Posted September 22nd 2010 at 1:51 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy, Uncategorized, Waste Pickers Movement in Sao Paulo, Brazil

The Colors of the Recycling Value Chain

Waste Pickers_Small Waste pickers in Sao Paolo sorting through trash. Photo by Sebastiao Ferreira

In August 2010, I had the opportunity to go to Brazil to support the waste pickers movement of Sao Paulo, and to learn more about Cata Sampa, as part of a project led by Elizabeth McDonald and Becky Buell, from CoLab. Cata Sampa is a network of waste pickers in Sao Paulo, created to build and sustain waste picker cooperatives. I met with representatives of local institutions, such as the Municipality of Sao Paulo, the Fundaçao Getulio Vargas (a university), and with some very active NGOs. Also, I visited one of the waste pickers cooperatives known as “Coopere.”

Inside Coopere, I saw how the process of value generation was efficiently organized in a value chain.  People were sorting out different types of objects such as bottles, plastic bags, sandals, cans, and cardboards, which were to be packed and sold to recycling companies.  The work was well organized into processes that were easy to manage and low-tech, and yet very productive.

While all of this was very interesting, I was actually most captivated by the racial composition of the Coopere value chain. I am Brazilian and grew up in Brazil, and I always had the opinion that racism in Brazil was not so strong as it is in other countries. In Brazil, races are socially mixed, and most of the population has some level of racial mix: black, white, indigenous, Japanese, etc. But recently, I have started to pay more attention to the racial composition of different social groups in Brazil such as the rich and poor.

The racial composition of the Sao Paulo region’s population is predominantly white.  Sixty percent of the population is white and forty percent is comprised of different levels of mixed and black people. However, in Coopere, over ninety percent of the workers included mixed or black people. What does this mean in terms of interracial relations?

One single case is not a statistical representation of the racial composition of Brazil’s poorest populations, but that case did make me look at the 2005 Brazilian census. I found that among the bottom ten percent of the poorest Brazilians, seventy-three percent were racially mixed or black and only twenty-seven percent were white. However, among the top one percent of the richest of Brazilians, the demographics were the opposite: eighty-eight percent were white and only twelve percent were racially mixed or black (IBGE, 2006). And most probably, the black people were a minor fraction of the twelve percent.

Slavery formally ended in Brazil 121 years ago, however, mechanisms of racial discrimination are still operating in the Brazilian society in a systematic way. Despite the social and cultural integration of races in Brazil, highly wealthy people are mainly white and deeply poor people are mixed or black, with a high percentage of black among them. The racial composition of the waste pickers in Coopere is an example of that unequal distribution, not an isolated case.


IBGE, 2006. Síntesis de Indicadores sociais, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estadistica, Retrieved: September 13, 2010.

Sebastiao Ferreira is a Brazilian who lived in Peru most of his life.  He is a Visiting Scholar at the CoLab and his work involves development of cognitive methods for community-based knowledge capture and creation, as well as development of mechanisms for detecting and promoting innovative initiatives in communities.


One response to “The Colors of the Recycling Value Chain”

  1. Amy Stitely says:

    Sebastiao, I am fascinated to hear that you are just now, after many years, noticing that most of the poor in Brazil are black or mixed, while most of the rich are white.

    How is it possible to be from Brazil and not notice this?

    Is it because there are so many people who are mixed?

    Or is it because the classes are stratified so that one doesn’t normally see only poor or only rich?

    Would you say that, on the whole, Brazilians believer that there is no racial discrimination?