Trashy heroes


You can build citizenship from mounds of garbage – but it takes political will, and you will need the help of one of Latin America’s most marginalised groups


Recovering Resources – Recycling Citizenship: Urban Poverty Reduction in Latin America
Jutta Gutberlet
2008, Ashgate
164 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ONE HAD only to look at the growing mounds of steaming garbage festooning the streets of Toronto over the summer during the city’s prolonged civic workers’ strike to realise that rubbish can be a political priority.

Cities in the Americas and beyond – from Toronto to São Paulo – produce more rubbish than they can cope with, generating a logistical headache for authorities but also serious political issues about public health, recycling and, ultimately, citizenship.

In this pioneering study, Jutta Gutberlet, an academic at Canada’s University of Victoria, draws upon a small, marginalised but increasingly important sector of society in Latin America – the recyclers – for what they can teach a world coming to terms with its over-consumption in order to explore waste management and the potential for a participatory model that enhances social inclusion for one of the most marginalised sectors of society.

Known by their many different names throughout the continent – binners, catadores, carrinheiros, cartoneros, recuperadores, zabaleen or mikhalas – they are what the author describes as the “true heroes in a society caught up in over-consumption and disposable lifestyles.” She aims through this book to examine examples of waste-management practice that contribute to the debate on recycling and poverty, and to recognise the good work done by the informal recyclers who live on the margins of society. She takes the radical step of recommending mandatory waste recovery not only as the necessary end of the product lifecycle, but also as a tool of social inclusion.

In Brazil, the catadores or informal recyclers collect material from the garbage, businesses or households and sell it on to middlemen or directly to industry. Gutberlet writes:

“Recycling generates income and improves environmental health. Often children and elderly people also participate in this activity. The survival of thousands of people depends exclusively on accessing wasted materials, despite the fact that this work is economically undervalued and the workers face serious health risks and harsh social stigmatization.” [p. 6]

Yet catadores continue to be the most excluded, impoverished and disempowered segment of Brazilian society, suffering under considerable prejudice. This situation represents an uneasy counterpoint to the clear progress that has been made in Latin America – and in Brazil, in particular – in terms of participatory processes, such as the now tried-and-tested participatory budgeting. Gutberlet makes a case for “participatory waste management” that promotes recycling while generating income for the urban poor. In short, participatory structures have enormous potential as methods of deepening the sustainability of waste management.

Participation, she says, is the key to developing innovative solutions to current problems posed by the growing mountains of waste that blight the landscape of our megacities. She writes:

“… the participation of organized recycling groups in waste management is essential in the process of defining better ways of dealing with solid waste. The recyclers need to have a say in the framing of the policies for this sector. The activity they perform is crucial to sustainability.” [p. 122]

Case studies

Gutberlet examines two case studies of inclusive recycling schemes in the metropolitan region of São Paulo at Ribeirão Pires and Diadema. At the former, she observed the progress of a recycling co-operative, CooperPires, formed by the local government, and in particular the fate of the initiative when it came to changes in the profile of local politics. The author points to the heightened susceptibility of groups such as CooperPires to external change, largely because they involve disenfranchised and excluded sectors of society.

Diadema is the first city in Brazil where organized, independent recycling groups are officially in charge of collecting, selecting and commercializing waste and are paid to do so. It is also the first municipality in Brazil to pay for recyclable material selectively collected under a government programme, Vida Limpa, thereby guaranteeing a secure wage to participants.

The author provides a useful summary of similar initiatives in other Lain American countries. In Mexico, for example, progress has been made in terms of legalising informal and organised recycling activities, in encouraging the formation of co-operatives and micro-enterprises as well as the awarding of concessions. The main threat to such community-based approaches is the increasing trend towards privatisation in the sector whereby a small number of large and multinational corporations dominate.

She has provided a rich example of a sector that can be transformed through participation – in the face of the juggernaut of economic globalisation – and how organised recycling offers the possibility for recovering citizenship itself. Gutberlet concludes:

“Organized selective collection, based on autonomy and solidarity, is a viable entry point for the excluded into a dignified life with fair livelihood conditions. Not only do we have an opportunity to tackle social and environmental problems with this activity but we also have an obligation to revert the picture of wasting resources, lives and environments.” [p. 157]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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