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Simple ideas go a long way: Rethinking Brazil’s catadores

Brazil has a lot of environmental issues to account for, including those that affect urban populations in a very direct way. 81 per cent of the country has access to tap water, but only 46 per cent of Brazilians benefit from sewage systems. On top of this, only 8 per cent of municipalities have structures for the recycling of waste. In Brazil, recycling is a mostly private business, and industry profits immensely: according to the Bureau of International Recycling (Brussels), more than 375 million tons of scrap were sold last year alone. So how has Brazil become the world’s leader in aluminum recycling, for instance?

The answer lies in informality. As in many developing countries, Brazil’s poor have found alternative ways of making  money. Going through waste bins to collect glass, cans, paper and any other form of recyclable material assures the  livelihood of thousands of families; electronics are worth extra, as copper is retrieved from wiring and gold from  computer boards, for example. These gatherers – or catadores, in Portuguese – scavenge for products and resell  them to middle-to-large sized companies that are able to properly push forward a chain that profits significantly  from the process. According to the National Movement of Gatherers of Recyclable Materials (MNCR), 99 per cent of  recyclable material that goes into the industry passes through the hands of catadores.

Needless to say, those at the bottom of the pyramid face the most acute problems due to the absence of formal  structures of this way of life. Lack of protective gear means health risks, especially in regions where homeowners are still not accustomed to dispose of organic and dry/recyclable waste separately. Low education levels and uneven relations among social classes can mean being underpaid. Although several cooperatives have been set up throughout Brazil to empower groups of catadores to provide basic legal and commercial advice, enabling more favourable negotiations through numbers, other practical, day-to-day issues had been flying under the radar – until now.

Catadores make use of human or animal-drawn carts and wagons to carry loads of around 350 kg. The back-breaking survival skill also complicates traffic: significantly slower than other moving vehicles, they are known to cause traffic jams and road accidents: in a country with a significant car culture, Brazil is not known for having bicycle or slow lanes. Thinking of this, graffiti artist  Mundano came up with the ‘Pimp my Carroça’ (wagon) back in 2007. By promoting crowd-funded events, volunteers install basic safety gear such as mirrors, reflectors, lights and hand brakes, as well as updating paint coats of carts so they are more easily visible to other drivers. With free cooperation from street artists, designers and other generous people, the project also helps catadores to regain self-esteem. The initiative has now begun to cross borders.

On the subject of animal welfare, Jason Duani Vargas looked at the horses, mules and donkeys used to aid owners to carry such heavy loads. He came up with a low-budget electric cart, aimed to facilitate the work of catadores and replace the animals, which are frequently underfed or mistreated. In 2013 he created the ‘Cavalo de Lata’ (tin horse) project.

It provides wagons made up of metal structures moved by an electric engine. The machine is connected to a kit of 48 volt batteries, that can last up to 60km. Parts used in the assembly were taken from motorcycles, found in workshops. Lights are LED, with internal batteries. The bodyshell has reflective strips and follows the measures established by the National Traffic Department, with the bonus of a protective cage for the driver. At speed of 25km per hour, it does not require the extremely expensive driver’s license. Equally important, it can carry loads of more than half a ton, costing a mere €0.01 per travelled km – all-in-all, a significant upgrade in equipment.

The project gained visibility in national press after being adopted in the World Cup matches held at Gigante do Beira-Rio, in Porto Alegre. It has already gained support from companies and, more recently, Stock Car (national version of Nascar racing). Next in line are government organisations throughout the country.

Curious on how to help? You can find out more about the projects by clicking on and

Words by Scheila Farias Silveira

Pictures from Catarse

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