Meet The Brazilian Waste Pickers Working In Dumps That “Don’t Exist”
Despite being forbidden since 2010, rubbish dumps are still a common feature on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It's time to know the lives of those who scrape out a living there.
Brazil's Gramacho dump is the largest wasteland in Latin America. And yet, though millions of Brazilians know its name, for local and national government agencies, neither this nor any other dumps exist.
Many others are also large enough to have names — Itacoa, Morro do Céu, Niterói, Maré, and Praça do Lixão — and the waste pickers who work there and the poverty they hold is as real as the trash.
As new policies are implemented, we wanted to understand the living and working conditions of the people who call these places home, talking to residents around the dumps and waste pickers who experience these technically “de-activated” spaces on a daily basis.
Two years to shutter 3,000 "official" dumps
Despite approval in 2010, Brazil’s National Solid Waste Plan, which required the closure of dumps, only began to be implemented this year. Currently, only six of the 22 municipalities in the Metropolitan Region of Rio have a plan for managing solid waste in accordance with the law.
When it was approved, the National Solid Waste Plan forecasted the eradication of irregular landfills by 2014, a deadline that has since been extended to 2024, with around 3,000 dumps still active across the country today.The plan was also meant to address the economic formalization of waste pickers. But across Rio, there are similar reports of residents feeling abandoned by an indifferent government.
The Itaoca dump, across Guanabara Bay from downtown Rio, was technically closed ten years ago. But there are approximately 100 people still residing in the area, in makeshift houses without sanitation, transport, or support from the government. This reality makes women like Maria José, 63, dream of resuming waste picker activities in the dump.
“I miss the dump a lot, my children were all raised with this work of mine, I really wanted it to function again,” she says. “It was a party, we spent day and night working there, and now we have nothing left. They forgot about us.”
A lifetime at the dump
Márcia Ribeiro, known in the region as Marcinha, started working at the dump at age 12. She met her current husband there, and they even got married in the countryside next to the dump. They have been together for 21 years, have three children, and since the closing of the dump, the family survives on what they can collect from city streets and public assistance — which will end in December. When the dump was active, the family could earn around 300 reais ($56) a week.
I worked during all my pregnancies.
“This was my first and only job, I worked during all my pregnancies. Without the dump, what I receive from the government is not enough for the whole month,” explains Marcinha. “I'm not ashamed to take the waste from the rubbish bags, but it's still very difficult. There are days when I'm at home in silence and I end up crying,” she says.
In 2010, six municipalities in the Metropolitan Region of Rio had formal waste collection. Ten years later, in 2020, that number reached nine. According to the most recent data from the National Sanitation Information System, 13 of the 22 municipalities in Rio’s metropolitan region still do not have functioning garbage collection systems.
Although such systems were among the requirements made in the National Solid Waste Plan, along with programs to assist informal waste-pickers, such initiatives are active in only two of Rio’s suburbs, Mesquita and Niterói. In others, like East Fluminense, Itaguaí and São Gonçalo, even though there are rubbish collectors organized in cooperatives or associations, the cities do not have an official selective waste collection.
On the other side of the bay, Vladimir Senna, 42, has been recycling for 24 years. As a teenager he began to accompany his mother at work in the Gramacho dump. When the trash dump was technically closed in 2010, he returned to his favela, Maré. Like many other favelas and peripheries in the state of Rio, Mare is on land that officially belongs to the government, but which, due to the lack of management, has become a place for the disorderly disposal of waste from entire communities.
Gramacho Garden, the largest landfill in Latin America
Saving the favelas
Similar situations are found in other favelas. In Rio das Pedras there is the Praça do Lixão, or “Dump Plaza,” on land cleared by the government for the construction of a plaza that never got off the ground. Today the space is home to an intense rubbish disposal activity. Residents say that there has been an increase in the number of people working as recyclers during the pandemic, but even so, large amounts of waste are visible on streets and alleys.
Luiz Bernardo de Lima, 57, has lived in the community for over 30 years. He started working with recycling during the pandemic when he became unemployed. Luiz works at one of the main points of irregular waste disposal in the community. To make enough money for his family to survive on, he spends two days straight looking for recyclable material in the rubbish.
“There is a lot of waste, but for recycling it is weak, there are a lot of people collecting all over the favela,” he says. “I have to support eight people with this work, but slowly we get by, we can eat but not eat well, right? This is my life, I've been called a beggar, but I keep quiet when I hear this nonsense. I know that if it weren't for us, this place would be a mess”.
In the community, it is very common to see collectors pushing numbered carts, which they rent for a daily rate of R$40 ($7.50). In a month, workers spend about R$800 ($150) just on renting this equipment alone.
Is this a dump?
It is not always easy to identify if an area is a dump, since many favelas, neighborhoods and cities suffer from irregular disposal and the lack of selective garbage collection.
Elisabeth Ritter, professor at the Department of Sanitary Engineering at Rio de Janeiro State University, explains how residents can identify if the irregular dumping space in their area can be considered a dump.
“A dump is classified as having rubbish disposal on the ground in a landfill, without any control or coverage of the material, attracting vultures, rats. Depending on local conditions and the volume of waste deposited, they can also have leachate ponds forming without any control,” explains Ritter.
Only the transporters are really making money.
She also pointed out that sanitary landfills are the best option to deal with urban waste, as they minimize the problems of waste disposal on the ground through a base waterproofing system, drainage and treatment of leachate, a foul smelling, dark liquid generated by the decomposition of organic matter.
Sanitary landfills in São Gonçalo, Paracambi, Nova Iguaçu and Itaboraí receive waste from 16 of the 22 municipalities in the metropolis. Sergio Ricardo, founder of the NGO Baía Viva says that large, wealthier cities prefer to send their trash to poorer outskirts, instead of having recycling facilities in central locations.
“The ones earning money with rubbish are these [large scale] transporters, and the one[s] losing [are] the poor population around the disposal spaces. This is one of the characteristics of the logic of environmental racism,” Ricardo says.
Abandoned land turned into a garbage field
8 million liters a day
In the absence of official public data, a recent study conducted by Baía Viva and the Rio de Janeiro State University found that the state of Rio produces around 8 million liters of leachate per day.
In addition to producing leachate, the accumulation of decomposing organic matter also emits methane, which is 28 times more polluting than carbon dioxide (CO2). “How much of it is handled? You have to ask the State Institute for the Environment but we are experiencing a blackout of sanitation data,” denounces Ricardo, who warns about the long-term risks of soil exposure to pollutants.
“When you deactivate a dump, at least for 20 years it stays emitting 2 components: leachate and methane. In several parts of Rio, you can see neighborhoods covered in air pollution particles,” he says.
If it reaches the water table, leachate can also interfere with the water quality of residents around a dump, posing a particular challenge and danger to these poor, nearby communities that often use well water for consumption.
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