Under the watchful eyes of hundreds of vultures that circle the Cajazeiras landfill in northeastern Brazil, Juju picks recyclables from the mountains of smoking trash. Bags of rubbish are dropped off every morning from 7am onwards by what seems to be an endless stream of garbage trucks. The smell of the landfill is nausea-inducing for newcomers, but Juju, who started working as a recyclables-picker at just eight years old, doesn’t notice it anymore. For him, life on the landfill has become a necessity.
“It’s not enough money, but I can maintain myself,” said Juju, who makes between R$150 and R$200 (US$20 to US$40) every week. “I love what I do because there’s no other job opportunities. We have looked for formal employment and didn’t get hired anywhere.”
Juju is one of 40 recyclables-pickers who search the Cajazeiras landfill for materials. The workers are eager to clarify that trash pickers (catadores de lixo in Portuguese), as they are known in Brazil and internationally, don’t actually pick up trash—rather, they collect, separate, transport, and sell recyclables for reuse or repurposing. Juju and Francisco—who also works on the Cajazeiras landfill—say recyclable-pickers find all sorts of objects in the bags of trash they search, like clothes, cell phones, tablets, and toys. These are either resold by the pickers or taken for personal use.
Trash picking communities searching for recyclables have become the backbone of Brazil’s waste management systems. The Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) estimates there are about 400,000 to 600,000 trash pickers working in precarious conditions across Brazil. Their jobs are high-risk, but collectively they have helped local city councils save over R$67 million (US$12,705,000) in waste management costs. And despite the lack of concrete recycling policies, trash pickers are responsible for 90% of Brazil’s recycling. The recognition and compensation they receive, however, is minimal.
“Recyclables-pickers make the first contact with recyclable materials,” explained IPEA researcher Sandro Pereira, who has authored studies on trash pickers and their position in the informal worker economy. “They will then go through intermediaries until it gets to the industrial sector. There are few companies doing [recycling] work so they have a lot of monopoly power. They exploit the field because they have the power to set the prices of the material.” This monopoly usually results in low selling prices for materials that are painstakingly separated from landfills. While the prices vary from state to state, in Cajazeiras 60 metal cans are sold for just R$7.50 (US$1.50), while a kilogram of pots and pans is worth R$12.00 (US$2.30). Plastic bottles are also sold by the kilogram at just R$5.00 (US$1.00).
“Many people don’t like our work, they discriminate against us. We are not trashmen, we are recyclable-pickers. I took a course to learn how to do this—I am a professional.”
The job doesn’t just come with financial risks. The precarity of the job means workers aren’t equipped with the right gear to protect from the health hazards of the job. Cuts and bruises caused by handling glass and metal with bare hands are common, as is exposure to contaminated chemical waste. The slurry that pours out of the mounds of waste contains heavy metals—including cadmium, arsenic, copper, mercury, cobalt, and lead—which can trigger respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous problems. In Cajazeiras, the hospital’s medical waste isn’t separated from regular trash, so trash pickers sometimes get pricked with used needles as they rummage through materials.
Moreover, should accidents happen, the marginalization of trash picking means there is no safety net—no access to medical care or sick pay—to support the communities and their families. The job also puts people at increased risk of heat stroke, repetitive strain injury, hypertension, allergic reactions, and more. “There are a lot of risks for recyclable-pickers because, unfortunately, here in Brazil, we don’t have effective environmental policies,” Pereira said.
For Juju, the risks of the job aren’t as important as the ability to provide for himself. Though he and others in Cajazeiras had searched for formal employment, the lack of opportunity felt more hopeless than finding recyclables in the landfill.
“Many people don’t like our work, they discriminate against us, they say we are trashmen,” he said. “We are not trashmen, we are recyclable-pickers. I took a course to learn how to do this—I am a professional. I tried searching for a job outside of here, but I couldn’t. So, I became angry and I came back.”
In early June, the mayor of Cajazeiras announced the landfill will close by 2024. The city has no plans to provide monetary aid or re-employment for the pickers that will no longer have an income due to the closure. And, sadly, they are not alone. In the Pombal landfill, almost 100km from Cajazeiras, workers like Nêgo Zé feel similarly threatened by the possible closure of the landfill he has worked on for 15 years.
“My whole family works here, this is how we support ourselves,” said Zé, whose day starts at 4:30am with the arrival of the first garbage truck to the landfill. “Just remembering that this will close down, I get demotivated. I’ve worked here for many, many years.”
Francinildo, who has worked in the Pombal landfill for 24 years making around R$400 (US$70) a month, urges the local government to redistribute financial and social support to those impacted by landfill closures. “We suffer here,” he said. “We find needles, broken glass, and get cuts. But when we get sick, if we don’t get a loan for the treatment, we can’t get better. The mayor doesn’t do anything to help us. ”
The solution to the closure of both landfills, according to the pickers, would be to give them formal jobs where they could utilize their expertise and earn a stable income. “People depend on this landfill,” Francinildo said. “We want jobs, right? The right thing to do is to give us all jobs, and some help at the end of every month.” After all, the decision to remove pickers from their workplaces was made without consulting the communities most affected.
In fact, despite the challenges that come with the job, many pickers say they love what they do. They are proud of the many ways in which their work contributes to the conservation of the climate, and are grateful for their independence. Pereira says the category of “catadores” has, in the last 30 years, become a professional identity in itself due to workers organizing efforts that have gained certain groups of recyclables-pickers better working conditions in some parts of Brazil.
“We earn very little here, but we are all happy,” Francinildo says. “We banter with each other and so we survive. We don’t leave anybody out, so we cheer each other up.”