A Visit to Manacapuru, Brazil

Kimi Rogers
March 9, 2016

The following blog post was written by one of our NESS SEA AmeriCorps members, who after seeing the devastating plastic waste pollution in Brazil, brought her knowledge and passion to the students of Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, CT, to inspire them to be better stewards of their environment. 

I stood atop of the Manacaparu dump, laden with the city’s trash, and observed the people working there. They were hunched over, picking through the waste, and moving quickly away from unloading trucks. It was a typical day in the Amazonas state of Brazil—hot, humid, and no wind. I was nearing the end of my journey learning about plastic waste management. I traveled to this beautiful and friendly country with four other students, three professors, and one translator because my team of students won a competition about creating a solution for plastic waste pollution during my senior year of college. Soon enough we found ourselves in Brazil looking out over a trash dump. The smell of burning, untreated trash wafted through the air and culminated into a scent of dirty diapers. Vultures crept along the ground and circled through the air.

Those rummaging through the waste are known as catadores (waste pickers), people who scavenge through garbage to find recyclable material that can be later sold. These are people working hard to support themselves and their families. Despite the amount of labor they do for their cities’ recycling, they make little money, suffer tremendous physical pain, and work in toxic conditions with little to no personal protective equipment. Without becoming an organized group, catadores remain invisible to their government and other Brazilians. In order to become organized, catadores need an application and less than $500. Although this amount may seem feasible, it can take several years to come up with this money. However, once a group is organized, they can receive government funds to build facilities and the process of recycling becomes more streamlined and efficient. At that point, organized catadores can make more money to create better, healthier lives.

After visiting the Manacapuru dump, my group met with a successful organization made up of very strong and intelligent women who have found a way to create an organized recycling system that supports their families. They work in schools teaching elementary students about how to recycle and utilize these schools as recycling pickup places to collect material they can later sell. Their enthusiasm to make their environment cleaner and their lives better is contagious. I was beyond grateful to hear their story. Yet despite witnessing success stories, I can’t escape the image of an older woman hunched over, digging through garbage to make her next paycheck without anything to protect her from toxic waste. My hope is to not simply be a spectator, but to bring national attention to this social and environmental issue so we can make a change.