Key to waste management

With their work established in cooperatives, waste pickers gain income, citizenship and society’s better appreciation

Scene 1: Claudete Costa, recyclable material waste picker since she was 11, after her mother migrated to the capital of Rio de Janeiro fleeing from domestic violence, has found new life in her job. That is not due to the fact she dodged the Candelária massacre, in 1993, because she had gone looking for cans elsewhere on that night when homeless were killed by the police. Current president of Ecoponto cooperative, in Honório Gurgel neighborhood, Claudete has a full agenda, which includes her tasks at the warehouse for selecting material and her appointments as leader of the Recyclable Material Waste Picker National Movement, in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Being part of the team of cooperatives that recycled waste from the Olympic Games with the support of Coca-Cola meant a great achievement to her, who learned to live on the streets, next to her mother, who sold roses and candles in front of a church. “I was a beggar, turned into a peddler, a waste picker and now I’m a recycler.”

Scene 2: When he was a boy, Severino Lima, from Rio Grande do Norte, sold popsicles to the waste pickers at the old open dump in Natal until he noticed he would make more money digging for waste with them. When the municipality decided to shut the area, the young man led a mobilization to warrant the income of those who had been working there. He wasn’t ashamed anymore to say he lived from waste – better, from recycling. He attended meetings at the Public Ministry and structured a local association, later becoming one of the founders of the Recyclable Material Waste Picker National Movement, created in 2001. Severino took active part in the debates about the National Solid Waste Policy and has contributed to change the waste situation in his city along the years. the work of waste pickers became more appreciated. Presently, Severino is used to deal with companies and high-level government officials, besides the trips to meetings with waste picker organizations abroad. “No one believed we would get to this point.”

Claudete and Severino played the main roles in a story that took shape along the last decades from government social policies associated with the structure of the waste management in the country with business support through CEMPRE. Both characters exemplify the waste pickers’ new profile – previously disregarded by society and now accepted and endorsed for the environmental value of their activity, one of the oldest in the urban scene. Waste pickers conquered support from government and companies as strategic allies for the solutions to waste in the cities, and strengthened to evolve and overcome barriers, as the quest for formalization and economy inclusion. From the traditional carts to the modern collect trucks, the work of waste pickers organized in cooperatives gains a new dimension. Equipped and qualified for production and trade management, backed by law, they grow in scale and the country can increase the recycling rates.

  • 70% of the workforce at waste picking cooperatives is comprised of women. At the selection conveyor, they process the waste separated by the population in homes.

  • At the selection conveyor, materials are better sorted out according to different categories for delivery to recycling industries.

  • In Guarulhos (São Paulo State), waste pickers take part in the municipal selective collection from homes – an example of how the law on waste is put into practice.

  • Companies’ support for training, infrastructure and management in cooperatives is strategic for better income generation throughout the recycling chain.

  • With better structure, cooperatives are capable of increasing production and recycling scale in the country, which reflects positively on the income of those who work in the activity.

  • Pursuant to the law, joint actions of companies, government and citizens, can turn to a new page of the Brazilian situation concerning urban waste.

By reinforcing the social aspect, the legislation on waste approved in 2010 prioritize the waste pickers’ participation in collection and selection services from the principle of shared responsibility among government, companies and population. Federal Decree 7,400, which defined how the law will be implemented, envisions partnerships, financial incentives, qualification and improvement in production and work conditions at cooperatives. The rules follow the model that CEMPRE has helped to establish for 25 years and is reflected in companies’ actions for packaging reverse logistics.

Thus, from 2012 to 2016, Packaging Coalition supported 702 waste picker organizations with over 3 thousand initiatives for qualification, management and organization in several Brazilian regions. In order to increase collection and reach the recycling targets established by the agreement between companies and government, the resolution is triple the production at cooperatives in the capitals that integrate the first phase of the plan – and there is a lot of room for efficiency increase. The economic-financial feasibility study of the model points out: expanding selection and direct sale to recyclers, waste pickers’ income tend to grow by 33% to 101%, depending on scrap prices obtained by cooperatives.

CEMPRE’s history coincides with improvements in the waste pickers’ organization and work standards. They are responsible to collect 96.2% of waste recycled in Brazil nowadays and its importance grows along with the potential to increase recycling taxes via the expansion of municipal selective collection and efforts to reduce informal labor, with their effective inclusion in the productive chain.

There is a lot to do. On average, each Brazilian disposes 1 kilogram of waste per day: in total, 200 thousand metric tons daily – half of it is still destined to landfills or open dumps, with waste of natural resources, costs and environmental impacts. Changes to the framework can be real as long as there is more commitment to put the waste law into practice, with more efficient municipal waste management and continued business support to production at cooperatives, within the “shared responsibility” principle, in which solution must come from everyone.

The post-law scenario has fostered new arrangements. Besides waste selection for delivery to recyclers, waste picker cooperatives also perform selective collection. In some cities, door-to-door service is done by waste picker cooperatives through different partnership models with municipalities. In Vila Nossa Senhora de Fátima, Guarulhos (São Paulo), music comes out of a truck every Thursday morning. It works as a warning to the residents that selective collection is getting closer. “The new habit reduced a lot of waste in the creek,” says Ana Gilza de Souza, who lives on a dead-end street. In the past, cleaning service didn’t go there. “Recycling is an act of citizenship,” adds her neighbor, Wagner Valdo.

Next to her, waste picker Jéssica Gomes is proud. “I’ve never imagined I’d work in recycling, mas I changed my mind when I discovered its great value.” She and all the other waste pickers have built a respectful relationship with the residents, who now understand the environmental and social importance of that work. It is not unusual when they are received with coffee and even pizza. Haitian waste picker Mirlene Desir is in the group. She has been a refugee in Brazil for eight months and tries her luck, receiving R$ 700 monthly at the cooperative. “I want to save money to bring my daughter.” In Guarulhos, waste from eight neighborhood are taken to Coop-Reciclável for selection and transformation into bales destined to recycling industries. In total, 80 to 100 metric tons are processed monthly and the income is shared among the cooperating workers. “With greater awareness, the interest in recycling work increased,” asserts Francisco Pinheiro, cooperative managing director.


Along its 25 years, CEMPRE has been working to develop the recycling chain synergy and bring companies, municipalities and waste pickers closer for better waste management. The National Solid Waste Policy law embraced the model, in which work condition improvements, income generation and fruitful training to supply waste as raw materials to industries are great challenges.

Besides greater visibility and appreciation in the country, the social technology of recycling, based on the power of waste picker cooperatives, draw the attention of several developing countries, such as Colombia, Thailand and South Africa. In the last years, CEMPRE has established partnerships that resulted in the internationalization of the Brazilian model, which is a theme of continuous interest in global meetings the institution has participated, such as the conferences on climate in Cancún, Paris and Marrakesh.

“International projection is the result of a model that fits into developing countries because of its Triple Bottom Line character, joining economic, social and environmental aspects that promote the balance of environment conservation, economic sustainability and poverty eradication,” emphasizes André Vilhena, CEMPRE executive director.

For 25 years, CEMPRE has built the basis of the recycling system endorsed by the government

From supermarket shelves until packaging return to industry after consumption by the population, the commitment for the advance of recycling must be shared by all links in the chain. Thus, the reverse logistics working system is supported by the role each sector performs along the product life cycle.