These Latin Americans make a living doing the world’s dirtiest job

May 7, 2015


Moana Nunes, collector of recyclable materials

Mariana Kaipper Ceratti / World Bank

Of the 15 million people who collect recyclable materials from the garbage worldwide, four million live in Latin America

For 23 years, the life of 47-year-old Ednalva Belo da Silva never changed: she got up early and worked until exhaustion at the dump in Parelhas, a city of 20,000 in northeast Brazil. From those mountains of garbage emerged food and clothing for her and her six children, two of them adopted.

At 19, Moana Nunes is much younger than Ednalva. But she also has years of experience working at a dump. Her father abandoned the family when she was six, so she began to help her mother. Until fifth grade, she worked half a day at the Caicó dump, 60 kilometers from Parelhas. After that, she began to work fulltime.

More than a year has passed since Ednalva and Moana left the dumps. They now work as “collectors of recyclable materials.” This is not only a politically correct term. The nature of their work changed completely when local municipalities prohibited working in dumps and created selective collection programs.

Both women work in cooperative associations in their communities. They wear uniforms and only work with dry waste free of food remains and other organic residue. They have fixed working hours. They spend part of the day on the street – collecting materials – and the other part in warehouses where they separate the materials, which are then sold to industries.

This new work environment does not have the characteristic stench of a dump, and the possibility of catching a disease is minimal. At the end of the month, each cooperative association divides the earnings among participants.

From knives to words

For those who worked in sub-human conditions for years, the new conditions offer numerous benefits – better health, more time to study, etc. – but also new challenges.

Collectors have become more visible than before. While they once worked on the outskirts of the city, they now have to go out on the streets in search of recyclable materials. At first, they were not well-received. “They told us to leave; often, they wouldn’t even give us a glass of water,” says Moana.

Another difference: life in the dumps was extremely individualistic. Collectors who could work more made more money. “And labor disputes were resolved at knifepoint,” recalls Joseilson Ferreira, a street educator at Caritas, an organization that supports the new collectors’ associations of Caicó and Parelhas.

“Today the conflicts are different: if someone breaks the rules or does not show up for work, he is punished. When separating materials, if one person separates more and another less, there is always someone who notices that the other person is not working. But the way to resolve problems has also changed, there is more dialogue now,” she says.

" In the dumps, labor disputes were resolved at knifepoint "

Joseilson Ferreira

street educator at Caritas

Managing their own activities – without waiting for a manager or someone else to tell them what to do – and dividing profits are also new experiences for them. Curiously, Moana claims that her income has declined. Previously, she made about R$1000 every 15 days whereas today she earns between R$600 and R$900. In Parelhas, the financial blow is even greater: collectors obtain an average of R$215 per month, which they complement with the Bolsa Familia social program and food baskets distributed by the city.

Dreams for the future

“Nevertheless, life as a collector does not compare with that of working in dumps. I was very isolated, very aggressive, because I couldn’t stand the way collectors were humiliated. Today I like to go out, talk and visit with my colleagues. And I returned to school,” says Ednalva.

She added that over time, more people will realize how important collectors are for the environment. “Everywhere we go, there are no longer people tearing bags open to collect what they want and leaving the rest of the garbage on the sidewalk.”

The possibility of increasing incomes depends on the associations’ ability to expand their area of operation. None can cover the whole city with the infrastructure currently available.

This may soon change, however, through the Río Grande do Norte Sustentavel Initiative, which is supported by the World Bank and implemented by the state government. With project funds, associations will be able to build their own warehouses and buy equipment to process more recyclable materials. They will also receive technical assistance and business management training.

“Investments will transform these individuals into real social-environmental business owners,” says Fatima Amazonas, project manager at the World Bank.

This effort in the two cities is being replicated in other parts of Latin America, including Argentina and Peru. There is still much to do, however: of the 15 million people worldwide who make a living collecting recyclable materials from the garbage, four million live in Latin America. Of these, at least 75% work in unsanitary conditions. It is estimated that in Brazil alone, there are between 500,000 and 800,000 of these collectors.