Posted August 2nd 2012 at 9:20 am by
in Waste Pickers Movement in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Collecting São Paulo’s Waste Vegetable Oil

This post is by Janet Li of the MIT Green Grease Team. Janet was in Brazil working with wastepicker cooperatives to develop their waste vegetable collection and filtering operations. In the photo below: Collected waste vegetable oil at ARES Cooperative in São Paulo.

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It’s been a whirlwind two weeks of hard work for The Green Grease Team in São Paulo this summer, or should I say, this winter. It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, so it gets dark after 5:00 and it’s been cold and rainy these past few days.

Green Grease had several objectives for our short trip to wintery Brazil. The discussions held during a workshop at MIT in June with the presidents of some of the wastepicking cooperatives of Rede CataSampa shaped our work this July. We set out to help in three main ways: 1) technology – installing waste vegetable oil filtration systems for all of the cooperatives, after having previously installed a pilot system at the cooperative CORA; 2) network – making recommendations for how the WVO-collecting cooperatives could work together in order to get the most value for their filtered oil; and 3) public awareness – doing preliminary research on how to go about creating a waste vegetable oil campaign for the public in order to expand oil collection across all cooperatives.

It was a hefty set of tasks for the short two weeks we would be in São Paulo. The team arrived just before a weekend and spent our first days getting settled in and getting to know each other in person, a fresh change from the Skype conferences we were used to. This involved crashing a post-University of São Paulo finals party, as well as the birthday party of one of the three USP students we would be working with. It was a wild and crazy introduction to Brazilian culture, to say the least.

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ARES cooperative. Photo credit: Marta Marello

Our real work kicked off with a full-day meeting with the presidents of the WVO-collecting cooperatives. True to Brazilian style, although we said we would start at 9:00, the meeting did not get rolling until 11:00. While sometimes the native English speakers would get lost from the lack of continuous translation, we were able to learn much more about the Rede CataSampa network and the relationships between the various cooperatives, and schedule our workplan for the next two weeks.

What this consisted of was visiting cooperatives, one or two per day, and working to fully understand how they ran and operated and seeing how waste vegetable oil fit into their operations. Our team split up: half worked on building the oil filtration system, while the other half worked off a set of questions we had developed to interview catadores (Portuguese for wastepickers) and gain as much information as we could, questions like: Who do you collect oil from? What is your relationship with your current oil buyer like? How do you envision an oil network working? We tried to talk to both managers and regular workers at each of the cooperatives we visited. The visits would conclude with a demonstration of the newly installed filtration system.

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Walter Volpini (L) and Denis Ferreira (R) installing a waste vegetable oil filtration system at ARES. Photo credit: Marta Marello

One day, we called various oil-buying companies in São Paulo to see what price the cooperatives might be able to negotiate for their WVO. From this information, we worked on a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of the changes in income associated with the collection of more oil, factoring in the cost in transportation if there were a centralized location for oil pickup by a buyer.

As we collected more research, we began forming the recommendations that we would present to the cooperatives’ presidents on our last day of work. We summarized our findings into three categories: differences across the cooperatives, similarities across the cooperatives, and best practices from specific cooperatives which others could view as examples.

Finally, we presented some recommendations as to what we thought needed to be done in order for a multiple-cooperative waste vegetable oil network to be successful. These included things like ensuring transparency through the use of google docs to track sales and spending, planning for growth and capacity building in individual cooperatives for the increased collection of oil, and developing strong relationships with the municipality for support. Ideas for a public awareness campaign for oil were also discussed, with next steps to be taken by Laura Fostinone, who has led a similar campaign in another city.

Moving forward, Laura will continue to work with the Rede CataSampa cooperatives on an oil awareness campaign. If this campaign is successful and increases WVO collection, it may generate more interest across the cooperatives to work together to sell all this oil at a higher price and gain more value for it. Flavia of the FGV Inclusive Business Clinic will also continue to help out, by leading several students in doing research on the WVO regulations in specific cities in order to ensure the legality and efficacy of a potential multi-city oil collection and selling network.

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Shared collection truck at COURES, a RedeCataSampa cooperative. Photo credit: Marta Marello

We have learned a lot in our short stint in Brazil. It was our first time in the country for almost all of us. We were able to see for ourselves firsthand just how enormous São Paulo is. The traffic is notoriously bad, but even without it, it takes two hours to drive from one end of the city to the other. There are people everywhere; skateboarders dominate the sidewalks, scuffing up the pristine streets. The metro and bus system are both extensive, giving São Paulo a gold star in public transportation and setting an example for other cities. The vast income inequality is evident: while we were working with cooperatives of wastepickers on the outskirts of the city, the wealthy were shopping in the business district filled with glittering skyscrapers and malls of designer shops and inflated prices. Some of the downtown plazas are constantly bathed in the odor of urine, with homeless people camped out on every sidewalk.

The catadores play an essential role in keeping São Paulo alive and functioning. They may be poor, but catadores are contributing to the betterment of the environment and of society by reducing trash and putting into reuse as many of the recyclable materials they can.

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A catadore working the compressor at ARES. Photo credit: Marta Marello

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Compressed recyclables waiting to be picked up at the ARES cooperative. Photo credit: Marta Marello

Post by Janet Li. Photos by Marta Marello.

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