Posted July 5th 2011 at 12:38 pm by
in Waste Pickers Movement in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Reflections on the MIT Green Grease Team's Summer Project in Brazil

The Green Grease Project is a collaboration between MIT and Sao Paulo-based groups to develop environmentally-friendly technologies to increase the income of wastepickers in Sao Paulo, Brasil. The project started two years ago with the support of the Community Innovators Lab, Biodiesel@MIT, and RedeCataSampa.

After a week and a half of developing waste vegetable oil filtration systems all around São Paulo, the Green Grease team headed to Rio de Janeiro for some R&R. What we didn’t expect, was how positively this trip could influence us and the Green Grease Project.

Having already visited Rio, my co-worker Alex had convinced my other co-worker Tendelle and me of the city’s beauty and overall awesomeness, so we were especially excited.

On Friday May 27th, we built a filtration system at CORA in Arujá with the help of several students from the University of Sao Paulo (USP) and the Insitituto Tecnologico de Aeronautica (ITA). After having worked out the kinks of the initial prototype at ITA, we were prepared to finish quickly and head to Rio as early as possible. However, another challenge faced us: cleaning out the gallons. Possibly one of the grossest experiences of our lives, the Green Grease team spent the first few hours of the workshop removing congealed waste vegetable oil and food scraps from the 200L blue containers. We were eventually rescued by the USP students, who went across the street and asked the family there if we could borrow their water hose, since CORA did not have one. After that, we quickly finished cleaning the containers, something we thought was impossible just a few hours before.

We were pleasantly surprised when the ITA students arrived, bringing not only a second drill, but ten (!) extra pairs of hands to help us quickly finish the prototype. In contrast to the apathy I often encounter when organizing events at MIT, the enthusiasm of the students we met in Brasil was refreshing. After various setbacks during the life of the project, the students’ support reassured us of the importance of The Green Grease Project because it raises awareness not only about a “green” technology, but about the hardships and determination of the wastepickers, the catadores.

Unlike some of the other cooperatives we visited during our trip, CORA has a strong relationship with the local government of Arujà, who supports and stimulates the growth of the cooperative. We were asked to stay to speak with the secretary to the mayor, and although the temperature was dropping as the sun set, we decided to wait for the mayor, who “would be there very soon” (but of course this meant within the hour, since we were running on Brasilian time). To stay warm while we passed the time, we (MIT, USP, and ITA students and catadores) took turns trying to kick a soccer ball into a garbage can, but without much success. After speaking with the secretary, pausing briefly for a photoshoot for the paper, and finally a long deliberation of our plans for the rest of the evening, the Green Grease Team decided to head to São José dos Campos with the ITA students, since it was already on the way to Rio. We said goodbye to Walter, Denis, and Rafael from USP and Kin, who came all the way from the University of Campinas to join us, and, for the second time during our short stay in Brasil, headed to São José.

Now it’s time to tell you all about Pizza Rodísio in Brasil. Typical Rodísio restaurants in Brasil consist of servers carrying large skewers of meat. Customers can pick which they like and eat as much as they want. Pizza Rodísio is the same thing, but with all different kinds of pizza, including “doce”, or sweet pizzas covered in nutella, coconut, bananas, et cetera. I was pleasantly surprised by all of the vegetarian options, and after a full day without eating, the Green Grease Team dined well that night on all-you-can-eat pizza.

We finally arrived in Rio de Janeiro early (4:00 a.m.) Saturday morning. Ana Luisa Santos, former Green Grease Team member, kindly offered to host us in her new apartment. Dismayed as we were by the dreary weather befallen on Rio during our short visit, our spirits were high as we looked up at Corcovado from Ana Luisa’s window. Since most places close by noon on Saturday, we opted to do something productive and search for a water-separating filter closer to the coast. We were successful! This filter will eventually be added in the filtration system to improve its efficacy; however it more than doubled the price of our filtration system. More testing will be done to see if we can make it cheaper.

After experiencing some of Rio’s most famous attractions on Saturday, such as Pão de Açùcar, Santa Teresa, and the bohemian nightlife of Lapa, we had the opportunity to have lunch with Tião Santos, the president of ACAMJG – the cooperative of wasterpickers in Jardin Gramacho. Overlooking Leblon beach, we learned about Jardim Gramacho, the largest trash dump in the world, which receives 9000 tonnes of garbage per day from Rio and the surrounding cities. Unlike the cooperatives that we work with in São Paulo, the wastepickers of Jardin Gramacho collect recyclables amongst the trash and sell them for income. Tião was featured in the documentary Lixo Extraordinário (or Waste Land). The film documents the initiative of Brasilian artist Vik Muniz to improve the lives of wastepickers through a unique idea – making huge portraits of the wastepickers out of the trash and recyclables they sort through every day. I highly recommend that everyone watches the film to think about the impact of their trash on the rest of the world.

Jardim Gramacho is closing at the end of the year, and over 13,000 people will be affected without a source of recyclable materials to sell. Along with his producers, Jackie de Botton and Diana Gabyani, Tião told us about his role in the national movement and the initiatives to create new opportunities for the people that currently depend on the landfill. They were interested in our “grease car” conversion and the use of waste vegetable oil as a free fuel. How amazing would it be to expand the Green Grease Project into Rio (and have an excuse to come back)? Large-scale implementation of the project depends on the work of several individual cooperatives, and that requires open communication between the cooperatives and us. This trip helped us realize some of the important issues that all development projects face, and we have plenty to work on over the next few months, including strengthening the relationships with the students we worked with, improving the oil filtration system to supply the cooperatives with clean oil, and developing innovative communication techniques to monitor our work after we leave.

The goal of the Green Grease Project is to raise awareness on a cheap and environmentally-friendly technology, but ultimately the most important aspect is helping our community partner. Our society has a big problem: millions of tons of trash produced every day, by the United States alone. We have created a system that completely separates us from our trash, and the convenience of plastic packaging and disposable items only exacerbates the issue. When we put something in the trashcan and leave it on the side of the road, it doesn’t disappear. Somewhere else, our waste is building up, releasing obnoxious amounts of methane and stinking up someone or something else’s home. All too often, our trash becomes the responsibility of the most marginalized communities, who cannot simply pay to make their waste go away. People easily disregard the damage they cause on the environment, but I think many are ignorant of the effect that damage has on people who live there.

The catadores of Brasil represent a proactive network of resourceful people who are taking advantage of the situation and creating, not only an environmental solution, but an economic one. As a member of The Green Grease Project, I believe it is absolutely necessary to develop technology aimed at increasing the value of the collected material in order to cut out middle men, who reap most of the profits, and directly reward the catadores for their resourcefulness and sacrifice, increasing their profit and providing them with the necessary skills to move up the supply chain.

Post by Angela Hojnacki.

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