‘Catadores’ in Brazil Empower Workers to Save the Environment – And Themselves

When Maria Das Gracas Marcal was eight-years-old she began collecting paper off the street to make money to buy food. Since then, she’s created the first association of collectors of paper in Brazil, establishing a code of conduct for the “catadores” and professionalized activity in 1990. Their association, ASMARE, collects 450 tons of reusable material per month.

Brazil produces nearly a quarter of a million tons of trash every day. Both government and privately-owned entities will buy back sorted recyclables. ASMARE members walk the streets with their recognizable yellow carts, picking up paper, plastic, cans, electronics, and anything else they can either sell back or turn into art.

Before ASMARE existed, people who collected recyclables on the street were looked down on as thieves and beggars. That’s different now. ASMARE workers get a cart, a uniform, a bus pass, work space to sort what they find, and a member ID card. Many of the people who work as catadores could not find other employment and were living on the streets. Now, some of them make up to four times the minimum wage with their work.