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Every day, Ailton dos Santos wakes up at 6 a.m. and makes a two-hour bus journey to a warehouse in central São Paulo where his carroça – a hand-made two-wheeled cart – is stored. From there, he spends up to eight hours – cart in tow – scouring the streets of São Paulo for discarded recyclable material that can be sold to recycling centres or middlemen, for mere cents on the kilogramme. Ailton is just one foot soldier in a silent army of over one million catadores – informal workers who earn a living collecting and reselling recyclable waste across Brazil. Among the materials they seek out: cardboard, plastic, iron, lead, steel and copper, with abundantly available cardboard and plastic being the cheapest, and hard-to-find copper the most valuable.

Being a catador is gruelling work. Ailton estimates that he walks at least 10 kilometres per day. On a good day, he will tow up to 700 kilogrammes of material in his cart. On a slow day, it’s around 150 kilogrammes. “We sell everything by weight. The more we collect, the more we earn, so there is no weight limit. If there is one tonne of recyclable material out there, we’ll collect that tonne,” he proclaims proudly.

It’s also a thankless job. In addition to the physical challenges, the catadores have to contend with traffic, São Paulo’s hilly topography, and insults from motorists. “We get yelled at. We get honked at because drivers think that we’re disrupting traffic,” says Ailton. And, there is the social stigma of being an informal worker: “Many people don’t value our work. We are perceived as drug addicts, criminals, or ex-convicts.”

Humanity’s greatest mistake is that we have a linear economy in which we produce, consume, and then discard waste in a landfill.

Mundano, ARTivist and Founder of Cataki

Amplifying catadores’ voices through art
Enter Mundano, a self-styled ARTivist: a graffiti artist with a social and environmental mission. He has been painting since he was a teenager, and early on was drawn to street art because it allowed him to interact with passersby who admired his artwork. As Mundano spray-painted his distinctive green characters and social messages all over the city’s grey walls, he crossed paths with the catadores and quickly befriended them. It was a natural fit: “Street art has always been a marginalised art form, and the catadores are also marginalised,” he explains.

One day, Mundano asked one of the catadores if he could paint his cart. “When I started painting the carroças, I saw that the catadores’ self-esteem improved. The carts became mobile artwork with thought-provoking messages that amplified the catadores’ voices. I entered their world and have been learning from them ever since.”

An impassioned advocate
And indeed, he has. Mundano is armed with statistics on Brazil’s dismal recycling rates and its associated economic costs, making him an effective advocate for the catadores and the environment. According to Mundano, Brazil produces 200,000 tonnes of waste per day, but only 3% of it is recycled. “Humanity’s greatest mistake is that, especially here in Brazil, we have a linear economy in which we produce, consume, and then discard waste in a landfill.”

But much of this material could be recycled: “An estimated 8 billion reais (≈ USD 1.7 billion) in recyclable materials are buried in landfill annually. We are essentially burying money. And in a country with such income inequality, this makes no sense!” he says in disbelief. Yet approximately one million catadores across Brazil are responsible for collecting 90% of the precious little that actually does get recycled. “Every day these invisible heroes put countless tonnes of materials – these increasingly scarce natural resources – back into the circular economy. They are providing a service for the planet.”

83% of Brazilians do not have access to recycling services in their cities.

Mundano, ARTivist and Founder of Cataki

A growing grassroots movement
After spending five years painting the carroças on his own, Mundano realised that he needed help if he wanted to make a greater impact on the catadores’ lives. He enlisted the help of other artists and volunteers, and the non-profit organisation ‘Pimp My Carroça’ was born. In addition to beautifying the carts with mobile street art, the group organises regular larger scale ‘pimpex’ events in which catadores are welcome to stop by to upgrade their carts. Tyres are patched up or replaced and the carroças are fitted with safety features such as reflective stickers, lights, brakes and rear view mirrors. The catadores themselves also receive uniforms with reflective strips, protective gloves, and rain gear. A variety of volunteers including social workers and medical staff are on hand to provide free support services such as counselling, training, grooming, massages, and health checks.

As Pimp My Carroça gained a social media following, Mundano found that a growing number of Brazilians became interested in recycling but didn’t know where to start. “83% of Brazilians do not have access to recycling services in their cities,” he explains. People would call Mundano asking if he could put them in contact with a catador so that they could recycle their household trash. “I eventually became a kind of secretary for the catadores. I was connecting friends with catadores but I knew this was inefficient.” Clearly, technology had to be part of the solution.

We’re using technology to break down social barriers.

Mundano, ARTivist and Founder of Cataki

One person’s trash, another person’s livelihood
So Mundano decided to create an online platform to match people who wish to dispose of their waste sustainably, with catadores in their area. Using the help of volunteer programmers and developers, Pimp My Carroça launched Cataki – a play on the words catar (collect) and aqui (here) meaning collecthere’ – in 2017. The beauty of the app lies in its simplicity: catadores register online, upload their name, photo, location, phone number, and preferred materials, if any. Residents looking to get rid of recyclable waste can download the app, find the closest catador using the location filters, and call to schedule a pick-up.

One of the key features of the app is that catadores and users are encouraged to negotiate a fee for the service. The reason is two-fold: first, the app aims to provide catadores with a chance at a better livelihood: “Not only is the catador rewarded for the material he collects, but also for the service he provides,” Mundano explains. Equally important, Mundano and his team want to encourage citizens to take the time to get to know their local catadores. “We’re using technology to break down social barriers,” he says.

Over 200,000 downloads and 3,000 catadores registered across 500 Brazilian cities later, the app is already making an impact. Ailton has been using Cataki since it was launched: “Through this app I’ve received many calls to collect recyclable material and I was able to earn more. Financially, my life has improved 100% since I started using Cataki.” Thanks to app, some catadores now have long-term customers with regularly-scheduled pick-ups. Others have been able to upgrade from their human-powered cart to a motorised van or truck.

Financially, my life has improved 100% since I started using Cataki.

Ailton dos Santos, Catador

Thinking big
Cataki has also attracted international attention, garnering several social entrepreneurship awards along the way. Most notable among these is the UNESCO-backed Netexplo Digital Innovation Grand Prix in 2018, which Pimp My Carroça is reinvesting in further technology improvements to the app. In addition to enhancing the user experience, Mundano is interested in gamification, whereby users earn points by tracking what they recycle through Cataki.

Quantifying materials recycled through the app serves another important purpose: it helps educate users by measuring the positive environmental impacts of recycling. “For example,” Mundano points out, “if you recycle one tonne of paper, we can show users that this corresponds to 27 eucalyptus trees that don’t need to be chopped down and transported.” This, in turn, has positive knock-on effects in terms of energy and water savings, as well as emissions reductions.

It’s rewarding to know that I am providing a service for society by helping to clean the city.

Ailton dos Santos, Catador

Looking ahead, Mundano and Pimp My Carroça have bigger plans for the app. “We want to add restaurants, hotels, residential complexes, schools and the packaging manufacturers who generate large volumes of waste and have the financial means to pay the catadores a fair price for their service.” Ultimately, all of these improvements aim to improve recycling rates in Brazil. Despite the country’s many challenges, Mundano remains optimistic: “In a few years, Cataki could become a great tool that can increase recycling rates in São Paulo from 3% to 30% or 50%! Why not?”

For his part, Ailton derives great pride from his work as a catador: “In addition to ensuring my financial well-being, it’s rewarding to know that I am providing a service for society by helping to clean the city. I am setting a good example for myself, for others, and for my children.”

Future cities

Over the next 20 years, more than 2 billion people will migrate to cities. With the growing number of urban dwellers come many challenges: congestion, pollution and a shortage of housing and recreation options, to name a few. So how will our transportation infrastructures keep up? Where will everybody live? Will there be enough jobs for everyone? In our ‘Future Cities’ series, we explore what type of innovations are helping cities to become more sustainable – and liveable.

Special report: Future Cities

> Download a PDF of the report

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