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“Or do without.” That’s the last line of the American axiom, left off of this World War II era poster promoting thriftiness in support of the war effort. It may be that the typesetters ran out of room, but more likely it became truncated for being the downer line. Who wants to do without after all? It’s bad for sales. Actually, according to Giles Slade author of “Made to Break” the US went in cycles of thrift and squander between the World Wars. As advertised in the propaganda poster, the wars created times of scarcity where all available resources were to contribute to victory on the battlefield. However, after the war machines went quiet, sales could not be allowed to slump and so the watchwords once again became buy new, buy now.

It’s a troubling fact that our world now revolves around the sun of economic growth. If capitalism isn’t growing, if sales plateau, it’s failing. This dubious wisdom is now inextricably built in to our lives. We are consumers. In fact, if everyone had the ecological footprint befitting and resulting from this American ethos of consumption, we’d need more than five planets.

It’s worth taking a look at your own ecological footprint if you haven’t yet. Click through if you’re interested.

And thank goodness, not everyone does live like we do. While in Rocinha, I asked people what they liked about living there, a fairly common answer was that a person could get everything she needed right there. I know a fair few people of the American persuasion that would not be able to find everything they “need” in Rocinha. You get the idea.

These peoples’ “needs” have outstripped the earth’s ability to provide. And yet, requisite to the growth-bound tendencies of modern capitalism, this consumer culture is being exported in greater and greater numbers every year. In Brazil, it’s influence is felt with near ubiquity. And it is creating waste the same way in Brazil as in its birthplace.

In Brazil, there is some hope. Hope in a source, that I know does not recognize itself as a hope, but is none the less.  There is a basic aspect of favela life that will with any luck at all make it’s way into the dominant culture in time. The culture of thrift.

This seamstress in Rocinha had clothing repairs stacked to the ceiling just inside her shop door.

In previous posts I have discussed the aesthetic of Sambinha, it is fundamentally an aesthetic of thrift. In Rocinha, as I am sure with many favelas, one could have repairs done on of course cars and motorcycles, but on things that are rarely repaired elsewhere such as electronics, appliances, shoes and more. As well, one can by second hand goods at kiosks on Rua do Valão, in the Camelôs, in smaller shops in becos all across the neighborhood such as the once pictured below on Rua 3. I even ran into a metal salvage operation on Estrada da Gâvea. The men were dismatling broken refrigerators and separating the parts by metal type for sale and reuse.

Second hand store, Rua 3, Rocinha.

Metal salvage, Estrada da Gâvea, Rocinha

There is of course no doubt that this culture of thrift is born of necessity, the same as is was in the Depression Era US.  However, the thriftiness of Sambinha culture reminds us of something we refuse to learn, something elemental: that all resources are scarce. We are warned over and over that we are ignoring the scarcity that our economic system has created. It’s only in In lean times that we scrape the bottom, in times of plenty we ignore the excesses and indulge in waste. This obviously doesn’t apply only to time but place. Where there is financial wealth there is an illusion of inifity: the ruse that the pool of resources has no bottom. We buy, we discard in never ending cycles with no thought to when the final outcome. And we are running an ecological debt: to the tune of 5 Worlds.

Of course industries such as these: salvage, second hand stores, repair and maintenance, as important as they are in their waste-mitigating role, in their reduction of ecological impacts, they are perhaps not unique to favelas. There is another whole industry that, at least in Rio, is nearly exclusive to favelas and that I find eminently necessary, and therefor as worthwhile and noble as any mainstream profession known to capitalism: the profession of the catador, the “picker” of recyclable material from the refuse of consumer capitalism.

We often hear of how capitalism reduces or eliminates waste by free market forces. But the consumer capitalism that has taken over the globe promotes and creates enormous amounts of waste. In the US alone people discard enough disposable serveware to encircle the globe three times. The US leads the world in electronic waste per year at 3 million tons. Even with the spread of municipal recycling programs, solid waste in the US has increased from 3.66 in 1980 to 4.43 in 2010. Catadores are the tourniquet on the hemorrhage of capitalism’s waste.

Catador with his cart of recyclable cardboard in Copacabana.

Recycleables collected from trash bins around the city, neatly bundled for sale and shipment in Portão Vermelho, Rocinha.

Business leaders who prevent waste of time, money, or capital are be praised and rewarded. CEOs offer themselves bonuses, managers are promoted. There are whole consultancies founded on the notion that waste is bad, and elimination of waste is good. But somehow, in the free market system, that is always touted as the most efficient way to meet people’s needs, the catador remains outside the mainstream. In the documentary “Waste Land” artist Vik Muniz explains that he set out to make the world aware of the work of catadores in Rio’s Jardim Gramacho “Because the picker is a person like this garbage, that nobody knows about.”

While in Rio last year I tended to be wandering around the Zona Sul about the same time the catadores are out with their carts: just before the garbage trucks come in the very early hours of morning. One, particular guy about my age became very upset when he noticed me photographing him. When I explained to him my line of work, and how I intended to use him as example for how we should behave he left in good spirits. He had been ashamed momentarily for the work that he does. A severely misplaced shame brought on him by the throwaway culture that provides the fruit of his harvest.

Another man, much older was collecting cardboard. He had his large handcart heaped high with salvage. I asked how much he made. He told me R$ .10 per Kilo or about $.02 per pound. No wonder he had such a heap. I thanked him for providing such a valuable service.

It’s worth your while to watch Vik Muniz’s documentary. In it Valter dos Santos, veteran catador of 26 years explained his role in the world this way: “Sometimes people say, ‘It’s just one little can.’ One little can is great importance. Because 99 isn’t 100. And that little can will make all the difference.”

Mr dos Santos explains, that for every recyclable item he collects, it means “less material that would pollute the rivers and lagoons that won’t clog the sewers or be buried here in the landfill doing such great harm to nature and the environment.” That is a man who knows his business, and knows how waste works, and knows his role in the world. The rest may have good intentions even, but we’d do well to learn from people who know scarcity, for people who live simply, because there is a greater attunement to improvidence: excess is excess and waste is truly abhorrent.

2 thoughts on “The Thrift of Sambinha: Catadores and Waste Mitigation

  1. Pingback: Waste Picker News, May 19 2012 | Inclusive Cities

  2. Pingback: Sharing Stories: Favela Authors from “Child of the Dark” to Flupp Pensa | {FAVEL issues}

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