and founder of the NGO EccoVida, explains that “the waste collected by pickers becomes raw materials, generating thousands of jobs and income, resulting in savings for public coffers, reducing use of natural resources, and preserving the environment.” Data from the 2017-2018 Yearly Recycling Report analyzed the activity of 260 waste picker cooperatives and found that in 2018, each waste picker generated an average income of R$969 (US$184) per month (near Brazilian minimum wage) and collected on average 1.6 tons of recyclable material each month—preventing this material from ending up in landfills or garbage dumps. In addition, calculations from the same report showed that the incentive for the operation of these organizations resulted in savings in excess of R$67 million (US$12,705,000) for the cities involved and reduced emissions of 64,613 tons of CO2.
Hanna Rodrigues, founder of Teiares, a solid waste management company for commercial establishments that pays for the work done by waste picker cooperatives, adds: “It’s through this category of manual labor that this material is returned to the recycling industry. Without waste pickers, there isn’t an actual circular economy [in Brazil].” There are an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 waste pickers in Brazil, responsible for performing this essential service.
Despite their importance, waste pickers face extremely adverse conditions, exacerbated during the pandemic. Whether independent workers or members of cooperatives, pickers generate their income on a day-to-day basis, collecting and separating materials for reuse. “They’re individuals who depend on and earn a living from the sale of these recyclable materials and have no other source of income to support themselves and their families,” says Freitas.
There is special concern for homeless waste pickers, who have a harder time than those who are members of recycling cooperatives to access programs or institutions that are organizing support. Even receiving basic income assistance is hampered, since often these workers have no means of accessing it, such as mobile phones and access to the Internet, in order to request, track, and receive the benefit.
During the pandemic, those who continue collecting waste are facing an untenable situation. With the closure of industries, the buyers of recyclable materials have either stopped buying or are paying prices that are well below standard. Gilberto Batista, a resident of the Salgueiro favela in the North Zone and founder of the group Comunidade Limpa Só Lazer explains: “Plastic was R$1 (US$0.19) per kilo, now it’s R$0.70 (US$0.13). For metal, they’re paying R$0.50 (US$0.093) per kilo, whereas before it was R$0.85 (US$0.16) to R$0.90 (US$0.17),” says Batista.
“The impacts have been significant. As the recycling industries have stopped buying, the prices have dropped by 50% on average, discouraging the collection of various materials,” explains Freitas, stressing that some deposits and cooperatives have also closed as they are unable to store large volumes of materials.
Aside from the economic issue, there is a great concern for the health of the pickers. According to Freitas, “even in normal times, the materials are very dirty and often contaminated, sometimes even with medical waste.” As citizens are not used to properly disposing of these items, “during this pandemic many of the materials are potentially contaminated with the virus, since it survives for a few days on such materials.”
It is recommended that recyclable materials be cleaned prior to disposal, with soap and water or bleach. In the case of unwashable materials, such as cardboard, they can be discarded with the regular trash or left isolated for a period of 5 days prior to disposal. The National Recyclable Waste Pickers Movement (MNCR) also issued a special alert in relation to gloves, masks, and PPE, which should be discarded with the regular trash. And if someone from your family is showing Covid-19 symptoms, all the materials should be disposed of with the regular trash wrapped in two layers of plastic bags. Either way, the recommendation is that pickers always wear protective gear while working.
For pickers, exposure to the virus is aggravated by certain factors. “Most of the cooperatives are comprised of individuals from the risk group. Many are elderly or have health problems,” Rodrigues noted. She also added that most pickers live in precarious sanitation conditions and have limited access to health services.
In the city of Rio de Janeiro, cooperatives are authorized to work while following the recommendation to use protective gear and exempting workers from the risk group—an estimated 15% of the workforce of pickers associated with MNCR. In practice, over 50% of the cooperatives that receive materials from Rio de Janeiro’s waste management utility, Comlurb, suspended their activities in order to protect cooperative members.
“Despite the federal decree deeming this an essential service, as it is part of the waste management chain, I think that continuing activities, considering the current reality of the cooperatives and the pickers, leaves this group extremely vulnerable,” Rodrigues reflects. “If it were a cooperative that worked exclusively with young pickers, who were able to maintain physical distancing, and who all wore gloves and masks and regularly washed their hands, perhaps leaving quarantine waste sitting for a week before processing it, I think it would be feasible to resume activities. But we know this is not a reality for most [of the cooperatives].” Rodrigues suggests that each cooperative evaluate the level of vulnerability of their pickers and how much they might be exposed to, aside from considering the economic feasibility of resuming activities.
Batista highlights an aggravating factor in the situation of the pickers in general. “Pickers are paid for the material but not for their service. And what about their labor? No one pays, no one sees it.” To address this issue directly, Teiares is studying the possibility of creating a recyclables collection service—following all the health and safety procedures required at the moment—where citizens pay to have their recyclables sent directly to the cooperatives, who would be paid for the service. The company is conducting an online survey to determine the feasibility of the initiative.
In April, in order to generate income, pickers resorted to the emergency assistance offered by the federal government, but many are having trouble accessing it. Batista explains the situation of the pickers who he works with in Salgueiro: “We tried thousands of times to use the Caixa Tem app, but it didn’t work as expected. I took more or less a month to withdraw money from the online account and send it to my account.”
Freitas points out that many pickers have no Internet access, and suggested that citizens offer to help pickers register for this assistance. “There is an army of people in need. The pickers, especially the ones on the streets, live in extreme poverty, which causes us great concern. Many of them have no access to information or the conditions to access the benefits or the assistance offered by the government.”
Now, there may be even greater challenges ahead in receiving this assistance, as President Jair Bolsonaro vetoed the inclusion of the category of recyclable material pickers as beneficiaries of emergency assistance. The veto still needs to be approved or overturned by Congress.
On the other hand, the state government of Rio de Janeiro approved a provision for emergency basic income for entrepreneurs registered with CADSOL, the national registry for solidarity economy enterprises, which includes some of the pickers of recyclable materials who are members of cooperatives. The manner in which this assistance will be distributed has yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, various solidarity movements have organized to support pickers during the pandemic. Ana Santos, coordinator of Center for Multicultural Education (CEM) in the Serra da Misericórdia, in Rio’s North Zone, pointed out that “if it weren’t for the community organizations, many would have died of hunger.” Santos, Rodrigues, Freitas, Batista, and many others have united through the Solid Waste Working Group of the Sustainable Favela Network in Rio de Janeiro to conduct a unified campaign in support of numerous movements to support waste pickers across the city. The campaign also encourages greater societal awareness about the production and disposal of waste at a time when so many are at home in direct contact with their own trash. Find out more about the #ApoieUmCatador (#SupportAWastePicker) campaign and participate in the #MostreSeuLixo (#ShowYourGarbage) challenge on the Facebook or Instagram accounts for the Sustainable Favela Network. See below for details on how to support this and other solidarity movements.
Initiatives and Campaigns Supporting Waste Pickers
Initiative: Support a Waste Picker is a unified campaign put together by the Sustainable Favela Network’s Solid Waste Working Group to support a variety of movements assisting Rio’s waste pickers through the pandemic. The campaign also aims to stimulate greater awareness around everyone’s own waste, the essential role of waste pickers in Brazil’s waste management, and the challenges they currently face. Follow #ApoieUmCatador on social media.
Initiative: The Transvida Cooperative seeks support for the purchase of cleaning supplies and food staples to feed hungry families. The cooperative—comprised of dozens of pickers working since 2011 with the collection of recyclable materials in Complexo da Penha—has suspended activities due to risk of contamination from the waste. It is a member of Sustainable Favela Network and, in addition to collecting waste, encourages environmental education in the favelas.
Initiative: Coopfuturo, Coopama, ACAMJG, Coopercaxias, Coopernovaera, and Associação Bela Amizade are recycling cooperatives comprised mostly of individuals from the Covid-19 risk group. With activities suspended, they are trying to guarantee basic food baskets and sanitation supplies for their members. This is a collective financing effort with disbursements in a social currency known as MUDA.
Initiative: Fórum Municipal Dos Catadores E Catadoras Do Rio De Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro Municipal Forum of Waste Pickers), comprised of 21 waste picker cooperatives in the state, launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide 300 baskets of food and cleaning supplies to member pickers.
Initiative: Movimento Nacional Eu Sou Catador de Materiais Recicláveis (MESC) (I Am A Recyclable Waste Picker National Movement) is raising funds to purchase basic food baskets and sanitation kits for the families of 740 pickers, both independent pickers and cooperative members, who belong to the movement.
Initiative: A group of 19 cooperatives of recyclable material pickers distributed across six Brazilian states have joined together to raise funds, with the support of the consulting firm Visões da Terra. The proposal aims at guaranteeing a minimum income of R$300 (US$57) for a total of 352 cooperative members, until activities can be resumed.
Initiative: Associação Nacional dos Catadores e Catadoras de Materiais Recicláveis (ANCAT) (National Association of Recyclable Waste Pickers), Movimento Nacional de Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (MNCR) (National Movement of Recyclable Waste Pickers), and União Nacional de Catadores e Catadoras de Materiais Recicláveis do Brasil (Unicatadores) (National Union of Recyclable Material Pickers of Brazil) are conducting, in partnership with various institutions, the Solidariedade Aos Catadores (Solidarity for Pickers) campaign to guarantee food safety and the well-being of the pickers. Donations are transformed into a credit of R$200 (US$38) through a food voucher card, allowing families to purchase what they most need and support small local businesses. Independent pickers and cooperatives can register to receive the assistance.
Registration: here for cooperatives and here for independent pickers
Initiative: The Cataki and Pimp My Carroça projects launched a crowdfunding campaign to guarantee basic income for independent pickers registered with the Cataki platform. The funds raised will be distributed evenly between the nearly 3,000 individuals registered.
*Both RioOnWatch and the Sustainable Favela Network are initiatives of Catalytic Communities.