The figures are breathtaking, to the point of being on the verge of miraculous. ABAL, the Brazilian Aluminium Association’s 2011 figures show that for the tenth (yes, 10th) year running Brazil has the highest rate of aluminium can recycling in the world reaching a new world record of 98,3%. In other words, over 98 of every 100 cans produced in Brazil make their way to the recycling plant before hitting the rubbish heap. Brazil is a vast country so that equates to 2million cans recycled per hour and in São Paulo the system is of such efficiency that the same metal you drink out of today will have a 98% chance of being back on a shelf somewhere in the city within 33 days.
To put that in context, the next highest recycler of aluminium cans is Japan at 92,6%, a highly developed and procedure-focused country. The average for Europe is a shameful 66,7% which in turn is still slightly higher than the rate of 54,1% in the US.
The can recycling business indirectly saves energy due to a recycled can being 20 times more energy efficient to produce than a new one and as a sector injects over R$ 600million into the Brazilian economy per year. Impressive figures but how is that achieved.
Whilst the ABAL and the politicians may point to educational programs, social initiatives, environmental awareness, technlogy and processing chains, the real answer is in the last paragraph. It’s all about the money. Part of the R$ 600million comes from paying for to have these cans searched for and collected by a legion of scrap hunters or catadores as they are locally known.
|A catador, or scrap collector, hard at work|
No catador is hunting cans for the joy of global environmental impact, rather the can has become the best scrap to hunt. You get more reais per gram handing a can than virtually anything else, and they are thrown out in abundance. It is the cheapest and most efficient recycling system and requires no government investment.
For every 75 cans a catador gets approximately R$3 (depending on the region) whereas a kilo of paper or 20 plastic PET bottles fetch just a few cents.
The catadores are paid enough for it to be worthwhile for them to eek out a living on collecting cans (rather than other material) but sufficiently poorly to ensure recycling is a highly profitable activity. Pure capitalism at work, ethically questionable, but without a doubt effective as the 98,3% figure shows.
But before we celebrate here’s a thought for the next time you go to a major event in São Paulo and you see a catador collecting cans: the time he invests in collecting cans he neglects in collecting other material. And without true governmental initiatives, excelling in one sector will by definition mean failing in other. Unsurprisingly Brazil is nowhere to be seen in the ranking of top paper-recycling countries for instance…