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View the documentA waste management project in Brazil

A waste management project in Brazil

by Clemens Schrage

"Pitanguinha - my life" - was the motto used to launch a pilot waste management project in a quarter of Maceiapital of the Brazilian Federal State of Alagoas in 1992. The author describes success in solving the area's waste problem while simultaneously promoting the citizen's environmental awareness.

The District of Pitanguinha was selected for the pilot project because most families living there have a higher income and consequently higher waste outputs. It also has a well-organised Citizen's Association which, following initial talks, was very interested in the scheduled waste separation and recycling activities. The project was planned together with the chief actors of this association.

The careful preparation was decisive to project success. The participants were trained in holding negotiations - for example in talks with major institutions. Once the members of the Citizen's Association had set up the plan of operations, the next step was to motivate the local authority to participate in a solid waste project.

Samba music, banners and printed T-shirts spread the message: Pitanguinha was not just waiting for government action - instead it was going to design its own environment! Parallel to this advertising campaign, 100 households were surveyed as to whether they wanted to join in the project. The catholic church also addressed the subject at its services. Door-to-door visits proved to be the most effective type of motivation. Project co-workers distributed brochures, explaining the advantages of waste recycling directly to the people and showing them how to separate their waste.

Waste collection and waste recycling activities were commenced during a "week of the environment" in June 1992. The urban waste disposal unit provided a truck once a week to transport the recyclable from the households to the separating workshop. Containers were placed at strategic points in the area. Two workers separated incoming waste in the separating building. The quantity of recyclable material collected each week was recorded. Experts discussed the project's weak points with the Citizen's Association and drew up solutions with them.

Motivating everyone involved in the project proved to be very important. The municipal truck only began regular operations, for example, when a mayor was elected in 1993 who proved to be very interested in the project - as did the new head of the waste disposal unit. Another problem was that the employees in the separating hall had no previous experience in separating materials and were not very motivated. Operations were delayed and members of the Citizen's Association had to help them at the weekends. Subsequently, two more motivated workers were employed. Employees must be motivated, because at the weekly meetings they also have to talk with the domestic personnel responsible for separating waste in most households. These domestic personnel could only be accessed by personal talks because they were often illiterate.

The sale of recyclables materials also had its weak points, because the project staff possessed little experience. It was difficult to find direct buyers on the unsystematic markets. However, honey jars could be sold to a beekeeper and well kept newspaper was bought by market traders as packing material. As only two tons of recyclables per week were collected, it was not financially viable to transport the material long distances to the recycling factory. The project is therefore still dependent on middle-men who pay far lower prices than the end-users.

Another difficulty in selling the materials was that paper and plastics, for example, were not better separated upstream and paper and metal could not be pressed - and non-pressed material fetches lower prices. The project does not process a sufficient quantity to justify buying metal presses. However, middle-men refuse to buy unpressed cans because their large volume entails high transport costs.

In the meantime, about one third of the total quantity of recyclables in the Pitanguinha District are collected by the project. Materials are also supplied from other parts of town and donated by companies. The amounts processed now allow profit-making operations.

Not only has the project become self-reliant, but it can also invest its low profits in further activities. The money has been used, for example, to upgrade the plants and set up a creativity centre where members of the Citizen's Association teach - mostly street children - how to process recyclables into finished goods.

School classes, universities and citizens from other cities make fact-finding visits to the project in Maceialmeira dos Indios and other cities have in the meantime begun to introduce separated waste collection and recycling in line with the Pitanguinha model.

After two years of pilotproject operations, it can be said that Pitanguinha has not only succeeded in solving waste problems but also raised the environmental awareness of its citizens. Undeveloped plots of land and roadsides have been cleared of waste, for example. Maceitroduced waste collection and recycling in other areas of the city in 1994. The goal is to integrate the informal recycling systems by scavengers into the city's solid waste concept. Pitanguinha for its part donates recyclables as a support to this project.