By Miriam Nelson
Like most other cities, Salvador, Brazil has its fair share of garbage in the streets and on the sidewalks. Through walking or witnessing the environment from a bus window, colorful assorted plastics, cardboard, cans, and other refuse is sprinkled along roadsides or piled alongside large dumpsters. Occasionally, garbage bags are tipped on their sides, spilling their contents in the drainage system destined to arrive in the ocean. In 2018, Brazil produced 79 million tons of urban physical waste—where 72.2 million tons were collected, and 6.3 million tons remained uncollected (Souza 2018). This level of urban waste coincides with a variety of problems. One in 12 Brazilians have no regular waste collection, recycling rates are stagnant, and many still must learn how to properly sort trash and recycling (for its environmental and health purposes) (Souza 2018). An important aspect of Brazil’s waste and recycling system are waste pickers, known as “catadores.” The estimated 200,000 to 800,000 catadores within Brazil have been formally recognized by law but still face stigma around their work (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d.).
Along the sidewalks, I have frequently seen catadores picking through trash bags and trashcans, occasionally pulling out recyclables of value (these include plastic bottles, glass bottles, aluminum cans—and in some cases, cardboard). Many that I have seen do not wear protective equipment, walking through concentrated areas of garbage with flip flops and no gloves. Catadores earn roughly 400 reals a month, which is under Brazil’s national minimum wage of 500 reals a month. Working conditions are difficult, with frequent exposure to hazardous materials and contaminated waste (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d; Gutberlet et al. 2013). “As in other countries, their direct contact with contaminated waste renders them susceptible to diseases and consequently a lower life expectancy” (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d.). Occasionally, Catadores may temporarily store hazardous materials (car batteries, metals, electronic waste) at home, placing not only themselves but others at risk. Organized waste picking is more common in the global South than the North, where members of cooperatives work with non-governmental and governmental organizations in collection, separation, and commercialization of recyclable materials (Gutberlet et al. 2013). As I have seen, those who are part of a cooperative may wear a uniform and some protective equipment, such as gloves. Although sometimes organized, turnover in these positions remains high.
Environmental justice considerations are critical when examining the work and working conditions of the catadores.
Environmental justice is a well-established field of social activism that draws attention to and seeks ways to ameliorate such risks and injustices. Environmental justice activists have also called for recognition of communities as unfairly affected and insist on being seen and heard by both a mainstream environmental movement and a government that has, for the most part, ignored them (Young 2016, 96).
As seen above, working conditions can be hazardous—with catadores working strenuous 12-hour days and facing exposure to contaminated waste. Low incomes, as well as lessened access to education and healthcare, are markers of the inequality faced by individuals in this career (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d.). Other factors, such as stigmatization around waste picking, leave catadores more vulnerable. Further research could be conducted on various aspects of catadores’ lives (political and social) with an environmental justice lens, to understand how policy can further decrease social and economic disparities.
Catadores are critical for increasing both economic circularity and environmental quality, furthering the need for social protections. This may be done by recognizing the contributions of catadores in order to increase social standing (Amorim de Oliveira 2021, 830). In the past, this has included 2001 Federal Legislation which recognized waste picking as a profession in the Brazilian Occupation Classification—allowing for the career to be monitored and positioned in official statistics (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d.). Another notable (globally recognized) policy is the 2010 National Policy of Solid Waste sanctioned by President Lula. The policy employs the use of the reverse logistics system, which “makes the generator of waste responsible for the return of recyclables to the productive chain after consumption, which, in turn, increases the volume of activity for the waste picker” (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d.). The policy further “necessitated the availability of fiscal and financial incentives for the recycling industry, for the development of regional programs in partnership with waste picker organizations, and to facilitate the structuring of these organizations” (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, n.d.). Although Brazil has more protective legislation for catadores than other countries, reducing inequality for workers (living conditions, education, healthcare, etc.) must still be at the forefront of discussion (reduction of the stigma around waste picking) and policymaking.
Amorim de Oliveira, Í. Environmental Justice and Circular Economy: Analyzing Justice for Waste Pickers in Upcoming Circular Economy in Fortaleza, Brazil. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43615-021-00045-w
Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. “Law Report: Brazil.” Accessed May 26, 2022. https://globalrec.org/law-report/brazil/.
Gutberlet, Jutta, Angela M. Baeder, Nídia N. Pontuschka, Sonia M.N. Felipone, and Tereza L.F. Dos Santos. 2013. "Participatory Research Revealing the Work and Occupational Health Hazards of Cooperative Recyclers in Brazil," International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 10, no. 10: 4607-4627. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph10104607.
Souza, Ludmilla. 2018. “Brazil generates 79 million tons of solid waste every year.” Agência Brasil. August 11, 2018. https://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/en/geral/noticia/2019-11/brazil-generates-79-million-tons-solid-waste-every-year.
Young, Andrea Ferraz. 2016. “Adaptation Actions for Integrated Climate Risk Management into Urban Planning: A New Framework from Urban Typologies to Build Resilience Capacity in Santos.” City, Territory and Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Debate on Project Perspectives 3 (1): 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40410-016-0042-0.
Miriam Nelson is a rising senior at the College of Saint Benedict, majoring in environmental studies and political science. She is from Blue Hill, Maine. Miriam is interested in a wide range of topics including international environmental policy, water conflicts, and land trusts. She highly enjoys spending time outside performing backcountry trail work, backpacking, paddleboarding, and birding.