In the wake of the #ApoieUmCatador (#SupportAWastePicker) campaign, which seeks to offer support to Rio de Janeiro’s waste pickers who are made invisible during the Covid-19 pandemic, and which is promoting the #ShowYourGarbage video challenge, the Solid Waste Working Group of the Sustainable Favela Network (SFN)* organized a public teach-in on June 30. How Does the Pandemic Impact Waste Pickers? was debated by six presenters who shared their experiences and analyses on the current situation and discussed the principal roadblocks that still hinder the work of cooperatives and independent waste pickers. Other members of the group also participated by sharing their experiences in favelas with recycling and reuse of materials.
Participants in the debate included Luiz Carlos Santiago, president of the Cootrabom recycling cooperative and director of Rede Recicla Rio (Recycle Rio Network), as well as a member of the Municipal Forum of Waste Pickers of Rio de Janeiro; Gilberto Batista, founder of the Comunidade Limpa Só Lazer project in Morro do Salgueiro favela; Edson Freitas, founder of the NGO EccoVida, a cooperative of recyclable material collectors based in Honório Gurgel that operates in several neighborhoods in Greater Rio de Janeiro; Tânia Ramos, social worker at the Street Peoples’ Pastoral Committee of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro; Ilaci Oliveira, founder of the Transvida Cooperative in Vila Cruzeiro favela; and Claudete Costa, president and first woman representative of the National Movement of Waste Pickers (MNCR) in Rio de Janeiro.
Clara Ferraz, from Catalytic Communities*, mediated the debate. She started the evening’s program summarizing the Sustainable Favela Network’s mission of “connecting and supporting the numerous environmental sustainability and social resilience initiatives in Greater Rio’s favelas.” After the opening, she gave the floor to Luiz Santiago, who emphasized the various ways in which waste pickers are essential to society, with the economy being one of those factors. “The actions of waste pickers and cooperatives generate a huge reduction in expenditures for municipalities. The material reaches the end of the economic cycle and returns to industry through the hands of the waste picker, reducing the extraction of raw material from nature,” said Santiago.
Economy and Emancipation
Santiago also warned about the impression many people have that waste pickers are necessarily people in vulnerable situations, which is not the general rule of the labor category. “We are economic agents, we understand efficiency and people management, but we do not have access to working capital and credit. The nurse is a hero, but with the waste picker it is always the ‘story of beautiful work’. I want to be paid like any worker,” he said.
Freitas, from EccoVida, described the economic scenario during the pandemic. According to him, “an estimated 320,000 people were picking up garbage in the state of Rio de Janeiro, but with the current level of unemployment, this number may exceed 400,000 in the near future. We have cooperatives and small warehouses that generate jobs for an army. 90% of the recyclable material comes from individual waste pickers and cooperatives, and that is why it needs to be incentivized by the State. We are having difficulty using all of the material.”
Costa, who started collecting recyclable materials at the age of 10, has been fighting for the recognition waste pickers’ work through socioeconomic support. A representative of MNCR, she contextualized the current situation of workers: “We have begun to understand the importance of organizing ourselves to provide service within society. It is important to have a law that obligates city governments to hire cooperatives of recyclable material collectors, but since that does not happen, many doors are not open to us. The national waste law was made with the inclusion of waste pickers and we see that it worked in the end.” She also highlighted the importance of workers’ dignity through respect and recognition. “We need investment and structure to be equal in the market. Companies get billions in investment and very little actually comes to us. We do social and professional work, driving more than 7% of our country’s economy. Within the Ministry of Labor, we are recognized as professionals, because it is a profession!” said Costa.
With 20 years of experience as a social worker with the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro, Ramos does grassroots work with a specific group that does not fit into the organized context of cooperatives and organizations. “We have to recognize and celebrate the dignity of each person. We work with people who are outside the organizational structure, those on the street, [who] collect on a daily basis and sell their items to get food. It is another characteristic and is present mainly in urban centers,” she explained.
The topic of education was considered one of the most important among participants, especially when related to environmental awareness and the training of young people to value the environment. Vânia Nascimento, from the Lata Doida Cultural Association in Realengo, a member of the SFN’s Solid Waste Working Group, pointed out that “organizations are often engaged with local schools through partnerships with teachers. Projects appear in schools through games that encourage the recycling of plastics, metal, cardboard and cooking oil, which ends up engaging residents and encouraging favelas that do not yet have recycling programs.”
Oliveria from the Transvida Cooperative in Vila Cruzeiro also focused on education as a way of transforming society: “Many thought of everything as garbage, but their perspective changed when I started showing them the importance of recycling; I showed crafts, cardboard, and the value that can be added [through handicraft work] to the material. The mentality about the waste that was thrown out changed, they even started cleaning materials before sending them in.” She concluded that while “waste pickers clean and treat the environment, they also act as environmental educators. They have years of experience with this work that needs to be transformed into public policy.”
On education and the invisibility of professionals, Santiago mused: “The waste picker is an important link in the issue of environmental education. Many well-meaning people talk about environmental education, but they don’t know where their garbage goes, they never visited a garbage dump or a cooperative. The picker does the work of an educator, who collects and takes the material.” He also noted that “the National Solid Waste Policy has to be implemented in reality. They say that Brazil is the biggest can collector in the world, but what is it for? Today no one even picks them up anymore because aluminum is no longer valued. Everything ends up adding to the waste pickers’ misery, we have to take another look at ourselves as a nation, we are tired of invisibility.”
Regarding the difficulties encountered by waste pickers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Batista admitted that the job became even more difficult. “Now we have to wait to get the material. In some cases I recommend waiting for the street sweeper, to avoid accumulation in dumps. Some already have the disease, so we stopped going to some places.” Ramos reiterated the point: “In this moment of the pandemic, it is important to start listening to waste pickers and homeless people. Ask your local collector what they need, listen to what each group and what each individual needs, and help with the campaigns,” she encouraged.
In the same vein, Costa expressed her concern: “We are unable to be out in the streets doing our work, which is why solidarity with waste pickers is so important. I have been at home since March, and now, I am starting to organize myself alongside other waste pickers who are returning to activity.” She also mentioned the workers’ challenges: “We are in need of help with basic foodstuffs. We are professionals, we are workers, and the bills are adding up. Unfortunately, we have a government completely disconnected from this situation.”
And how to help? Ferraz highlighted to everyone, at the end of the opening speeches, the origin of the teach-in, which is the #SupportAWastePicker campaign. “Waste pickers provide essential support for the preservation and sustainability of our environment, and currently run great risks during the pandemic, including through contact with contaminated material and through the impacts of reduced pay. You can also directly support the collectors on your street: sanitize recyclable materials and ensure that gloves and masks do not get grouped in with recyclable materials.” All this information and additional guidance can be seen on the campaign page where there is also a link for donations.
Ferraz also invited all participants to share the videos of the #ShowYourGarbage challenge (also available on the Sustainable Favela Network Facebook Page) and, mainly, to post their own versions. To show support for waste pickers, you can make a simple, homemade video, showing the trash in your home and how you sort and organize it. “These videos will foster a public debate on how we deal with our waste and bring attention to the #SupportAWastePicker Campaign,” explained Ferraz, advising everyone who posts videos to include a mention of the campaign’s hashtag and invite their followers to access the page for more information on how to support waste pickers during the pandemic. “The idea is that each person who makes the video will challenge three others to post videos as well, which will create a wave of engagement and support.”
Cris dos Prazeres, from the ReciclAção project in the Morro dos Prazeres favela and a member of the working group, concluded: “Every time I see autonomous and anonymous workers looking for information about PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) I become very happy, because it means that we are going through a personal and professional transformation. This struggle inspires and strengthens the collective work: valuing environmental action. Congratulations to the Network!”
Support Rio de Janeiro’s essential waste pickers during the pandemic here. For US-based donors, Catalytic Communities, the 501c3 nonprofit that publishes RioOnWatch, has established a fundraising page available here where you can get a tax exemption for contributing. To have your contribution earmarked to this campaign, please type #SupportAWastePicker in the “Additional Information” box on the fundraising page.
Watch the interactive teach-in here:
*The Sustainable Favela Network and RioOnWatch are both projects of NGO Catalytic Communities (CatComm).