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Catadores: The unsung street heroes challenging Brazil’s social structures through new waste app


Updated

June 30, 2018 06:46:31

Elismaura Pereira dos Santos has worked as a waste-picker in Brazil’s sprawling city of Sao Paulo for the past two decades.

The 43-year-old mother of eight spends her days scouring the streets, collecting rubbish and recyclable goods to on-sell at the city’s scrap centres.

The work is low-paid and back-breaking, but Ms Santos takes it in her stride.

“It’s like a gymnasium for the poor,” she jokes.

Ms Santos is one of an estimated 400,000 waste pickers in Brazil, but the actual number could be double this.

Known as catadores, these informal street cleaners are easily recognisable by their wagons, or carrocas, which they load up with cardboard, plastic, aluminium and other goods, and cart along the streets.

‘We are saving lives, saving the city, and cleaning the air’

Most catadores work individually and are not part of a collective, and many live near the poverty line.

But this mass, unregulated workforce is responsible for a crucial public service: catadores facilitate about 90 per cent of Brazil’s recycling, as most municipalities do not operate recycling programs.

“We are like rescue workers, because we are the ones that pick things off the ground,” Ms Santos says.

“We are saving lives, saving the city and cleaning the air that we breathe.”

The developers of a new smartphone app hope to educate everyday Brazilians about how important catadores are to the functioning of their cities, while simultaneously improving their economic standing and increasing their recycling output.

The app — Cataki — mimics the functionality of consumer apps like Uber and Tinder.

Waste pickers create a simple online profile complete with photos and a personal history, and can be found via a searchable map.

Residents make contact with their local catador to organise waste collection and other services.

The developers say the technology will lead to more work, better pay, and — as side effect — more recycling.

“Catadores are really important, a crucial part of [Brazil’s] system and they are undervalued,” says Bruno Castro Alves, one of the app’s developers.

“They receive almost borderline poverty income doing what we understand is public work.

“Cataki is an application that strives to close this gap and pay better these people.”

New app could drive social change, address inequality

So far, more than 400 catadores across 65 Brazilian cities have joined.

Mr Alves believes that as the number of users increases, the app could even lead to profound social change in this notoriously unequal country, as middle-class Brazilians are given a way to connect with people they would normally never interact with.

“While Tinder makes connections with people who wouldn’t normally match, Cataki does the same but the layers we cross are social,” he says.

“We can bring together people from different social classes.

“They can interact, they can develop a [working] relationship.”

Ultimately, he hopes this will lead Brazilians to gain respect and empathy for those people situated at the bottom of the country’s social ladder.

One success story from the app is Claudio Jahba, 48.

He has worked on-and-off as a catador in Sao Paulo since he was seven years old, including a short stint living on the streets.

Unlike most catadores, Mr Jahba owns a truck, not just a wagon, enabling him to transport larger items.

He has used the app to expand his business.

“There’s a suggestion from people who think Cataki is only for people collecting cardboard,” he says.

“[But for me] Cataki is not only for waste, it allows me to collect furniture, chairs, sofas, tables, all kinds of household appliances.”

‘Every year people are getting more digitised’

However, Cataki is not a solution for all of the problems facing Brazil’s catadores.

Many in this workforce are unable to access the app, particularly those who are illiterate, homeless, do not own a phone or have a stable phone number.

The developers concede this is an issue, but say as phones become cheaper and digital literacy improves, more catadores will be able to take advantage.

“We understand that every year these people are getting more digitalised,” says Mr Alves.

“They are getting a smartphone, they are learning to use proper apps, so eventually this problem will solve itself.”

The genesis of Cataki came about via another Brazilian movement to assist catadores called “Pimp My Carroca”, where volunteer artists would paint the wagons of waste-pickers with political slogans and graffiti.

Estimated 15 million waste pickers worldwide

That movement has since gone global.

With an estimated 15 million people working as informal waste pickers worldwide, Mr Alves believes Cataki could also eventually be adopted in other countries.

“One of the beauties of Cataki is that our solution for sustainability is fighting poverty,” he says.

“It’s a virtuous cycle. If we pay better for the catadores, they will collect more plastic, they will leave poverty, and it’s a solution that everybody wins.”

Elismaura Pereira dos Santos agrees.

She is already seeing the positive benefits of having an online “business card” for her work, and is creating a network of clients.

“Cataki has grown my work contacts. My group was small and now it is larger,” she says.

“People now not only see me as a catadora, but as a regular company … so when they look at you, they respect you because you are a worker, an employee.

“They will see us with new eyes.”

Topics:

work,

community-and-society,

poverty,

offbeat,

recycling-and-waste-management,

brazil

First posted

June 30, 2018 06:17:18



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