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Brazilian carnival brings reflection on waste pickers and Circular Economy

By Arlene Carvalho, from the Circular Movement

As Carnival approaches, our thoughts often turn to revelry, vibrant music, and the colors that fill the streets. However, behind the festivities, there is a valuable opportunity to promote the Circular Economy and address crucial issues related to waste. In this context, waste pickers play a vital role. It is worth noting that it is not just the solitary waste picker on the streets who is important, but rather the collaboration between different actors - waste pickers, consumers, companies, and governments - that becomes key to transforming Carnival into a truly circular event.

But do we already have any examples of this in the various Brazilian carnivals? Olinda, in Pernambuco, hosts one of the largest street festivals in the country, and the Municipality has been adopting, over the years, an important initiative in this regard: registering waste pickers to reinforce waste collection during the Carnival festivities. These professionals join local waste pickers, forming a task force that keeps the city clean and drives the circular economy - while generating income for waste pickers and cooperatives, offering an appropriate destination for waste, saving money for public coffers, improving environmental and living quality, and even helping the government to receive tax incentives in the environmental area.

In 2023, the initiative involved 719 waste pickers, in addition to the 56 already working in Coocencipe, a cooperative in the region. According to data from the Municipality of Olinda, the reinforcement resulted in the removal of 43.4 tons of waste from the streets of the historic site and an additional 7.44 tons collected at the Carvalheira Camarote on the hills, totaling an impressive 50.84 tons of recyclable material collected during the days of revelry. The private sector invested around 110,000 reais - money used to pay the materials collectors.

"Since around 2015, we've been doing this. It's a way to ensure that the city stands out in waste management during Carnival. Until recently, we didn't have a waste policy or regulation... We've made a lot of progress in recent years. We have supported Coocencipe, these waste pickers, and we want to support more cooperatives, more people who work and want to regularize. The idea is that we can expand the Carnival collection project to the selective collection of the city, bringing more people into regulation, etc.," says Professor Jean Diniz - Head of Projects at the Secretariat of Environment and Urban Planning of Olinda.

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According to the municipality, each registered waste picker received a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kit consisting of: 1 pair of gloves, 1 identified shirt, 1 personalized badge, and 1 eco-bag, produced by seamstresses in a situation of social vulnerability on Maruim Island. In addition to logistical support, breakfast was offered, suitable spaces for rest and bathing, and 120 healthy dinners daily in partnership with the Street Pastoral. Attention was also extended to the children of waste pickers, providing a welcoming space at the Clube Atlântico in collaboration with the Secretariat of Social Development, Human Rights, and Accessibility (SDSDH).

"In 2024, our estimate is to have around 1000 registered waste pickers and more than 80 tons of waste collected from the streets and private booths. We are very optimistic. We hear stories of waste pickers who came from afar and started collecting cans in the pre-carnival events - when it came time to sell, they managed to make more than 4,000 reais," celebrates Diniz.

The founder and coordinator of Coocencipe, Mauro Paulino, highlights that the cooperative only purchases waste from independent waste pickers during Carnival, and that other municipalities have sought him out to replicate the successful formula of Olinda's revelry. "When the sweeping team arrives, the city is already almost clean. Our work has been very important. Furthermore, here at Coocencipe, we do not only collect aluminum cans. We collect cans, PET bottles, cardboard, and even glass. No recyclable waste is wasted. We collect everything and sell it to the respective industries," he reports.


Cans are predominant, but they are not the only materials acquired by Coocencipe during Carnival. Image: Arlene Carvalho/Movimento Circular

Another highlight of the initiative is the value at which the material is sold to Coocencipe at a higher price than when sold independently. "The values established for materials such as cans, PET bottles, cardboard, and glass reflect an appreciation when sold by the cooperative. For each kilogram, Coocencipe pays R$ 5.20 for the can, R$ 1.20 for the PET bottle, and R$ 0.20 for the cardboard. In contrast, in independent sales, these materials are normally acquired for values between R$ 4 and R$ 4.50 per kilogram, R$ 0.20 and R$ 0.50 for the PET bottle, and between R$ 0.15 and R$ 0.20 for the cardboard. Glass, on the other hand, shows a significant appreciation, with Coocencipe paying R$ 0.10, while, habitually, it is acquired for R$ 0.04. The can, the main product bought by the industry, is purchased for R$6.10," Mauro details.

This difference in values highlights not only the economic viability of cooperation among waste pickers but also the positive impact of the initiative on the valorization of recyclable waste. "No one can do anything alone. It's a partnership of many hands that is just a small example of how collaboration between different sectors can transform Carnival into an event that is not only festive but also social, responsible, and circular," concludes the cooperative coordinator.


Gerusa Nascimento has been working as a recyclable materials collector for 5 years. Image: Arlene Carvalho/Movimento Circular.

Who are the waste pickers?

Gerusa Nascimento, 60 years old, has been a waste picker for five years and is eager for Carnival. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2023 was the first year she participated in the actions, where she worked the entire week. "I didn't even come home. I didn't stay on the street collecting material, but rather supporting meal service. It was very intense work, but we collected a lot. It was even proud to see our work," comments the waste picker.

For Gerusa, Carnival is not just a festive celebration, but a period when she receives her thirteenth salary. With a proud smile, she reveals: "Each of us received more than 600 reais after we tallied everything. This place here became so full that nobody could even pass because of so much material here. I took a long time to see trash as a source of income. It took me a long time, but today, I am very proud of my work."

Gerusa's story dates back to her desire to fulfill an old dream. "When I was a girl, I dreamed a lot about having a 15-year-old party. My older daughters didn't show interest, but the youngest wished for it deeply. It was her dream and mine too. At the time, I was facing heart health problems and couldn't work. We decided to start collecting cans to sell them and make the party, and we managed to achieve that goal. After the event, I continued to collect cans. People would collect them and leave them at my house, and I would sell them. However, I still had that perception that they were just trash, you know? Even though I collected them, brought them home, and sold them, they were still considered trash to me," she explains.


Education about the materials helped her overcome a series of prejudices about her own activity. Image: Arlene Carvalho/Movimento Circular

The transformation in perspective actually occurred when she started working in the area, about three years ago. "About three years ago or so, things got really tight, and neither my daughter nor I could find a job. We came here, talked to Mr. Mauro, and spent a day working. She went home halfway through the day, and I stayed. And I've been here ever since. As time went by, I sought to study to understand the materials, how to do the separation, the stages, etc. It was by seeking this information about the waste and the processes that I began to see them not as trash, but as my work," she concludes.

When we imagine waste pickers, we often encounter the image of someone traversing the city streets with a cart loaded with discarded materials, or exploring beaches and events in search of aluminum cans. Many times, we associate these people with a margin of society. However, departing from this stereotype, Gerusa's story stands out as an example that reveals the various opportunities present in waste.

The appropriate view of these materials and those who work with them can unveil surprising potentials. Gerusa's journey illustrates that, through knowledge and commitment, it is possible to transform the conventional view of waste, highlighting that, for those dedicated to this activity, these materials are not only sources of income but also sources of pride and personal fulfillment. Dona Gerusa's inspiring story invites us to reconsider waste not only as disposals but as essential elements for building a sustainable and dignified path.

Circular actions in other Carnival poles across Brazil

Valuing the role of recycling professionals not only strengthens the chain but also contributes to building a more conscious and responsible society regarding the environment and natural resources. How about learning about some Circular Economy initiatives in this festival?

Recife, Pernambuco
The Urban Maintenance and Cleaning Autarchy of Recife (Emlurb) is implementing a comprehensive cleaning scheme for Carnival 2024, aiming for the comfort and safety of revelers. With the participation of 2,500 people, 10 water trucks, 18 garbage compactors, and 5 ecobikes will be used for collection, cleaning, and proper disposal of waste generated during the event. Additionally, 4.6 million liters of water, 7,200 liters of essence, 450 kg of Enzilimp, and 2,230 liters of detergent will be employed. To promote the participation of revelers, 70 Voluntary Delivery Points (PEVs) will be available for correct disposal of recyclable waste at the city's festival poles. The sculpture of the Giant Peace Rooster, a Carnival symbol, standing 28 meters tall and weighing eight tons, stands out for sustainability. More than 90% of the materials used in its structure come from discards and reuse of technological waste, such as advertising banners and donated CDs/DVDs. The initiative reinforces the commitment to environmental preservation and artistic innovation, adopting the practice of upcycling.

Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro

During Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Comlurb collects potentially recyclable materials at the Sambadrome, with the exception of cans, which are managed by a cooperative. The Urban Arts Galpão of the Company provides space for the Vagalume O Verde ("Green Firefly") bloc to create its costumes and adornments from reused materials. Since 2015, the bloc has been promoting free workshops teaching the practice of reuse during Carnival. This year, the partnership with the NGO Sustenta Carnaval, a socio-environmental project of creative economy, involves the transfer and reuse of materials collected by the NGO, with the collaboration of Comlurb, in the dispersal area of the Sambadrome, in addition to participation in workshops. The partnership, initiated in the previous year, contributes to reducing waste destined for CTR-Rio, extending the life of the landfill and minimizing the environmental impacts associated with Carnival.


City hall, cooperative, waste pickers, public: everyone needs to do their part. Image: Arlene Carvalho/Movimento Circular.

The shared responsibility of the different agents involved in Carnival, from organizers to revelers, is essential to promote Circular Economy and ensure the sustainability of the event. The collaboration between waste pickers, companies, governments, and citizens demonstrates that together, we can transform a traditional festival into an opportunity to promote more conscious and responsible practices regarding waste. By recognizing the value of waste pickers' work and adopting measures to facilitate selective collection and recycling, we are not only contributing to environmental preservation but also generating economic and social benefits for the entire community. This integrated and collaborative approach is essential to ensure a more circular and inclusive Carnival for all.

About the Circular Movement

Created in 2020, the Circular Movement is a collaborative ecosystem dedicated to encouraging the transition from the linear economy to the circular one. The idea that every resource can be reused and transformed is the motto of the Circular Economy, the movement's basic concept. The Circular Movement is an open initiative that promotes collaborative spaces with the aim of informing people and institutions that a waste-free future is possible through education and culture, the adoption of new behaviors, inclusion, and the development of new processes, products, and attitudes.

And you? Do you want to learn more about Circular Economy?

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, access the Circular Academy, the first free Latin American course on Circular Economy aimed at the general public. All of us, in partnership and collaboration, can make a difference in building a more circular planet.

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