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photo ©Leonel Lima Ponce for Inhabitat

The city of São Paulo, the largest metropolis in South America, produces massive amounts of solid waste on a daily basis. In order to manage this constant flow of trash, the municipal government provides recycling services for most of its neighborhoods. However, the sheer volume of recyclable trash overwhelms the capacity of these services. Thus, catadores, or waste pickers, are a common sight in its crowded streets. In an effort to curb the visual presence of these pickers and their carts in the city center, a program of recycling co-operatives was started by the city, and now services 16 districts. A part of this program, Coopere operates out of a municipal waste sorting facility, employing citizens with difficulties getting work elsewhere, such as middle-aged blue collar workers and those with previous substance abuse issues.

Ultimately the goal is to take catadores off the streets and give them legitimate, green jobs. One of the managers at the site, Olinda, puts it simply: “It is dangerous on the streets out there; we try to get people in a safe, secure working environment with possible professional development.”

As part of this development, a few younger workers were given e-waste management training at a local university, and will start a program on-site this year. As part of its agreement with the city, Coopere must handle all of the recyclable waste collected by city trucks in its district, and is put in charge of finding buyers for the material. In exchange, the co-operative is given use of one truck, and has formed a list of over 700 clients, from which they have on-site access to the most valuable materials (before other catadores sort through it). Loads from municipal trucks contain a much lower rate of valuable product. Workers are paid proportionately to hours worked and based on the net profits made from material sales.

photo ©Leonel Lima Ponce for Inhabitat

While the municipal program benefits the workers involved, it falls short of its potential. Only 5 percent of São Paulo’s city budget is dedicated to recycling programs, and little to none of it is spent on education and training for potential workers and entrepreneurs. To remedy this disconnect, various NGOs are taking it upon themselves to harness an environment where recycling training can occur. One of these programs, ReviraVolta was started by Centro Gaspar Garcia de Direitos Humanos to help street residents in the center of São Paulo learn a new occupation, while providing cultural programs and substance abuse rehabilitation. Coorpel facility is the principal center for the program, where workers participate in daily labor, and have access to voluntary crafts activities that use collected waste as raw material. Those who collaborate and show interest in continuing in the program, which includes communal therapy and discussions to help with substance abuse, then continue to earn more responsibilities and possible placement in related programs and companies.

The previousrecycling facilities are sanctioned or approved by São Paulo’s municipal government, but not all co-operatives have such luck. Filadélfia recycling, a community-based operation near Vila Eliane Fernandes favela, thought it could qualify for some municipal funding or services when it first set up shop, but its location on private land owned by a utility company impeded any help from the city. Women in charge of the group persevered, self-organizing into a strong contingent of over 20 workers that constructed a sorting facility complete with offices and a truck garage. The women designate tasks, manage schedules and pickup routes, and divvy up the profits based on working hours. Each material has its specific path through the facility, and even complex pieces such as electronics are taken apart by specialized workers. By persevering and taking great pride in their work and their community, the women of Filadélfia recycling have sustained the livelihood of several families in spite of the lack of government aid.

photo ©Leonel Lima Ponce for Inhabitat

While these three case studies present a broad picture of the state of recycling in São Paulo,  which is somewhat reflected across Brazil, one thing is for certain: by incorporating community-based social programs and job development into environmental policy, cities and states around the globe can apply the lessons learned from São Paulo and strive towards holistic sustainable development.

+Coopere (in Portuguese)

+Centro Gaspar Garcia de Direitos Humanos (in Portuguese)