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October 14th, 2015:

In Brazil, A City’s Waste Pickers Find Hope in a Pioneering Program

By Robert Thornett

The millions of people worldwide who sift through trash for recyclable materials have been called “invisible environmentalists.” A rapidly growing program in Curitiba, Brazil now provides them with a living wage and a better life.

Each morning when Rosie Ribeiro Oliveira arrives at the new EcoCitizen recycling cooperative in her neighborhood of Parolin in Curitiba, Brazil, there is trash literally everywhere. And that’s a good thing.

“I spent 13 years in the streets gathering recyclables,” says the hard-working mother of five, “and I had to bring my kids to help me. Now I come here to work and my kids can go to school.”

Oliveira is one of more than 200,000 independent catadores, or waste pickers, in Brazil, a country that now registers “waste picker” as an official occupation. Since joining the EcoCitizen cooperative in February, she works three, four-hour shifts per day at the government-sponsored warehouse, dropping off and picking up her five girls from school during breaks. “I like to work alone,” says Oliveira on a break near her workstation. “For me, it’s faster.”

Curitiba, a city of 1.9 million with a tradition of progressive environmental and social policies, is leading the way globally in efforts to improve working conditions and social acceptance for the people who recycle society’s waste.

The city’s rapidly developing EcoCitizen program receives and processes recyclable materials at 19 different warehouses, where more than 600 members separate paper, plastics, glass, aluminum, and other materials. Run by Curitiba’s Department of Environment, the EcoCitizen program eliminates waste pickers’ need for sometimes-unscrupulous recycling middlemen, raises salaries, greatly improves working conditions, and leads to a cleaner city, advocates and officials say.

With investments of more than $6.5 million from the Brazil Development Bank, the EcoCitizen program has expanded from four recycling warehouse co-ops in 2007, to 13 in 2012, and 19 today. Two more will open by the end of this year, with 26 expected to in operation within a few years. The percentage of Curitiba’s recyclable materials handled by EcoCitizen co-ops has risen from 15 percent in 2013 to 70 percent today.

Millions of informal waste pickers worldwide make a living by collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that have been thrown away. In some cities, these “invisible environmentalists” supply the only
In some cities, waste pickers are now supplying the only form of solid waste collection, at little or no cost.

form of solid waste collection, at little or no cost. Yet despite providing a valuable community service, they often have a negative public image, viewed as spreading trash and blocking traffic with their collection carts. They often live and work in deplorable conditions, rummaging through trash heaps in streets, dumps, and landfills.

That is changing. In Pune, India, waste pickers privately formed the 9,000-member cooperative SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), which now holds government contracts to collect waste at 400,000 residences.

After protests and demonstrations, SWaCH workers have gained medical insurance from the city and, in recent years, worker identity cards and life insurance. Activists in other countries — from Bangladesh to China to Nicaragua — also are successfully campaigning to improve the lives of waste pickers while making recycling more efficient.

Curitiba calls EcoCitizen co-op members environmental “caregivers” and provides them with a modern warehouse, a city uniform, and tools such as paper shredders, balers, digital scales, trash compactors, and forklifts. Working out of the 19 co-op warehouses, member teams remain autonomous, operating like small independent businesses paid to both receive and process recyclables.

On a recent day in front of an EcoCitizen warehouse, Antonio de Ribera — wearing a bright green EcoCitizen vest — unloaded a giant 500-liter bag of recyclables from a “Trash That Is Not Trash” truck. Trash That Is Not Trash is Curitiba’s primary recycling collection program, picking up door-to-door for free up to three times per week. “It will all be separated by 10 pm,” said Antonio.

Earlier, across town in a different bairro, two trucks from Green Exchange, Curitiba’s second-largest recycling collection program, had rolled up curbside, where a line of waste pickers waited with carts loaded with recyclable materials. Green Exchange trades one kilogram of locally grown fruits and vegetables for every four kilos of recyclables at rotating sites around the city. By 10 a.m., one truck had distributed 101 kilos of bananas, oranges, beets, and squash, and the other had collected 404 kilos of recyclables, headed to EcoCitizen co-ops.

“Now by contract, the majority of Curitiba’s recyclables belong to the EcoCitizen members,” says Sanitary Engineer Marina Rymsza Ballão, supervisor of Trash That is Not Trash. “It’s like money delivered to them.”

According to EcoCitizen Program Manager Leila Zem, the steady stream of recyclables that city trucks deliver to coops averts the glaring “home depot” problem: Many informal waste pickers store recyclables in their backyards or even in their homes, while others sleep or live with recyclables in warehouses. This attracts rats and insects, and, during rains, causes water pollution, as many waste pickers live in marginal

The EcoCitizen program raises member incomes well above minimum wage, with members averaging around $400 per month.
land along Curitiba’s rivers.

Waste pickers also often face exploitation by middlemen, says Zem, who rent or lend them carts and later cheat them when weighing and paying for what they collect. EcoCitizen coops eliminate the middleman by providing free electric recycling carts and having teams weigh their own recyclables and negotiate their own deals with recycling companies.

The EcoCitizen program raises member incomes well above minimum wage, which is equivalent to $199 per month. On average, members make around $400 per month, but incomes can range up to $800 per month. While members are paid for their individual work, teams pool what they separate and then sell it in bulk to large recycling corporations, negotiating far better deals than the thousands of individual pickers on the street.

Robert Thornett is a geography professor at Northern Virginia Community College. He previously wrote for Yale Environment 360 on the use of K-9 units to foil poachers in Africa.

Guangdong Riot Police Crack Down on Two Waste Pollution Protests

Residents at two locations in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong launched mass campaigns against waste disposal units near their homes this week, amid clashes between police and protesters near one site, local people told RFA.

Thousands of residents of Chunwan township near Guangdong’s Yangchun city faced off with police outside the Conch Cement Factory in their neighborhood in a protest that ended in clashes on Tuesday, protesters said.

Police have now cordoned off the area around the factory, where the construction of a privately owned waste incinerator plant had sparked the protest in the first place.

“The riot police came in and cracked down on everything,” a Chunwan resident who declined to be named told RFA on Wednesday. “They had been sending them here for several days, and they beat up anyone and everyone.”

“Lots of people were injured each day [of the protest]. The police came in several dozens of buses and minivans,” the resident said. “Some of the local people were going up against them with firecrackers. The police had anti-riot gear, and they fired tear gas [on Tuesday].

“Anyone who couldn’t run fast enough got a real beating … and a lot of people were detained, although some have been released now, but we haven’t seen the others yet.”

He said police have sealed off all roads into and out of the township and are preventing anyone from entering or leaving.

“They have people standing guard in all the villages; nobody can get out,” he said.

The protests started after the Conch factory ran its newly constructed incinerator plant for three hours on Oct. 3, spreading evil-smelling gases and black sooty particles across residential areas within a three-kilometer radius of the plant, residents said.

Before then, nobody had any idea that a waste incinerator had even been built near their homes, they said, adding that they immediately feared the impact on their health of dioxins, a carcinogenic byproduct of the process.

A resident surnamed Hong said the authorities had not informed or consulted with local people before giving the go-ahead to the plant.

“They just sent people here to beat them up, more and more every day,”
she said. “They fired tear gas when they saw people gathering and beat them. The local people were very, very angry.”

She said private security guards were drafted in as reinforcement to regular police officers.

“They brought them in from Foshan and Dongguan, elsewhere in Guangdong,” Hong said. “They put on their police uniforms when they got to the Chunwan police station, took their batons and then set about anyone they saw on the street.”

“Yesterday was totally crazy, with police firing tear gas and dragging people away. Both police and villagers got injured,” she said.

Dealing with the problems

An employee who answered the phone at the Yangchun long-distance bus station confirmed that road blocks had been in place.

“The police have sealed off the roads … things are running normally for now, but they won’t if the police seal the roads again,” he said.

“The police road blocks are temporary, but they don’t inform us about them.”

And an official who answered the phone at the Yangchun municipal government offices on Wednesday said local leaders are “dealing with” the problems at the Conch factory.

“Our leaders are dealing with this matter, but we don’t know what is going on; all we know is what’s already on the Internet,” the official said. “You need to call the propaganda department.”

But calls to the propaganda department rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.

Decades of rapid economic growth have left Guangdong with a growing waste disposal problem, but attempts to build incinerators in the province in response to generous government subsidies have drawn widespread anger and fear of pollution.

Authorities in Guangdong’s Qingyuan city are holding three people after several hundred people stormed government offices on Tuesday in protest at a waste transportation depot.

“The people on the square outside city hall were holding up banners which read, ‘Strongly opposed to the waste depot on Banhuan North Road,'” an eyewitness and local resident surnamed Yang told RFA on Wednesday.

“They shoved in through the glass doors; a lot of people managed to get to the main entrance waving banners and placards,” she said. “After that, they sent in the riot police.”

Residents are angry over plans to build the waste depot less than 50 meters from their homes, Yang said.

“They haven’t even put up a wall; just a metal barrier [around the site], and it’s less than 50 meters away,” she said.

A second resident surnamed Cao said local people are very worried about pollution.

“Of course, we will be affected by it, especially children and older people, because the air we breathe won’t be as good,” Cao said. “It will probably also encourage mosquito breeding.”

Guangdong’s seriously degraded environment has prompted a fast-maturing environmental movement to emerge among the region’s middle classes and farming communities alike.

Last May, tens of thousands of residents of Qianshui township near Guangdong’s Wuchuan city gathered outside government offices, calling on the government to cancel plans to build a waste incinerator near their homes.

A few weeks earlier, thousands took to the streets of Langtang township near Guangdong’s Yunfu city over similar plans by their local government.

Environmentalists say Chinese environmental protection laws are well-drafted but seldom implemented, thanks to a proliferation of vested interests and collusion between local governments and business.

Campaigners have raised growing concerns over the falsification of pollution testing and environmental impact assessments, amid worsening levels of air and water pollution and widespread disputes over the effects on children’s health of heavy metals from mining and industry.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to and Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Hong Kong must ensure that those who generate waste are responsible for it

Edwin Lau welcomes the launch of a government recycling fund, but says a much more effective way to reduce Hong Kong’s waste is to cut it at source – such as by introducing a waste charge

The slowdown of the world economy, coupled with relatively low oil prices, has led to the price of recyclables plummeting this year, with plastics affected most.

Many recyclers have stopped collecting used plastic as their high running costs cannot be covered by such low-value recyclables. Furthermore, it is quite common for recyclers to have to pay an “entrance” fee to gain access to large residential estates or shopping malls to collect recyclables and this further adds to their financial burden.

Without a waste charging law, most businesses and individuals do not take serious steps to manage their waste

Besides plastics, the price of metal and paper have also dropped substantially. Recently, I walked around several recycling shops; the cheapest price for iron was 50 cents per kilogram, paper, 40 cents per kilogram – with no price offered for plastic. Worryingly, without government and private-sector assistance, even if we put clean plastic into recycling bins, it will probably end up in landfills.

The government’s HK$1 billion Recycling Fund to reduce waste disposal is finally with us, and is accepting applications from this month. Officials hope the fund will enhance the efficiency of the recycling industry by subsidising the purchase of machines and trucks, as well as training for workers and the like.

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However, having talked to people who run recycling businesses, it seems the industry is not simply looking for subsidies to buy more or new machinery; instead, they want the fund to help tackle their immediate challenge – the high costs of labour, rent, insurance and other items that the current value of recyclables cannot even cover, let alone enable them to make a profit.

Our neighbour Taipei has regulations that require producers to be responsible for the waste generated by their businesses. They are required by law to contribute money to a fund established by the government to subsidise collectors and therefore ensure more types of recyclables are collected. Here in Hong Kong, only construction and demolition waste, plus plastic shopping bags, have mandatory charges. We are still awaiting effective policies for waste charging and producer responsibility.

The problem appears to be that the government doesn’t want to give recurrent subsidies to help the recycling industry, hence the one-off Recycling Fund.

It may not be best for the government to give long-term subsidies to the industry, but it should speed up the introduction of producer responsibility legislation so recyclers who collect packaging waste on their behalf get financial support.

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Without a waste charging law, most businesses and individuals do not take serious steps to manage their waste. Most corporations take a wait-and-see attitude on government regulations. On their own, they are unlikely to provide any resources for waste management.

Individuals, too, often don’t see the full picture. Take wedding banquets. The hosts often thought they were being environmentally friendly by allowing a non-governmental organisation to collect leftover food at the end – yet most are unwilling to pay the NGO’s transport costs. Few people see that they are the ones who are responsible for the waste generated, and the NGOs are providing a service.

With the Recycling Fund, the government has taken another step to help the industry. We should welcome this step, however small.

Companies in Hong Kong should also do their part. They should commit a small amount of money to managing their waste and, more importantly, set targets to encourage their employees to reduce waste at source. Cutting the use of plastic water bottles could be a good starting point.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is head of community engagement and partnership at Friends of the Earth (HK). [4]

Study finds Extended Producer Responsibility needs redesign for Circular Economy

A new study commissioned by Zero Waste Europe[1] and released today at a conference in Brussels [2] has found that the majority of product waste is not covered by current Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes and calls for the redesigning of producer responsibility in order to move towards a circular economy.

The study published today [3] analyses the waste composition of 15 European cities showing that 70% of municipal solid waste is product waste, and therefore not food or garden waste, and as such could be included under an EPR scheme. However, on average, only 45% of this product waste (by weight) is currently covered by producer responsibility schemes. This means that, on average, EPR schemes only cover 32.5% of total municipal waste, with coverage varying from 14.9% in Copenhagen to 47.6% in Paris. Furthermore, only 18% of product waste is collected separately through an EPR scheme.

Joan-Marc Simon, director of Zero Waste Europe said:

“The current interpretation of EPR was useful to increase recycling rates in Europe over last 20 years but it will need updating for it to help move us towards a circular economy. We call on the European Commission to use the upcoming waste package to include incentives to redesign systems and products in order to drive prevention and reuse, foster a serviced-based economy, put recycling as last option and progressively phase out disposal.”

The report makes a series of recommendations to the European Commission. Among these it calls for a broader definition and a more comprehensive approach to producer responsibility which includes the use of economic instruments. The introduction of legally binding eco-design requirements as well as better EPR schemes with full-cost coverage, individualisation, targets for separate collection and the expansion of the current EPR scope to include more products and incentivise reuse.

The study also finds that existing EPR schemes have been ineffective in driving eco-design, both because of its limited coverage of product waste and the lack of modulation of EPR fees based on eco-design. Zero Waste Europe urges the European Commission to develop minimum European-wide individualisation criteria based on eco-design.

Contact: Joan-Marc Simon,, +32 2503-49 11