(IAP ’17) Talia Fox, G

Talia Fox (G, Urban Studies and Planning)
Talia will travel to southeastern Brazil this January, where she will be contributing to efforts to develop a computer/smartphone application (app) that provides waste picker cooperatives with enhanced opportunities for collecting recyclables and earning fair pay. Specifically, she will visit several waste picker cooperatives in the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo to understand the systems and management structures for waste collection, segregation, and sale of materials. Through interviews and group workshops, Talia hopes to empower waste pickers to shape the end product that best serves the assets and needs of their communities. Talia’s project collaborators are part of the MIT D-Lab Practical Impact Alliance Inclusive Recycling Working Group.

Check back for her updates!

Reflection 4: Cabeça cheia, January 20, 2017

It’s my last day in Brazil! I’m spending it in the Danone offices in São Paulo, meeting some of the project team members and reflecting on my time here. It’s been a week of interesting visits in the cities of São José dos Campos and Jacareí, to three different cooperatives: Futura, CooperTech, and Jacareí Recicla, all part of the Catavale network (consisting of various cooperatives in the valley of the River Paraíba do Sul outside of São Paulo). Because I stayed in the same region all week, I’ve had more time to process the differences across the eight groups I’ve accompanied throughout my trip. Furthermore, whereas for my past visits I was primarily with a Danone or INSEA technician, this week I was lucky to be in the company of the president of the Catavale network. She is a wastepicker and is also the president of her own cooperative in another city in the valley (which unfortunately I did not have the chance to visit).

Selfie on the sorting line with Angela, the Catavale network president, and Jessica, a member of the cooperative Jacareí Recicla

Selfie on the sorting line with members of the Catavale network and Jacareí Recicla

In the other networks tied to the Novo Ciclo program, cooperatives are seeing some improvements as a result of Danone’s investments and support. Because the Catavale network is not yet officially part of Danone’s Novo Ciclo program, however, the cooperatives I visited are slightly less accustomed to visitors and researchers. The Catavale network entered into discussions with Danone several months back regarding its inclusion in the Novo Ciclo project. It seems (from my discussions with the team) that Danone fully intends to follow through, but complications around the contracting of technicians to accompany the network have slowed the process. And so the cooperatives in the Catavale network are particularly skeptical of outside involvement. Broadly speaking, of course, catadores are skeptical of anyone who claims to help them. They are often cheated out of money and resources, and experience many promises unfulfilled.

Arriving with the network president certainly was helpful for introductions and for overcoming the initial discomforts of a new face, but for all of the reasons mentioned above, I found that I had to do much more explaining of why I was visiting the cooperatives this week. While the leaders within the cooperatives were receptive and gracious, they were also very cautious in their interactions with me, an understandable stance that set the mood for my visits. To highlight an example: following my interviews these past weeks, I would always ask if my interviewee had any questions for me. The questions I got this week more frequently included “what can you bring to our cooperative in return?” in addition to the question I received often at other cooperatives: “have you liked your stay here?” I did my best to explain that our hope is to provide support through an app for the network, but I had to be sure to clarify that my research is not a promise; it’s a first step in the process of developing a tool that may or may not bring about desired changes. And so my answer to these types of questions was very unsatisfying to those I interviewed, I’m sure, not just at this cooperative.

Visiting the Futura cooperative, part of the Catavale network

Visiting the Futura cooperative, part of the Catavale network

Contributing to the change in dynamics is the fact that these cooperatives have particularly complicated relationships with local governments in their cities. The São José dos Campos city government had been renting separate spaces for Futura and for one other cooperative in São José do Campos (which I did not visit). Upon concluding that renting both spaces was too expensive, the city decided to rent at a different site where both cooperatives would be forced to work side by side. The transition has caused quite a bit of upheaval. When I arrived at the new space, only Futura was there, and although it had already been two months since the move, many of the materials processing machines weren’t working due to the lack of adequate energy capacity of the space. Mountains of unsorted material were accumulating, and the members were still markedly bitter about the move.

To make matters more complicated, Futura competes with the private company that is contracted by the city to do recyclables collection, which also has a recyclables processing facility, and hundreds of employees. Sometimes, the company delivers the materials it collects to the cooperative, but generally the materials that arrive are the leftovers: the less valuable materials and garbage that the private company doesn’t want to pay to dispose of at the landfill.

In Jacareí, the cooperative was well organized and accustomed to their space and to their role. Jacareí Recicla is the only cooperative that serves the city of Jacareí (which is smaller than São José dos Campos), and it has fought hard to achieve its positive image both in the city and in the networks of cooperatives, more broadly. The cooperative’s president recounted a story of the government’s failure to comply with regulations for the space that the cooperative previously occupied. She described hazardous and unsanitary conditions in the sorting center, which, for that matter, many cooperatives still face. Several years ago, now, a friendly bystander reported the city of Jacareí to federal agencies, who then fined the city and the cooperative for the situation. The city cleaned up its act, providing a more suitable space for the cooperative.

Interviewing a member of the Jacareí Recicla team

Interviewing a member of the Jacareí Recicla team

In hearing about the continuing struggles of these groups through conversations with cooperative members and leaders, with technicians, and with residents, I have gotten a fascinating range of perspectives on cooperative waste and recyclables management in Brazil. I do believe that an app that facilitates the cooperative networks’ easy exchange of information has the potential to make a big difference in their power to communicate and sell material at a better price. Of course, my other conclusions from these few weeks are that an app alone cannot solve the many challenges I’ve been witnessing and discussing. I have outstanding concerns about the logistics of transporting materials to buyers and the costs of doing so, the sources of information such as the market value of materials, and the specifics of who uses and puts information in the app. On a more positive note, I am confident that three weeks ago, I couldn’t have begun to identify these details or understand them.

And so, I leave Brazil, once again, with a cabeça cheia, a head full of information to ponder, about the challenges of marginalized waste workers and the important role they play in society; the benefits of cooperative systems of working and coexisting; and the pointed inequalities I’ve seen daily. I am eager to get back to the States and apply my experiences to the related struggles we continue to face there, which I am sure we’ll be facing more in the coming years. On that note, I’m off to the Women’s March in Washington, DC!


Entry 3: Nuances and Networks, January 13, 2017

I’m back in Poços de Caldas after about a week in Belo Horizonte (BH, as it’s known by locals), where I had the opportunity to visit two cooperatives with very distinct histories. My ability to express myself on the subject of waste in Portuguese improves daily, as does my understanding of the collection, processing, and sale of recyclable materials. Of course, every answer to a question reveals further nuance, leaving me with even more questions at the end of the day!

My visits this week have granted me significant insight into the complications that arise in much larger cities around waste collection, from the influence of different political regimes on the financial support that cooperatives receive, to the intricacies of territorial disputes among the different materials collection entities—private, public, individual, or collective. I’m thankful for the support and patience of the staff and wastepickers affiliated with INSEA, who have accompanied me all week.

Interviewing a member of the administrative team at ASMARE in Belo Horizonte

Interviewing a member of the ASMARE administrative team in Belo Horizonte

First, on the difference between cooperatives and associations (because until recently, I didn’t realize that there were two separate classifications of organizations, and I’ve mildly offended some association leaders as a result): my understanding is that it’s largely a matter of legal status, finances, and goals. Cooperativas are jointly owned by members, can generate a profit, and pay taxes. Associações are nonprofits; they don’t pay taxes and cannot generate a profit as an entity. Importantly, both models emphasize a cooperative nature and a commitment to socioenvironmental improvement. Naturally, associations are concerned about generating income for their members and ensuring that they can earn a living, although they are of a less entrepreneurial nature than the cooperatives I’ve encountered. For the sake of simplicity, when I write “cooperatives” in English, I generally mean both cooperatives and associations. When I speak of a specific entity, I will specify whether it is a cooperative or an association.

Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais, is known for its strong history of catadores de rua, or individual wastepickers who collect trash in carts around the city. Many of these wastepickers have set collection points and routes that they have been following for decades. Wastepickers have friendly, even very close, relationships with the people who live along these routes. They might benefit from an exchange of services or goods with these people (apart from their recyclables collection service). They often prefer the freedom and the work of collecting their own material over remaining at a cooperative’s storage and sorting facilities, waiting for trash to arrive, required to follow the cooperative’s rules. The freedom allows individual wastepickers to control their hours and their own production levels. The stories of these workers have influenced the structure of certain cooperatives, which cater to individual wastepicker interests in terms of hours of operation, payment systems, and the arrangement of physical premises.

Significant municipal legislation around solid waste management exists in BH, relative to other cities in Brazil. Several laws in BH preference the inclusion of cooperatives in the sale of recyclables and the lending of technical assistance to cooperative members. A resolution at the state level in 2001 mandates the removal of wastepickers from dumps, and through the efforts of wastepickers and allies, cities are also required to provide employment alternatives for those wastepickers prohibited from accessing material at dumps [1]. As a result, there are several cooperatives within the BH metropolitan region, and the city has implemented recyclables collection (although only for about 2% of the population).

ASMARE (Associação dos Catadores de Papel, Papelão, e Material Reaproveitável) is one of the more well-known wastepicker associations in the global movement. It is the second oldest in Brazil, and at the height of its production about 15 years ago, it had nearly 300 associates. Now it has approximately 120.  ASMARE has two locations that exemplify the structural and logistical differences that can exist across wastepicker cooperatives. Its location on the busy Avenida do Contorno largely attends individual catadores de rua (and interestingly, it is across the street from some powerful private middlemen that pay far lower prices to individual wastepickers who are not part of cooperatives). ASMARE’s upper location on Rua Ituitaba bears a structure similar to that of the other groups I’ve visited, where materials arrive by way of the city’s recyclables collection, are collected by the cooperative itself, and/or are donated by businesses.

ASMARE...Recycling Lives!

ASMARE…Recycling Lives!

Belo Horizonte's recyclables collection truck

Belo Horizonte’s recyclables collection truck

COOMARP PAMPULHA (Cooperativa dos trabalhadores com Materiais reciclaveis da Pampulha) is a cooperative, rather than an association, and pays its members an amount proportional to the quantity of sorted material each produces. This payment structure is different from other groups, like ASMARE, which, beyond a certain production goal, split earnings among all cooperative members. Each of the cooperatives serves different neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations. While space and trucks are donated by the city, these days, neither cooperative receives direct compensation from the city for the service it provides. In fact, no cooperative in BH has been paid by the city in over six years. Apart from being unjust, this forces cooperatives to rely solely on the sale of materials to pay members, as well as to maintain facilities and equipment and cover general expenses.

Interviewing the administrative team at COOMARP Pampulha

Interviewing the administrative team at COOMARP PAMPULHA

I am hoping that next week’s visits in some satellite cities of São Paulo will reveal even more information to confirm my hunches about what a mobile application can feasibly accomplish for the networks of cooperatives here. I feel energized by the conversations I’m having and I’m excited to return to MIT in a couple of weeks and carry this work forward!

[1] Sonia M. Dias, “Overview of the Legal Framework for Inclusion of Informal Recyclers in Solid Waste Management in Brazil” WIEGO Policy Brief No. 6, May 2011. http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/publications/files/Dias_WIEGO_PB6.pdf.


Entry 2: Poços de Caldas –> Lavras–> Belo Horizonte, January 7, 2017

It has been a busy few days here for me in the state of Minas Gerais. With the guidance of Danone’s kind staff members (technicians, as they’re called in Portuguese)—who have been introducing me to everyone, driving me more than ten hours around the state, and explaining countless, waste-specific phrases in Portuguese—I’ve visited three different wastepicker cooperatives and three different cities in three days. I’m in the city of Belo Horizonte, where I finally have some time to reflect on what I’ve learned this week.

I’m just beginning to piece together how the vast network of cooperatives in the region functions, as well as where my work fits in. Novo Ciclo, the project out of Danone Ecosystem Fund that works with wastepickers to provide training and support for the cooperatives, involves various partners, Danone and INSEA (Nenuca Institute for Sustainable Development, an NGO that has worked with wastepicker cooperatives for many years) being the two major collaborators from the private and nonprofit sectors, respectively. The mobile app that emerges in part from my research will serve to facilitate connections between the many cooperatives that are part of the project, allowing the higher-level administrative body of wastepickers to stay informed regarding the operation of the different cooperatives in the network and negotiate the bulk sale of the material to final buyers at a better price. Everyone seems optimistic about the potential for this technology to increase wastepicker salaries and streamline operations.

I visited two cooperatives in Poços de Caldas. The smaller of the two, Coopersul, is located in the southern zone of the city, a less affluent collection of neighborhoods farther from the city center. This cooperative has just eight members, was founded in 2011, and processes between 15 and 20 metric tons of material per month. Coopersul has a much lower production than the 10-year-old Ação Reciclar, which produces about 80 metric tons per month, serves the neighborhoods closer to the city center, and has 30 members. The third cooperative I visited, ACAMAR, is even further along than the others in terms of its operations, material production, and technology. With 40 members and over 17 years of material processing in the city of Lavras (about a four-hour drive from Poços de Caldas), ACAMAR is able to process between 100 and 120 metric tons per month.

Separated recyclables at the cooperative Ação Reciclar

Separated recyclables at the cooperative Ação Reciclar

It’s a little hard to imagine the magnitude of the process without seeing it in person. Thankfully, the past few days have given me a general sense of how materials arrive at, move through, and leave a cooperative. While the processing of material overall is somewhat similar, the specific operations in each cooperative can be quite different, depending on the individual members, administrative structure, relationship or agreement with the municipality that the cooperative serves, and the capacity of the cooperative’s physical space and technology to process materials. The cooperatives might have their own trucks to collect materials, as is the case with ACAMAR, or they might borrow a truck and driver from the city, as is the case with both cooperatives in Poços de Caldas. The cooperatives might piggy-back off of the routes and schedule for recyclables collection that is organized by the city, which then drops off materials at the cooperatives’ processing centers, instead of or in addition to cooperatives organizing their own collection routes and times.

A fascinating aspect of the cooperative is its distinct relationship and history with the city it serves. Currently, the cooperatives are grappling with the recent transition (the beginning of January) of city government following October’s local elections. While cities are required to have contracts with cooperatives that recognize and manage their service, many contracts have to be renewed on a yearly basis. Furthermore, even with contracts, payment is not always guaranteed. Bureaucratic processes and refusal on the part of the local government to pay the debts its owes to cooperatives have delayed funding for months or years. This has left cooperatives strapped for cash and relying only on money from the sale of their materials, when they should also receive money from the city in exchange for their services. (One of the functions of the network administrative body is to collect 0.5% of a cooperative’s revenue to put in a reserve fund that can be accessed in such cases.)

Separation and processing of material can also vary significantly across cooperatives. A machine for compressing materials and a scale for weighing are the basic technological requirements for a functioning cooperative. All cooperatives I’ve visited thus far manually separate materials into at least 25 different material types, an impressive and skillful task. In smaller cooperatives, individual wastepickers are stationed at tables, while in larger cooperatives, a moving ramp with several wastepickers separating material speeds up the process significantly. ACAMAR and Ação Reciclar have forklifts for moving heavy bales of compressed material (which reduces prices when organizing delivery to a buyer), and ACAMAR has a shredder to prepare paper for sale. ACAMAR also has a separate location where it receives scrap wood from construction to build and sell basic furniture and other household items like doghouses and shelves.

With Evaldo of Association Acamar in Lavras, by the paper shredder

With Evaldo of Association ACAMAR in Lavras, by the paper shredder

My favorite part of the interviews and conversations I’ve been having with wastepickers and cooperative administrators is learning about individual stories. Some wastepickers have been in the profession—yes, it is a profession, officially recognized in the federal registry here and taken very seriously by wastepickers, although not always by society—for over 25 years. Most wastepickers I’ve spoken with love their work and are extremely committed to the cooperative nature of their groups. Many cite interpersonal conflicts as a major challenge in the fight to improve income and achieve solidarity among members. Everyone has been kind, patient, and receptive to my many inquiries.

On Monday, I’ll meet a new team from INSEA, who will assist me as I visit three more cooperatives here in Belo Horizonte, before making the eight-hour journey back to Poços de Caldas on Wednesday.  Vamos lá!

Founding member of Ação Reciclar and wastepicker of 18 years, Dona Maria

Founding member of Ação Reciclar, wastepicker of 18 years, Dona Maria


Entry 1: Back in Brazil, January 4, 2017

I arrived in Poços de Caldas, Brazil on Tuesday afternoon, January 3rd. This city in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais is located just over the border with the state of São Paulo. Currently, it’s bustling with tourists from other parts of Brazil who are here on holiday. I see why—this small city is located in the mountains and has many shops and restaurants to entertain. I went exploring for a bit when I arrived, and checked out a beautiful park and some views of the mountainside.

Park in Poços de Caldas

Park in Poços de Caldas

View above the city

Views of the city from above


Tomorrow I have my first of many visits to wastepicker cooperatives in the area, to understand better how these cooperatives are organized and managed. Over the next three weeks, I will travel to several groups of wastepickers in and around São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais. I am here working with collaborators in the Practical Impact Alliance Inclusive Recycling Working Group at the MIT D-Lab, including BoP Innovation Center and Danone Brazil. In the months following my trip, we aim to create an app or other software to help address the challenges of wastepicker cooperatives in southeast Brazil, where Danone’s Corporate Sustainability Initiative currently focuses its work.

Some brief background: wastepickers represent an important piece of waste management systems, separating out valuable material streams to be recycled. They might work on the street, at dumps, or at transfer stations, or go door to door to households or businesses to collect materials. In many places, wastepickers do the bulk of recycling work, particularly where formal management systems are lacking. Wastepickers earn a livelihood while providing important environmental, health, and economic benefits to society, although they are not often compensated or acknowledged for this work. By organizing into autonomous cooperatives, wastepickers have begun to address the challenges they face, improving incomes and providing shared benefits for members; achieving bargaining power with formal solid waste management; speaking out for policy change; and fighting social stigma, to legitimize wastepickers’ work.

So why Brazil? Brazil has a particularly strong history of recognizing informal networks as part of municipal waste management systems. By organizing, protesting, and lobbying lawmakers, particularly following the end of Brazil’s military rule in 1985, waste pickers have been able to push for and benefit from federal, state, and municipal level initiatives. The legal and regulatory framework in Brazil facilitates waste pickers’ recognition within a traditionally informal working context, relative to other countries [1]. Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy, Law 12.305/2010, approved in July 2010 after much debate, explicitly indicates a role for waste pickers in sustainable management of solid waste at the same time that it mandates extended producer responsibility and national, regional and local solid waste management plans [2].

An app seems at first like an unlikely solution to wastepickers’ continuing challenges. Leading up to my visit, I worked with another student in a class called D-Lab Waste, to complete a survey of existing wastepicker related apps around the world. We discovered nine initiatives that have focused on using technology, including apps, to help wastepickers. Apps have various functionalities that include real-time location of wastepickers or waste collection facilities, display of market value of recyclable materials, and organization of data on quantities of materials collected. Through our research, my project partner and I wanted not only to learn about the apps themselves, but also to understand the origin stories of the apps and the situations in which particular functionalities might work best. To that end, we produced individual case studies and created a framework for designing and evaluating future apps. One overwhelming takeaway was that the circumstances under which a technology arises are crucial to its structure and subsequent success. The process and conclusions of this research, also part of the PIA Inclusive Recycling Working Group, will necessarily guide my approach to the information I collect in the next three weeks.

It is a curious feeling, to be returning to Brazil, again, after many months. It feels a little like coming home, and it feels new again. I lived on the opposite side of the country, in the Amazonian state of Acre, for a year, from 2013-2014. I have visited both São Paulo and Minas Gerais, but the visits were very brief, and purely for tourism purposes. Bottom line—Brazil is big. While I have a small window into the culture, language, and history, I do not by any means have a complete understanding of this part of the country, let alone of the places in which I did spend more time. My Portuguese is good, but quite rusty. I’m excited to get back up to speed with my language skills, do some more exploring, and learn a lot about wastepickers’ important work. Stay tuned for more updates!


[1] Sonia M. Dias, “Overview of the Legal Framework for Inclusion of Informal Recyclers in Solid Waste Management in Brazil” WIEGO Policy Brief No. 6, May 2011. http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/publications/files/Dias_WIEGO_PB6.pdf.

[2] National Congress of Brazil. Law 12.305/2010; National Policy on Solid Waste. http://www.justicaeleitoral.jus.br/arquivos/lei-12-305-2010-pnrs/view.

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