The Transfiguration of Trash Pickers in Brazil and Latin America

Trash scavengers in a Brazilian lixão (big trash dump).In Mexico they call them pepenadores. In Argentina they are known as  cartoneros. Brazilians refer to them as catadores (pickers), Peruvians as moscas.

Every country in Latin America and the Caribbean has its own word for  garbage scavengers, or people who make a living by extracting valuable or  reusable materials from other people’s waste.

Though reliable numbers are hard to come by, experts estimate that there  are several hundred thousand garbage scavengers throughout the region, and  in some countries their numbers are increasing.

They can be seen sorting  through bags of trash on city sidewalks, public parks, or outside  supermarkets and apartment buildings.

Some push carts that they gradually  fill with plastic bottles or aluminum cans. Many work atop huge mounds of  refuse at municipal dumps. Men, women and children are involved.

In some  countries, entire families of garbage scavengers live in shacks adjacent to  or on top of landfills that provide their sole source of income.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a new phenomenon. Martín Medina, a  professor at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, who has  published numerous studies on waste and recycling in developing countries,  argues that various forms of waste recovery have been taking place for  centuries.

What has changed in recent years is the magnitude and the visibility of  these activities, thanks to several converging factors. One is the  relentless growth of the region’s cities, most of which do not have  adequate means to collect, process and dispose of garbage.

Another is the  expanding use of paper, plastic and glass packaging in food and other  consumer products, and the parallel growth of industries that recycle these  materials.

Finally, unemployment caused by recent economic crises has led  thousands of people to take up garbage picking full or part-time.

Not All Informal

It can be dangerous to generalize about garbage  scavengers, because their behavior is dynamic and occurs within both formal  and informal sectors of the economy.

Destitute people pick through garbage  in search of food or clothing for their own consumption, for example. But  others look for specific recyclable materials such as paper, cardboard,  aluminum and glass that they subsequently sell to middlemen.

These  middlemen in turn supply formal companies that either process these  materials into other products domestically or export them in bulk to other  countries.

In the region’s more industrialized countries, the recycling business has  grown rapidly in recent years.

Along Mexico’s border with the United  States, for example, several companies have contracts to collect, process  and sell the huge variety of waste materials generated by maquiladora  factories.

In Brazil, local companies recycled 87 percent of all the aluminum cans  consumed in that country during 2002, according to the Brazilian Aluminum  Association (known as ABAL).

The association reported that this amounted to  121,100 tons of aluminum cans recycled, or approximately 9 billion units.

ABAL estimated that some 150,000 Brazilians earned their living in 2002 by  collecting aluminum cans. It is impossible to determine how many of those  people had formal jobs with recycling companies, but it is safe to assume  that a majority did not.

The norm, in most countries, is for garbage  scavengers to work for cash, without contracts, and without medical or  insurance benefits.

Indeed, garbage picking is among the most dangerous and socially marginal  occupations. Through constant exposure to hazardous materials and toxic  fumes at landfills, garbage scavengers face a high risk of injury and  disease. They often work at night in dangerous areas with little police  protection.

Because of their association with trash, they tend to be  ostracized. Many garbage scavengers are illegal immigrants or recent  migrants from rural areas, so they lack the knowledge or willingness to  seek help from public authorities.

In some cities, garbage scavengers must also deal with criminal Mafias that  control access to recycling middlemen and determine who can work around  municipal dumps and other favored collection points.

These Mafias hold down  the prices paid to scavengers, and they sometimes use violence or  intimidation to enforce control of their territories.

A Sustainable Activity

The outlook for garbage scavengers is not entirely  grim, however. According to Medina, scavengers in many parts of Latin  America have begun to organize themselves in order to improve their working  conditions and end their status as second-class citizens.

In many cities  they have formed cooperative organizations that allow them to coordinate  their activities with municipal sanitation officials and negotiate better  rates with middlemen.

“In several countries there is a broader social movement that aims to  dignify the work of informal recyclers, and to educate society about the  social benefits of their work,” says Medina.

These benefits are substantial and measurable, according to Medina. First,  informal recycling generates real incomes for hundreds of thousands of  people and thus helps to reduce poverty.

Second, it provides a surprisingly  efficient means of reusing valuable resources, reducing costs for domestic  industries and improving economic competitiveness.

Third, it reduces the  amount of trash being dumped, thereby cutting back on pollution and  benefiting the environment.

“For all these reasons, informal recycling has the potential to be a form  of sustainable development,” says Medina.

“What is needed is a commitment  from governments to support garbage scavengers by ensuring that they are  not exploited or ostracized, and by providing them with essential social  services.”

Edging Into Formality

Several countries have already taken steps in that  direction. In Argentina, the Buenos Aires city legislature passed a law in  2003 that required cartoneros to register with municipal authorities in  order to receive an official scavenging license.

Since garbage scavenging  is illegal in Argentina, the law was intended to legitimize the cartoneros  (who prefer to be called recuperadores) and incorporate them into the  formal sanitation system, thereby undercutting the influence of abusive  garbage mafias. It also sought to ensure that registered scavengers would  have access to the government’s basic health plan.

The law’s effectiveness has been limited by the fact that many scavengers  in Buenos Aires are illegal immigrants who are reluctant to deal with  authorities.

Nevertheless, by early 2004 some 9,000 scavengers had  registered with the city and more than 12,000 vaccinations had been given  to registrants and their children, according to municipal officials.

In Paraguay, the IDB’s Social Entrepreneurship Program recently agreed to  provide a soft loan and a grant totaling US$ 538,000 for a project to raise  the incomes and improve the living standards of families who recycle  garbage at a municipal dump in the capital city of Asunción.

The funds will  help to finance a project proposed by Alter Vida, a Paraguayan nonprofit  organization that supports sustainable development by promoting citizen  participation in environmental management and conservation.

The  beneficiaries will be the gancheros, people who recover paper, plastic and  other recyclable materials from the Cateura solid waste dump.

The IDB loan will help finance the construction and equipment of a trash  collection and sorting facility at Cateura, giving recyclers a healthier  and safer place to work.

The municipal government will donate the site for  the building, while the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the  Pan-American Health Organization will donate garbage collection trucks.

Paul Constance writes for Adital (Agência de Informação Frei Tito para a América Latina—Friar Tito Information Agency for Latin America) where this article appeared originally. Comments may be sent to


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