The transforming force of recycling

Twenty-five years of a model tied to the reality of Brazilian socioenvironmental, economic and technological challenges

Those who are in their mid-twenties are part of a generation born when the debate about the sustainability of life on Earth was triggered, and they perform decisive roles in a transition to a fairer and less predatory world order – as leaders or just individuals in a society seeking for new habits and a better future.

Apart from people, that profile covers institutions, as the ones which play the main part for positive changes, looking ahead of time to achieve viable solutions, which are compatible with local realities and emerging paradigms. Digital culture and society’s greater awareness of socioenvironmental challenges draws the mood for planning and transforming decisions taken by companies, governments and citizens. It is a non-return path, a continuous evolution that reaches its maturity from pillars built in the chapters of a story that is far from the end and that will keep being written in the complex and dynamic perspective of sustainable development.

Reaching its 25th anniversary is a valuable mark to any “commitment”, especially in the case of an institution created under the flag representing the union of forces and the pioneering spirit towards the development of an activity until then strange to the business world and the Brazilian majority: the recycling of urban waste, which bears unsettling concepts in its meaning: transformation, renovation, pattern changes and other messages associated with mobilization, commitment and involvement to improve the quality of life, not to mention the direct relation to economic and social parameters in a growing society.

CEMPRE – Compromisso Empresarial para Reciclagem celebrates its 25th anniversary on the front line to solve one of the main problems in the cities: waste. The global situation, which irredeemably influences transformations national and local contexts, is of adequacies and game changers in front of large impact issues on production and consumption models, as the risk of shortage of natural primary resources and the combat against climate change.

  • Waste pickers organized in cooperatives or associations are allies in recycling increase and less disposal of post-consumption packages in sanitary landfills.

  • With companies’ support, Voluntary Drop-Off Points (VDP) expand in Brazil, encouraging consumers to do their part and be responsible for the destination of waste.


In the present scenario, information processing speed in digital media and the life styles influenced by social network life make new concepts and practices potentially more accessible. There are gazillions of posts about ways of seeing things and life – messages in several formats, photos, videos mobile live transmissions and cloud storage to save them. Sharing, interacting – the virtual paradigm may be strategic in the educational challenge to be aware and connect, making ends meet in favor of sustainability and the common good in the present and in the future. Just as everything that concerns “behavior”, “awareness” and “culture”, recycling and urban waste management dwell in everyday life complexities and their mental models. As a basic demand to quality of life in the cities, the way of dealing with consumption and waste generated by it is increasingly reflected in business affairs, forming a growing ecosystem with environmental, social, economic and political components that share responsibilities. This framework started to be modeled a quarter-century ago with the effective involvement of private initiative.


Rio de Janeiro, March 12th, 1992. In a hotel room on Copacabana Beach, a group of 25 large-company executives made a key step by creating CEMPRE, a landmark that resulted in the unprecedented business commitment to an issue previously relegated to a peripheral plan. The promotion of recycling to an economic activity made urban garbage gain status of source of industrial raw materials: richness in glass, paper, metal and plastic started to be discovered. Recovered after use, without disposal in landfills or open dumps with harmful impact to health and environment, waste gained value – also as a competitive differential to companies and income source to all the production chain that collects and processes the materials as input for new packages and other products.

With significant civil society mobilization, the challenge gained a voice in the face of the intense debate on environment held before, during and after the iconic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which happened in the same year in Rio de Janeiro. The clash between rich countries and the ones that aimed for economic prosperity got fierce. In the background, there was discussion about the planet resources and the limits of progress. The “sustainable development” concept, coined in the 1980s as an alert for the reduction of negative environmental impacts and assurance of vital resources to future generations, gained momentum. Ecology got closer to economy and the fight against poverty in a social inequality scenario that was already worrying back then. In the beginning of the 1990s, the industrialized part of the planet, which covered only 20% of the population, consumed 8 in every 10 metric tons of food and 7 in every 10 kilowatts of all generated energy.

Since its inception, CEMPRE has treated recycling as an activity that is institutionally organized and guided by technical and managerial criteria. Managing urban waste in an integrated way became an important point on the United Nations’ agenda to reconcile economic development and environment conservation. Thus, in that memorable mood for dialogue and commitment in the UNCED context 25 years ago, the business world, represented by CEMPRE, proactively assumed its status as co-responsible for solutions to the waste issue and started to coordinate common actions and efforts for the continuous development of the Brazilian recycling model, which is consistent with the country’s reality, socially biased and technical and economic feasible.

  • Coopamare, the first waste picker cooperative in the country, was launched.

  • In the year the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) took place in Rio de Janeiro, CEMPRE was created.

  • The Global Alliance for Recycling and Sustainable Development was founded by CEMPRE.

  • With proactive participation by companies, the law that establishes the National Solid Waste Policy was approved.

  • Engaging several business organizations towards complying with the waste law, the Packaging Coalition is established.

  • CEMPRE becomes global reference in solid waste and participates in international events.

  • Brazilian recycling model that promotes social and environmental inclusion of waste pickers is presented in the 69th United Nations General Assembly.

  • The Sector Agreement for reverse logistics on packaging is signed with the federal government.

  • Sector Agreement on General Packaging – Phase 1 is concluded.


From the knowledge gathered on the subject, CEMPRE became a national reference. It has actively taken part in the elaboration of the main legal landmark that regulates that practice: the National Solid Waste Policy. Approved nearly after two decades of debate in the National Congress, aided by the contribution of civil society, Law 12,305/10 is considered a historic watershed to the effective change of scenery for the urban waste in Brazil, introducing new challenges to companies, public power, waste pickers and population within the “shared responsibility” principle.

From a modern approach, the legislation established rules to boost the return of waste to industry after product consumption and obliged the government in its three spheres – federal, state and municipal – to make plans for waste management. Among the innovations, the law praised the social power of recycling, which is to be developed in the country with full and formal participation of recyclable material pickers organized in cooperatives. Moreover, it ordered the end of open dumps and determined that only the waste that cannot be recycled should end in landfills.


Once the law was approved, an emblematic part of the business world took action in the CEMPRE context to put it into practice and make their part in the commitment for waste management. Actually, with the regulatory mark’s endorsement, there was the consolidation of the recycling model already in development in the country by actions taken by the institution since its foundation 25 years ago. Among the new challenges, a proposal for the deployment of general packaging reverse logistics, as the law established, should be made official by means of the Sector Agreement signed with the federal government.

The reverse logistics concept – the system of collection and return of recyclable waste as raw materials for the manufacturing of new products – started to spread with bigger emphasis on the market. It was CEMPRE’s role to mobilize the different business sectors, from the industry to the wholesale and retail trades, to form a collective engagement: the Packaging Coalition. The objective was to join strategies and investments in order to enable a proposal for a reverse logistics system that would be suitable for the country’s reality, with actions and targets for recycling increase with social inclusion and income generation to all the productive chain – from the waste picker, who collects and select the materials to the recycling industry that processes them so that they return to shelves as new products.

Approved by the government after public consultations, the model foresees the increase in the recycling of post-consumption packaging by 22% until the end of 2017, when the first phase of the Sector Agreement should be finished, covering twelve Brazilian capitals and their metropolitan regions according to what was established by the public note released by the Ministry of Environment in 2012. The business strategy to achieve the target is focused on the aid to waste picker cooperatives’ infrastructure, capacitation and management for the increase of production, installation of Voluntary Drop Off Points to receive waste delivered by consumers and the guaranteed purchase of recyclable materials at market price.

According to the 1st Report on the System Performance of General Packaging Reverse Logistics, which was preliminarily completed in January 2017, the results of the actions in the first year make the objectives of recycling increase real within the goals set in the agreement. In total, 702 cooperatives have received support for production improvement between 2012 and 2016. During that period, 2,103 Voluntary Drop Off Points were installed. Business initiatives covered 422 municipalities, where 51% of the Brazilian population is.

The Packaging Coalition is formed by 28 business sector associations committed to the National Solid Waste Policy – that number tends to grow with the involvement of organizations that have not adjusted to the law yet but will be compelled to it so that the reverse logistics system will receive necessary investments and reach its goals. Greater public power commitment is also pursued for solutions on waste and the logistics flow formalization. Nowadays, 65% is the packaging recycling average rate in Brazil. In total, the market of recyclable material selection and industrial reprocessing moves about R$ 12 billion a year in Brazil. “By keeping on with the actions that stimulate shared responsibility among government, companies and population, we are on the right path to promote adequate destination to post-consumption packaging in Brazil”, says Victor Bicca, CEMPRE president.

  • The material sorted in homes arrive at Coop-Reciclável, in Guarulhos (São Paulo State) to render other uses in industries.

  • At waste picking cooperatives, plastic bottles are pressed into bales and delivered to industries that will turn them into other products.


The figures indicate progress in waste management after the new legislation and in the potential of recycling evolution, a setting in which CEMPRE features as reference to new strategic steps. After the law impact, recyclable material recovery has been achieving more and more recognition for its search for solutions to waste production and for quality life improvement in the cities.

The number of municipalities that perform some sort of selective collection for urban waste recycling more than doubled from 2010 to 2016 according to data of Ciclosoft Research, published every other year by CEMPRE and considered a thermometer in the business and subsidy to new decisions and actions. In the face of the legal demand, the increase is shy, but indicates a tendency to positive change. The obligation to ban open dumps mobilizes project in cities and states of economic relevance, as São Paulo, which gets ahead by announcing investments to eradicate irregular waste destination areas, thus creating a favorable scenery for the law to be more widely observed.

Researches indicate that every R$ 1 invested in adequate sanitation, including waste selective collection, R$ 4 are saved in health services. Added to it, there is the demand for social inclusion, natural resources conservation and the country’s economic development. In the current regulatory setting, municipalities are obliged to treat waste in a more judicious and responsible way. Federal Constitution is straight when assigning to them the responsibility for urban cleaning, and the National Solid Waste Policy provides a more solid basis, with principles and guidelines, so that the municipal government may better do its part in order to change the waste management outlook in Brazil. Among the priorities established by law, there is the commercial partnership with waste picker cooperatives as proper agents in the public cleaning service.

Within the shared responsibility principle, in which companies and citizens must look for solutions as well, the challenge that falls upon municipalities fits into a new concept: integrated waste management, involving different strategies, as recycling and waste disposal in landfills that follow environmental criteria. Cities must deploy selective collection of recyclable waste in homes, besides composting systems for organic waste, which reduce the quantity taken to landfills and bring environmental and economic benefits. Throughout its 25 years, CEMPRE has built a significant body of technical knowledge about urban waste management, available to municipal administrators as subsidy to new and necessary investments to comply with the law

Municipalities with selective
collection in brazil

Source: Ciclosoft, 2016

Collected waste

Source: Technical Report/Sector Agreement on General Packaging 2017


Besides the adoption of the National Solid Waste Policy by public administrators, the pursuit of financial sustainability by services and the reverse logistics actions for post-consumption materials by companies another factor presents itself as equally indispensable: the population commitment towards the solution to urban cleaning issues.

Since the beginning of CEMPRE’s history, the subject was no longer restricted to environmentalists, as in the past, and spread in the social web, boosted by a major number of campaigns and environmental education work as well as the “capillary action” of private initiatives. No one can deny the awareness level has been increasing, but the challenge dimension requires proliferation of new efforts, mainly when the different Brazilian cultural and socio-economic realities are taken into account.

Treated as raw material, not as something harmful to be buried, waste gains value and its management – in the everyday life of companies as well as in homes – has the potential to promote habits for a healthier life. The term “recycling” became popular, along with verbs as “reduce” and “reuse”. Apart from environmental and economic gain, urban life has been gradually experiencing a new concept: “conscious consumption”. In this scenario, waste selection in homes, greater consumers’ attention about business practices related to product recycling and citizens’ demands for improvements in the selective collection made by the municipality became key elements to the progress of that activity in Brazil.

Partnerships between industry and retail trade, developed by CEMPRE along its history, has been stimulating recycling practice, enabling a greater number of collect stations for the waste separated in homes. “The Voluntary Drop Off Points allow direct contact with consumers so that they become aware that waste not selected is money thrown away”, reinforces Paulo Pompilio, Pão de Açúcar director and CEMPRE administrative council president.