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Dirty Business

Dirty Business

Staggering amounts of computers, batteries, televisions and other appliances, so-called technology trash, are filling dumps. Experts say that toxic substances such as led from television screens are entering the earth and may be seeping into the food chain.

During the summer rains of 1999, frequent flooding caused chaos in the megacity of São Paulo. Scenes of drivers stranded on top of cars and highway backups stretching for hundreds of miles because of the heavy rains appeared almost nightly on the news. Many blamed nature, but accumulated street garbage that clogged up sewage and water drainage systems was the main culprit.

Brazil produces 240,000 tons of trash every day, more than double the 1982 figure, according to the leading weekly Veja. Only 70 percent of Brazil’s garbage is collected. “Thrown in the streets, trash can cause a number of diseases including typhoid fever, leprosy, and skin infections,” says professor José Luiz Muici of the University of São Paulo’s Environmental Health Department.

Lack of proper waste disposal can lead to more serious health hazards. Brazil’s worst nuclear disaster occurred in 1987 when two paper collectors opened an obsolete x-ray apparatus in an abandoned building which turned out to be the former headquarters of the Goiânia Radiotherapy Institute. The resulting radiation exposure killed eight people and contaminated more than 250.

Higher purchasing power of a segment of the population coupled with growing industrialized product consumption are filling up Brazil’s garbage sites at an alarming rate. On average, every Brazilian produces over two pounds of trash per day.

According to the Brazilian Association of Public Waste Companies, Brazilians are producing more trash since the 1994 introduction of the Plano Real, a fiscal and monetary program to curb inflation. With an increase of 14 percent since the Plano Real, São Paulo is facing serious garbage disposal dilemmas. Five of seven dumps are full, with optimistic estimates giving the remaining sites only four more years.

While some Brazilians are consuming at the rates of industrialized country counterparts, effective disposal methods including recycling have not kept pace. Because of high costs, a mere 1 percent of Brazil’s waste is recycled. Dumping in open trash sites is 15 times cheaper than recycling but decomposition takes more than 400 years.

In addition to the space crunch, Brazil’s heaps of junk are creating ecological and health risks. Staggering amounts of computers, batteries, televisions and other appliances, so-called technology trash, are filling dumps. Experts say that toxic substances such as led from television screens are entering the earth and may be seeping into the food chain.

The garbage glut has created a source of income for thousands of poor Brazilians including Paraibano Kelson Galdino de Santos. His workweek begins every Monday at 7 am and ends around 3 pm on Saturday. A workweek similar to other northeastern Brazilian workers except for the fact that Kelson does a 24-hour shift on most Mondays and Fridays, sifting through trash for plastic, aluminum, glass, and white paper in João Pessoa’s city garbage dump.

“You have to put in a lot of hours to make it when the resale price for most materials is less than 6 cents a kilo,” de Santo’s says. “If I work hard I can usually make $45 a week.”

Just in João Pessoa, more than 500 men, women, and children work daily in the dump. Last year in an attempt to improve working conditions, de Santos and a small group of collectors organized ASTRAMARE, the Association of Recyclable Material Workers of the Róger Garbage Dump.

With the help of the Catholic Church and a university student, 40 Association members drew up a list of demands for the mayor in early 1999. That list included a large shed and better access to health care. When the mayor refused to meet with the collectors and implement the improvements, ASTRAMARE organized a march to his office in May of 1999. The mayor quickly agreed to a meeting in order to disperse the noisy crowd. The success of the protest also attracted new members to the organization.

Pressing for higher resale prices continues to be one of the major objectives of the Association. White paper, glass, and plastic only garner 6 cents per kilo with aluminum at 60 cents. “Prices were a lot higher three years ago, ” says ASTRAMARE leader Fátima de Santos (not related to Kelson), “We suspect that the six firms who buy the material are jointly setting the lower prices.”

The birth of the Association was a long, difficult process with many dump collectors doubting the value of working together. Without a convenient space to meet, gathering workers is a challenge. “Our first demand continues to be a shed, ” says de Santos. “Despite numerous promises, the mayor’s office has not started the building.”

The large shed is also needed for storing materials and equipment. Currently collectors use makeshift shacks, ineffective for keeping white paper dry, to store materials for resale. A building would facilitate access to health area, another high priority of the Association members.

Even though ASTRAMARE’s major demands have not been met yet, small victories have been won along the way. The Association secured a two-year contract to collect cans at the Carnaval parties in João Pessoa. They are negotiating another contract to recycle at the Federal University of Paraíba. Leaders participated in citywide meetings with other social movement representatives to coordinate efforts. Attempts to get their message in the media have been successful including a campaign against dump truck workers who were illegally sorting out recyclable material for resale before reaching the dump.

“The Association is important because members see that is possible to improve things by working together, “adds Maryknoll Lay Missioner David Kane who has accompanied the dump dwellers for the last four years. “There is a great deal of pessimism and apathy in this group—more than I’ve ever seen before. Leaders take a lot of flack from nonbelievers. But as we win more and more victories, those critics are seeing the value of the Association and even joining in some cases.”

Kathleen Bond is with the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful. You can reach her at katiaflavio@uol.com.br

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