October 26, 2010 | General

World's Largest And Most Dynamic Scavenger Movement (Brazil)

BioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 32
As many as 500,000 individuals, popularly known as catadores, are a critical source of recycled raw materials for Brazil’s industries.
Martin Medina

BRAZIL is the giant of Latin America: it has the largest territory, the largest population, and the region’s biggest economy. The country’s industry, which requires a wide variety of inputs, such as metals, glass, textiles, timber and rubber, has kept on growing despite the international economic crisis. It also has shown a strong demand for recyclable materials because they are cheaper than virgin raw materials.
Despite the country’s economic growth, poverty and unemployment remain high. Recovery of recyclable materials from waste is a common income-generating activity for unemployed Brazilians. As many as 500,000 individuals recover materials from waste in order to sell them to industry for recycling.
Brazilian scavengers are popularly known as catadores, and have been traditionally looked down upon by the rest of society. Public policy on their activities had a turning point in 1998, when UNICEF published a study on child labor among catadores. It found that over 45,000 children nationwide worked as scavengers, and 30 percent had no schooling at all. This study, and the public reaction to it, was deeply embarrassing to the Brazilian federal government, which reacted quickly. It created the Waste and Citizenship Program, WCP (Lixo e Cidadania in Portuguese), the first of its kind in the world. The program included closure of open dumps in the country over a number of years; legalization and recognition of the work performed by catadores; their participation in integrated waste management programs at the national and state level; promoting incorporation of catadores into public-private partnerships; a national campaign, “No More Children in Dumps” to eradicate child labor in scavenging, particularly in open dumps; and a National Training Program for catadores to strengthen their organizations.
The WCP was funded partly by a loan from the World Bank. Its component to eliminate child labor in scavenging included incorporation of catador families into a conditional cash transfer program where families with children working in recycling receive a monthly stipend with the condition that their children attend school and see a medical doctor regularly (paid by the government). Cash received monthly by the parents proved a powerful incentive to keep their children at school. By the end of 2005, more than 46,000 catador children were enrolled and going to school, dramatically reducing child labor. Due to population growth, however, a 2009 study estimated that about 20,000 children nationwide still worked in scavenging.
Two federal government actions in support of catadores are particularly important. In 2002, the catadores’ work was legally recognized, with a category created in the country’s Classification of Occupations. And in December 2009, the government instituted a tax credit that industry can get by consuming recyclable materials purchased directly from cooperatives of catadores. This should be a powerful incentive for industry to buy materials from cooperatives, thus bypassing the middlemen, which could result in higher earnings for the co-ops.
A recent judicial decision also will have a significant impact on recycling activities and catadores. In April, 2010, a District judge mandated the city of Sao Paulo to develop a recycling program with segregation at the source that has to involve groups of catadores. The judge gave the city one year to design and implement the program. It must also provide legal assistance to help formalize groups of catadores, and make equipment and facilities available to install and operate warehouses.

Catadores Get Organized
In 1999, as a result of the WCP program and the government’s outreach to catadores, the Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materials Recicláveis (MNCR), a national federation of scavenger groups and organizations was created. MNCR represents 500 catador associations and cooperatives with 60,000 members from throughout the country. One of MNCR’s highest priorities is promotion of separation of recyclables at the source. Catadores use various ways to collect recyclables. Unorganized scavengers commonly use pushcarts, while an increasing number of cooperatives have large collection vehicles for collecting source separated recyclables. Catadores could be integrated into source separation programs, thus reducing the health risks of their contact with mixed wastes, improving their productivity, and increasing their earnings.
Legalization and recognition of the recycling activities performed by catadores has translated into clear benefits. In 2006, the country’s National Bank for Social and Economic Development (BNDES) created a program to provide loans to scavenger cooperatives for projects to improve infrastructure, acquire equipment, provide technical assistance and train catadores. As of January 2010, the bank had approved 57 loans for a total of over US $17 million. An evaluation of this program in 2009 found that as a result of the loans received, the volume of the material collected increased by 20 percent and the cooperatives capacity to process recyclables by 25 percent. Reported social benefits included improvements in family relations, hygiene and housing conditions.
CEMPRE (Compromisso Empresarial para Reciclagem), a nonprofit industry association, is another source of assistance. It prepared an educational kit for scavengers and nongovernmental organizations to assist in creation of scavenger co-ops, and maintains a scrap broker hotline to answer questions about recycling. As of early 2010, CEMPRE had helped create 360 new cooperatives of catadores, resulting in about 10,800 jobs. CEMPRE’s success has encouraged efforts to create similar programs in Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay.
The AVINA Foundation – the only donor organization in the world with an initiative to support scavengers – has donated over US $ 9 million to MNCR and 24 cooperatives of catadores in 10 Brazilian states, benefiting 1,500 individual members and creating 6,500 new jobs.

Successful Cooperatives And Associations
ASMARE (Associação dos Catadores de Papel, Papelão e Material Reaprovitável), founded in 1988, was one of the first catador groups in the country. Originally created by 14 homeless scavengers with assistance from the Brazilian Catholic church, it now has 250 members, 55 percent of them women. ASMARE recycles about 500 tons/month, mostly cardboard, plastics and metals segregated at the source at schools, businesses, residences and office buildings. The volume of work nets members up to six times the Brazilian minimum wage. Higher incomes have translated into better working and living conditions for its members.
The Coopamare Co-op in São Paulo collects 110 tons/month of recyclables, earning its members US$300, twice the minimum wage in Brazil. By comparison, half of the country’s labor force earns less than US$150 a month. The success of scavenger associations and co-ops such as ASMARE and Coopamare, has created an explosion in the number of cooperatives of catadores. In Rio alone, 14 co-ops exist with 2,500 members. And in Porto Alegre, scavengers were incorporated into the municipal curbside recycling program, reducing overall costs and serving 79 percent of the city’s 1.1 million residents.
In 2005, for the first time in Brazil’s history, the municipality of Diadema, in the São Paulo metropolitan area, began paying catadores per ton of recyclable materials that they recover in the city. Catadores get paid the same amount per ton that private collection companies receive for collecting mixed wastes from the city.
Positive Impact
Catadores can collect recyclables for less than municipal recycling programs. The city of Curitiba, for example, collects 800 tons/month of recyclables at a cost of $180/ton; local catadores collect over 3,000 tons/month at no cost to the city. Clearly, involving catadores in curbside programs can save municipalities money.
Table 1 shows recycling rates for selected materials. Nationwide, catadores supply 90 percent of the materials that Brazilian industry recycles with an estimated economic impact of about US $3 billion annually. Brazil has the highest recovery rate of aluminum cans in the world, at 95 percent, due mostly to scavenging. But, as Table 1 shows, organics recycling is very low, presenting opportunities to increase diversion.
The Brazilian experience illustrates how incorporating the informal recycling sector into waste management programs improves the working and living conditions of scavengers. It also demonstrates the potential for job creation, improved industrial competitiveness and environmental protection.

Martin Medina has been a waste management consultant for the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the United Nations and others, for projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

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