Rio authorities partner with Coca-Cola to fund the Rio Olympics waste pickers programme, putting a spotlight on one of Brazil’s most marginalised professions.
Claudete Da Costa started working as a waste picker with her mother when she was 11 years old, collecting recyclable goods in Rio de Janeiro to sell to scrap merchants.
“We were ashamed,” she says. “People saw us and spat at us, thought we were thieves.”
Today, 36-year-old Da Costa’s outlook has changed. She is the Rio de Janeiro representative for Brazil’s National Movement of Waste Pickers, whose mission is to improve workers’ rights and increase recognition of the contribution made by one of Brazil’s most marginalised professions.
This month, Da Costa and 240 other pickers from 33 of Rio’s waste collecting co-operatives – autonomous groups that collect the city’s rubbish throughout the year – are formally contracted to handle recyclable waste during the Olympic Games.
The pickers will be spread across three of the four Olympic sites – Maracana, Olympic Park and Deodoro – where they will collect recyclable goods such as plastic bottles and aluminium cans, and take them to a depot to be sorted, stored and sold on by the co-ops to scrap merchants.
The co-operatives will divide the profits from the sale of the recycled materials between workers and investment in new equipment. In addition, each waste picker will be paid a fixed daily salary of R$80 (£19) by the Olympic Committee. In contrast, at the Ecco Ponto co-operative, for example, where Da Costa is president, pickers normally take home around (£7) a day.
“I’m excited for the money,” says 49-year-old Erineia Goncalves, a single mother of two who hopes to leave her rented accommodation and build her own house in the favela where she lives.
According to Rio 2016’s head of sustainability, Tania Braga – who says the Olympics Committee predicts the pickers will be handling an estimated 3,500 tonnes of recyclables over the course of the Games – the cost of hiring the waste pickers is roughly the same as it would have been to hire a private cleaning business.
Braga also says that the project is not an attempt to outsource responsibility since, if anything goes wrong, Rio 2016 will be jointly responsible because the waste pickers are working inside their venues. However, she adds that as the pickers have been hired under a professional contract, they will not receive their wages if they do not fulfil their obligations (for example, if they don’t turn up to work), although she thinks this unlikely.
“It’s in their interest to perform, they want this opportunity,” says Braga. “They are very well prepared. We built logistics together with them and we were very impressed during the planning phase. So this gives us a lot of confidence.”
Ricardo Alves de Oliveira, a policy coordinator at Rio’s environment office, and Braga say they are also confident in the co-operatives’ ability to handle the volume of waste as they were successful against private companies for the tender of the contract.
The Rio Olympics waste pickers programme is a partnership between Rio 2016, Coca-Cola, Rio state government and Brazil’s federal government, which together have invested R$3m (£720,000) in the scheme. Rio’s waste pickers, made famous by the movie Waste Land, are not an uncommon phenomenon. The vast majority of Brazilian cities lack formal recycling programmes and separation is largely done by waste pickers, who search bins and scour pavements for recyclable goods such as aluminium cans. And, since mass collection gives better prices per weight, waste pickers in co-operatives can earn more money.
“Brazil is only beginning to understand the advantages of recycling, of selective collection,” says Haroldo Mendonça, solidarity economy coordinator at the labour ministry. “But we can give an example to other countries to show how to combine environmental care with economic empowerment.”
Rio de Janeiro authorities hope to capitalise on the Olympics recycling project by continuing to use the model for the city’s annual events, such as the Rio Carnival and New Year’s Eve on Copacabana beach. A similar, smaller scale version was used during Brazil’s football World Cup in 2014.
“This model will be an example for the whole country to replicate,” says Ricardo Alves de Oliveira, a policy coordinator at Rio’s environment office. “We will leave a legacy for all big events in Rio.”