Seventy percent of Rio's rubbish arrives at Jardim Gramacho, which is an astonishing 7,000 tons every day. In a rich country with few people, trash can be passed through automated factories which remove the most valuable materials for recycling. Brazil is a not-so-rich country with a lot of people, but recycling still takes place, on a massive scale. Thousands of scavengers ("catedores") clamber over the rubbish very day - an estimated 3,000 people, supporting 13,000 men women and children. About 200 tons of material is recycled daily, 50% plastic, 21% metal and 16% paper, though metal is preferred as the most vulnerable.
The catedores, incidentally, don't necessarily conform to the expected stereotype. A survey in 2004** found 90% could read and write, and 79% own their own homes. The catedores are also reported as feeling a certain amount of pride in their efforts, contrasting with other job options such as drug trafficking or prostitution.
Well so far so good, the system does generate meaningful employment and recycling is a good thing, but obviously there is a price.
In the 2004 survey, although 70% used gloves only 0.9 use masks. Over 20% reported "colds or flu" in the previous 6 months and 10% had respiratory problems, whilst 45% had had conjunctivitis at some time in their past. There is also the ever present risk of cuts from glass, falling objects and burns, as well as bites from the mosquitoes which thrive in the marshes nearby, with 23% having had dengue fever. Interestingly, only 13% of those interviewed actually regarded their work as responsible for these problems, as opposed to their life in general. They may have had a point. Collecting rubbish will never make you rich, only 50% in 2004 lived in homes connected to the sewage network and ironically, about a third have no rubbish collection at home and have to burn rubbish or dump it in local waterways.
One last point. Several cities such as Salvador and Recife, in northern Brazil, dump their rubbish near the airport, a text book example of an idea that "seemed a good idea at the time". After all nobody wants to live right next to a busy airport. Unfortunately, whilst people won't, vultures will. Black vultures are flourishing on the easily available food, and birds and planes do not mix. Bird strikes have more than doubled in Brazil in the past decade, and about half the cases involve vultures. Whilst a jet airliner might shrug off a hit from a sparrow, vultures are big weighing up to 2.5 kg and at least two two planes have been forced to make emergency landing after pilots were injured by vultures crashing into their windscreens. So far there have been no fatalities, but the potential is there and relocating or even killing the vultures has had limited success.
As Wagner Fischer, coordinator of the wildlife management department at IBAMA, the Brazilian federal environmental oversight agency, is quoted as saying***, “What if you have a bunch of house flies in your home?, is it better to kill or relocate the flies or clean your house?”
* The film incidentally follows artist Vik Muniz creating art from recycled materials, in collaboration with various catadores (hunters). It's a tribute to Muniz's talent that he has generated a very successful career from such unlikely material, including even the title sequence of the recent hugely popular Brazilian soap, Passione.
** Porto, M, Junca, D, Goncalves, R Filhote, M. (2004). Garbage, work, and health: a case study of garbage pickers at the metropolitan landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cad. Saúde Pública [online]. vol.20, n.6, pp. 1503-1514. ISSN 0102-311X. doi: 10.1590/S0102-
Porto MF, Juncá DC, Gonçalves Rde S, & Filhote MI (2004). [Garbage, work, and health: a case study of garbage pickers at the metropolitan landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil]. Cadernos de saude publica / Ministerio da Saude, Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz, Escola Nacional de Saude Publica, 20 (6), 1503-14 PMID: 15608851