How Do Garbage Recycling Groups Function in Brazil?

In this comfort-oriented consumer culture, preprocessed and packaged foods are one of the most popular time saving items available. But due to the increased use of disposable containers to preserve and transport these products, society generates enormous quantities of undesirable waste material. Every city in the world has to face the problem of accumulating tons of plastic, paper, glass and metallic residue daily. When improperly administered, this material decays where it lands, or piles up wherever it encounters barriers. Even when these leftovers of mass consumption are collected to be disposed of, they are often burned or buried. Aside from causing dangerous pollution, this destruction of valuable packaging material leads to ever-increasing industrial extraction of more raw materials from the environment to produce new artifacts more petroleum for plastics, more trees for paper and cardboard, more sand for glass, and more ore for metals. This constant aggression against nature is beginning to show its cost.

In Brazil, recent legislation is forcing industries and departments of governments to rethink the life cycle of their used packaging. The concept of shared responsibility, determines that those who contribute to the creation of any form of pollution, from the manufacturing companies to the commercial corporations to the consumers to the municipal governments responsible for cleaning up what was thrown away, all must share the costs of the problems created by their actions. A truly innovative law, the National Solid Residue Policy of 2010, created the concept of Reverse Logistics, in which the companies that manufacture or utilize disposable packing for their products must pay for the return of that material into the productive cycle. In other words, instead of just extracting new raw materials from nature for future packaging products, these industries must also recycle used materials. And as part of the process of turning the used material into new articles, these same companies must invest in the collection and transportation of the used material to put it back into circulation, either by their own employees or by external groups of people who perform this type of service.

The most relevant group involved in putting Reverse Logistics into practice has proven to be the waste pickers. These modern day untouchables are generally people who have been rejected by society, and because of their poverty, suffer exclusion from the social benefits of education and employment. They have few other opportunities to earn a living outside of the garbage dumps and waste bins of the more fortunate. Although considered scavengers in some cultures, they often prefer to be called recyclers.

The socialist government in Brazil has been helping to strengthen the waste pickers in recent years. They have offered programs to assist these outcasts in organizing themselves into Associations or Cooperatives, and then to receive financial and material aid to structure their working operations. In some cases, the city governments are responsible for the collection of pre-separated waste products, which they deliver to the waste pickers. The wet organic material, remains of food and plants, is separated from the dry recyclable material by each family of the city's residents, then the city sends trucks on alternating days, one day for the material that can be recycled and another day for those things which they still don't know how to recycle. The organized waste picker groups receive the recyclables, and subject them to various processes to increase their commercial value.

First, they separate the material according to type, not only separating all plastic articles from the other materials, for example, but separating these plastics according to their chemical composition polyethylene soft drink bottles and shopping bags, polyvinyl chloride pipes, polystyrene trays and plates and further, separating by color and density. Likewise with glass (clear, green, blue, brown, etc.), paper (which has a large variety of types), and metals (iron, copper, stainless steel, aluminum, among others). The softer materials paper, plastics and aluminum are further processed by being pressed into dense bales, thus increasing the weight in proportion to the space it occupies. Each type of material has a different buyer at the industrial level a factory which recycles iron doesn't recycle paper. Normally, the waste picker group accumulates large quantities of each material before selling, which lowers the transportation costs for the buyer, who then pays a higher price to the association. Many well organized and disciplined groups have managed to elevate their income continually.

In the case of many groups, however, due to their extreme poverty, the waste pickers must sell all the material they can as fast as they can in order to support their families. They don't possess capital reserves with which to buy food while they accumulate material to sell for a better price, so they sell to intermediaries, people who pay them less than the industry's price but buy whatever quantity of recyclable material is available. Groups who find themselves in this vicious cycle can't grow beyond the poverty level. This difficult situation requires access to special forms of financing for waste picker associations, which so far have been rare in appearing. It is hoped that the Brazilian government will recognize this weak point in their support programs and offer viable alternatives, to accelerate the social and environmental changes they seem to aim for.

Author: David Michael (Teres'polis, Brazil)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

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