A Recycled Future for Brazil’s Poor

Recycling cooperatives in Brazil are creating jobs and income for workers, while protecting the environment.

Posted on 11/5/13
By José Pedro Martins | Via Latinamerica Press
(Photo by Laura Gilmore, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Laura Gilmore, Creative Commons License)

Every day, Valdirene Ferreira dos Santos wakes up early to start the day with her four children and, a bit later, walks a long stretch of road to work at the Antônio da Costa Santos Recycling Cooperative in the neighborhood of Jardín Satélite Iris on the outskirts of the city of Campinas in São Paulo. Like the other 30 cooperative members, Dos Santos is originally from the state of Minas Gerais and moved to Campinas, a wealthy university city, seeking a better life for her family. But like other internal migrants, she found few work opportunities and joined the cooperative, which is becoming more frequently a part of life for Brazilians, especially in selective waste collection and garbage recycling. Dos Santos said she enjoys the work and that the dream of all the cooperative members is to “improve even more.”

The Antônio da Costa Santos Cooperative is in a neighborhood significant to the history of urban waste management in Campinas. Jardín Satélite Iris was for years the city’s landfill. There, like so many other Brazilian municipalities, trash was dumped under the open sky, causing a huge environmental impact to the land and its surroundings. Moreover, the landfill was where hundreds of people, including children, went every day in search of materials to resell, or even to eat in extreme cases.

The cooperative is an example of how the issue of waste disposal and the organization of workers in the sector are evolving in the country. Brazilian law is making progress. The National Solid Waste Policy outlines the closure of all landfills by 2014, after which only regulated, controlled landfills will be allowed to function.

To reach that goal, “it’s fundamental to broaden and strengthen the activities of the cooperatives,” said Cláudio Domingos da Silva, secretary of the Union of Cooperatives and Solidarity Enterprises (UNISOL Brasil), which unites groups involved in the solidarity economy in 10 sectors and is present throughout the country: metallurgy and polymers, food, construction and housing, clothing and textiles, social cooperatives, recycling, crafts, family farming, beekeeping and fruit farming.

With little more than a decade of activity, UNISOL demonstrates how the organization of workers leads to employment and income generation, through the actions of solidarity economy.

Cooperatives gain strength
UNISOL and other organizations that support recycling workers understand cooperatives generally get stronger and result in higher income for families, as well as increase incentives for more waste to be processed through cooperatives. Currently, less that 3 percent of all garbage in Brazil goes through these groups. Large companies collect the vast majority of trash to landfills — a waste of natural resources and a great environmental toll to the places where the landfills are located. Moreover, densely populated municipalities don’t have the space for new landfills. “The expansion of recycling is better for everyone, for the social sphere and the planet,” Da Silva added.

The Brazilian government recently started the third phase of the Cataforte Program-Sustainable Businesses in Solidarity Networks. The initiative provides a R$200 million (US$92.1 million) investment in recycling start-ups in order to get the cooperatives into the recycling and solid waste market. It also helps the country comply with the law to close landfills by next year.

Landfills continue receiving about 240,000 metric tons of refuse daily in Brazil. The Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), estimates there are 2,906 landfills in the country in 2,810 municipalities, only 18 percent of which use the selective recycling system.

In 1999, the National Movement of Recyclable Materials Collectors (MNCR), was born and in June 2001, the group held its inaugural congress in Brasilia, the capital city, with more than 1,700 attendees. Participants wrote the so-called Carta de Brasilia, a document that explains the needs of those people who earn their living as recyclers.

In 2003, in the city of Caxias do Sul, state of Rio Grande do Sul, the first Latin American Congress of Recyclers was held with recyclers from several countries. Similarly, the group endorsed the Carta de Caxias, unifying workers across the continent.

Improved management
MNCR estimates there are a million recyclers in Brazil, most of who continue working in precarious conditions. Still, visibility for the workers and the challenges they face has increased in recent years, as has support from other sectors.

That’s been the case for the Antônio da Costa Santos Cooperative, which started to take shape in 2001 after several workers took a Cáritas Campinas class on cooperativism. The early days were difficult, said Aparecida de Fátima Assis, a pioneer in this arena and the current cooperative president. The group started operations in a shed that was once used for rearing pigs. Workers stood in the shade of a tree.

“The women worked on the ground, separating materials spread out on a board,” Assis recalled.

The group finally got the support of the then-mayor of Campinas, Antônio da Costa Santos, who would become the cooperative’s namesake. The mayor never saw the cooperative’s official inauguration because he was gunned to death Sept. 10, 2001. In 2011, the cooperative won the right to use the space where it was operating, according to a decision by the Municipality of Campinas.

Last year, the cooperative improved its management thanks to its participation in the PorAmérica Program run by the Inter-American Network of Corporate Foundations and Actions for Grassroots Development, or RedEAmérica, an initiative by business organizations dedicated to social investment, including the Brazil Arcor Institute which has given financial and technical support. The Catholic University of Campinas and the Referral Center for Cooperativism and Associativism (CRCA), helped the cooperative implement quality controls. All cooperative members went through workshops, which improved their job skills.

“Ten years ago we never imaged what we would achieve, because we were still so isolated,” said Valdecir Viana, another pioneer and the cooperative’s first president. “Now we are consolidating a business vision and the cooperative is making its own investments as it is getting stronger.”

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