How colorful carts are helping waste workers get noticed

Informal waste workers in Brazil were being ignored, despite their vital work keeping Sao Paulo clean. Enter a street artist who made their carts into works of art.

Courtesy of Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
Unregulated waste pickers earn little respect in their communities. Bright colors for their carts can help them get noticed.

Flaunting bright colors and political jokes, Sao Paulo’s trash carts are drawing attention to the essential role of informal waste workers in Brazil.

In developing countries, governments typically spend 20-50 percent of their budget on waste services, according to the Global Partnership on Waste Management. However, this covers only a portion of the total trash created and leaves 50 percent of the population without services.

This is no different in Brazil, where 200,000 tons of trash is created each day, much of which has the potential to be recycled. Yet with a costly and inadequate waste system, an estimated two-thirds of this makes its way into the landfill.

This is where the catadores come in, recovering cardboard, soda bottles, and scrap metal from trash to extract every bit of economic value. The informal waste workers of Brazil can handle up to 50,000 tons of recyclables in just one day, reports NPR. In turn, informal waste workers are filling the service gap and keeping the streets clean.

Despite these contributions, workers struggle to find respect in their neighborhoods.

“[The communities] don’t look at these people; they don’t say, ‘Good morning,’ or ‘Thank you,’ ” says Mudano, a Brazilian street artist who was determined to break the ice, reports NPR. As a spoof of MTV’s Pimp My Ride, Mudano started a unique campaign in 2012, painting and revitalizing worker’s trash carts. The movement quickly gained attention – and so did the catadores.

Mudano’s campaign is just one of many examples worldwide of efforts to raise awareness and improve the lives of informal waste workers.

GIZ, a development arm of the German government, estimates that there are anywhere from 15 to 50 million informal waste workers worldwide. Concerned with the pollution and disease caused by uncontrolled dumping, GIZ conducted pilot projects in several countries to analyze the potential of integrating informal waste workers into municipal waste management systems.

In Mozambique, 250 informal waste workers created small-scale enterprises in hopes for integration into the formal government system as well as to strengthen their rights platform. With the help of GIZ, the municipal authority contracted the workers and assigned them to the poorest and most inaccessible neighborhoods.

This partnership expanded waste services to an additional 500,000 people in the greater Maputo, Mozambique, area. The result was a win-win situation: The waste workers received higher earnings and better working conditions, while the government’s formal waste system reached more customers.

The success of this program spread to India, where a large number of informal waste workers deal daily with electronic waste, such as computers and televisions. The workers, including children, suffer from asthma and bronchitis, and are exposed to high levels of mercury as a result of their work, according to Discovery News.

To lessen these risks, GIZ taught workers in Delhi and Bangalore about the long-term health effects of their work and safer recycling methods. To improve their access to safety measures and enter the formal market, the workers created their own enterprise and registered with the authorities. This allowed them to connect with an established recycler to help them handle hazardous materials.

As a result of projects like these, the experiences of waste workers are being heard at global events such as the UN Climate Conference. While improving the livelihoods of informal waste workers is well on its way, there is still much to be done.

Perhaps the first step toward action in Sao Paulo is a simple, “Whoa! Nice cart, can I take a picture?”

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.


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