Technological Emergence

Francisco de Paula Antunes Lima, Cinthia Versiani Scott Varella, Fabiana Goulart de Oliveira, Jacqueline Rutkowski, and Patrick McAnaney

Recycling and Social Technologies: The Brazilian Experience of Wastepicker Inclusion in Selective Collection Programs

Manual Collection Cart.jpg
Manual collection cart
The objective of this article is to discuss alternatives for destination of urban waste, particularly social technologies developed in diverse forms in Northern and Southern nations. Although environmental issues are a global problem, different alternatives are appearing in central capitalist countries and in developing countries. The determining factor of this difference is the size of the internal consumption market, which produces both the waste itself as well as the forms of treatment.

The predominant technical model is the integrated solid waste management system (ISWM), which combines different processes of treatment and destination of waste, from the most conventional, such as landfills and incineration, to various recycling technologies.

Animal Collection Cart.jpg
Animal collection cart

However, in each country this general model assumes a specific configuration of treatments, employing diverse systems to organize and manage reverse logistics and engage local populations and economic agents directly responsible for the waste resulting from the products they place on the market. Aside from the use of more sophisticated technologies in the management, collection and treatment of solid waste, the other major difference between North and South is the figure of the picker of recyclable materials (commonly known as a wastepicker), who occupies a central position in the countries of the periphery, and a peripheral position in the countries of the center.

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Tricycle collection cart
Solidary selective collection has developed, therefore, as a social technology belonging specifically to the countries of the South and has obtained world recognition such as in the case of ASMARE (an association of pickers in Belo Horizonte, Brazil).

However, this technology raises crucial questions regarding its nature and development perspective. What can be said of the legitimacy of a social technology that is born from misery and maintains the majority of pickers in precarious conditions of work and quality of life?

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Motorcycle collection cart
Facing economic valorization of waste, often due to social and institutional pressure from the environmental movement, what social and technical conditions are necessary to sustain this technology, especially when confronted with competition from parallel reverse logistics systems in the mold of developed capitalist countries, such as incineration technologies?

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Floor sorting
In the central countries, social pressure led to regulations that make consumers and businesses responsible for the waste that their economic activities generate. These models combine organizational techniques of reverse logistics with social control and economic incentives through the market, such as reducing the price of products when their packaging is returned, reducing fees for implementing recycling collection, linking tax payment to quantity of packaging produced for certain products, environmental certifications (green seal), etc. This alternative is characterized by the combination of cutting-edge technologies (automated systems, incineration with rigorous control of toxins) and mercantile relations within a system of supranational regulation, either global or, more specifically, European.
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Workbench sorting
This combination produces differentiated results, from high recycling rates and reduction of landfills (a 33% recycling rate in Germany) to systems where incineration predominates (74% in Japan and 54% in Denmark). While consumer societies of the central countries use this approach to deal with the "waste issue", the peripheral countries, which confront vast social exclusion due to their inability to universalize the standard of consumption of developed capitalism, produce their own alternative to protect the environment and partially resolve social problems generated by misery (alcoholism, hunger, social and family dissolution, criminality, prostitution). The picker, a typical figure of urban life in the developing world, is paradoxically formed in the meeting of social exclusion and large-scale waste production.
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Chute sorting
In the confluence of two problems caused by the developmental limitations of capitalism, a possible solution begins to emerge for the treatment of urban waste, founded not on technological solutions of advanced capitalism, but in a socio-technical arrangement only possible in the developing world.

All social production is simultaneously production of values and non-values. Capitalist production leaves three residual substances without value: urban waste, socially excluded individuals, and weak environmental consciousness. This last item, despite currently being in fashion, is in fact valueless because it is impotent when facing the real behavior of individualist consumers and the economic interests of nations and private businesses.

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Conveyer belt sorting
The more that capitalist production gains in efficiency and profitability, the more that these non-valued existences accumulate: economic value only exists when it also produces processes of "un-valuing" (the most evident example is the planned concept of obsolescence, designed to create never-ending production of disposable products). Material and financial wealth accumulate alongside social, environmental and individual misery.

In the countercurrent, picker associations are able to produce wealth from that which is thrown aside by capitalist production: namely waste, inclusion of people in situations of social vulnerability, and, as a bonus, the development of environmental consciousness and the mobilization of society in the practice of recycling. Dealing with three fragile elements from the economic standpoint, picker associations serve as social entities able to produce income and human dignity, revaluing valueless materials and making social solidarity possible. From something that the market separates and labels as non-valuable, the picker associations are able to unite and create value.

Recognizing this starting point in itself already is enough to demonstrate the contribution of picker associations to social life and environmental preservation, but it is also necessary to attribute in quantitative terms how much this contribution is and how much more efficient the "model of solidary recycling" can be, based on the activities of pickers in relation to other commercially-minted models of urban solid waste management. Having accumulated nearly ten years of research-action together with picker associations and their nationally-organized social movement (the MNCR), the authors analyze three questions in this article: 1) The contradictory nature of solidary selective collection as a emancipative social technology; 2) Trends and current difficulties, especially in responding to the demands of national solid waste legislation which aims as a central point to promote the inclusion of pickers within ISWM and; 3) Development perspectives of this social technology that today confronts technical demands in the reorganizations of reverse logistics and competition from incineration projects that are beginning to arrive in Brazil.

Francisco de Paula Antunes Lima - Mechanical-Production Engineer, Doctorate in Ergonomics
Professor: Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG)
Researcher: Nucleus of Teaching, Research, and Extension Alternatives in Solidarity Economics, School of Engineering, UFMG

Cinthia Versiani Scott Varella. Production Engineer, MSc
Researcher: Nucleus of Teaching, Research, and Extension Alternatives in Solidarity Economics

Fabiana Goulart de Oliveira - Psychologist, MSc in Production Engineering
Professor: Una University Center
Researcher: Nucleus of Teaching, Research, and Extension Alternatives in Solidarity Economics

Jacqueline Rutkowski - Mechanical Engineer, Doctorate in Production Engineering
Director: Instituto Sustentar
Researcher: Nucleus of Teaching, Research, and Extension Alternatives in Solidarity Economics

Patrick McAnaney
Fulbright Research Fellow, 2010-2011


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  • Excellent article once again. I am looking forward for your next post.