Posted August 27th 2012 at 11:39 am by
in Stories from the Field

Tracking Trash with Waste Pickers in Brazil

• DIETMAR OFFENHUBER and DAVID LEE are PhD students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and con­duct research at the Senseable City Lab at MIT.

Paper Radio No. 2 : The Trash Issue

Researchers and cooperative members fill in details on the map of a manual picker’s walking route. A public workshop at the end of the experiment allowed the whole cooperative and members of the community to respond to and augment the collected geographic data. Photo by David Lee.

As a result of ongoing urbanization, many cities face challenges providing basic infrastructure such as waste and recycling collection for their residents. In many places, these services are provided by a growing informal sector. In Brazil, self-organized cooperatives of catadores, or informal recy­clers, have a long history. Today, they are organized coun­trywide in over 500 cooperatives totaling 60,000 members. These cooperatives form a national movement that helps shape public waste policies. In São Paulo, catadores collect 90% of recoverable materials, and constitute an essential recycling infrastructure for the city.

In 2010, Brazil adopted a new national solid waste law requir­ing cities and private businesses to collaborate with waste picking cooperatives. While this law offers vast new oppor­tunities for the cooperatives, it also brings new challenges, putting waste pickers under pressure to quickly formalize and professionalize while facing increasing competition from private recycling firms and private waste incineration com­panies. Currently, many cooperatives are not yet ready to take full advantage of the new laws.

Paper Radio No. 2 : The Trash Issue

The recycling cooperative Coopmare, underneath a road overpass near central São Paulo. Photo by Dietmar Offenhuber.

Traditional managerial wisdom offers little benefit to their bottom-up systems. Yet, the catadores know many things about the city; they read and navigate the city differently from most other urban dwellers. Documenting and mapping this tacit knowledge, identifying the amounts of waste recovered from respective areas, and discovering opportunities for ex­pansion and optimization produces valuable information for the cooperatives, improves their position with the municipal government, and supports the internal training of new col­lectors.

Paper Radio No. 2 : The Trash Issue

A smartphone application for Sao Paulo residents to request recycling pickups directly from catadores. This prototype was demonstrated at the workshop to elicit feedback on what could or could not work in an on-demand pickup system. Photo by David Lee.

MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), MIT Sense­able Cities Lab, and the University of São Paulo are collabo­rating on a project called Forager. Forager is named after the microeconomic theory of optimal foraging. Ultimately, it is an exploration of how communication technology can help run a recycling cooperative. Together with COOPAMARE, a coop located in central São Paulo, Brazil, Forager devel­oped and evaluated tools for running an informal urban in­frastructure. Forage tracking consisted of two main interven­tions – mapping the spatial organization of the cooperative using inexpensive GPS loggers; and designing, prototyping, and evaluating a software platform for community-based re­cycling. We, the authors of this article, participated in devel­oping and using these tools.

In the first part, each waste collector carried a small GPS logger on his or her daily route. At the end of the day, we conducted interviews with the collectors in which they used a laptop to see their collection paths traced on a map. We then asked collectors to comment on their movement deci­sions. The maps aggregated from the collected traces re­flect this spatial logic of collection and provide a valuable opportunity for the participants to reflect about their spatial organization.

In the second major part of the project, the design of a par­ticipatory media platform was explored with the cooperative in a workshop using functioning prototypes. Inside the coop­erative, this platform allows for real-time data management because the data facilitates coordination with potential cli­ents. Outside the cooperative, residents and businesses can inform the cooperative via smartphone or a website about material (metals, paper, plastic, etc.) they have available for collection and coordinate pick-up times.

Forager’s work with the cooperative has shown that informal waste infrastructures operate under a different logic than traditional urban infrastructures, and every technological so­lution has to address this difference. The recyclers’ move­ments are highly selective. They focus on spatially dispersed individual sources – apartments, markets, and businesses – rather than servicing a coherent area. This approach allows them to pick out the most profitable clients from a particular area, but it also creates logistical problems.

Beyond explicating the hidden knowledge of the coopera­tive, participatory mapping had another important effect. By placing their movements “on the map”, it conveyed a sense of identity for the cooperative, providing tangible evidence of their place in the city.

This post is an article from Paper Radio Issue #2: Trash. Paper Radio is CoLab’s print publication.

This text is partially excerpted from an academic paper on the project at the upcoming ACM Participatory Design Conference: Offenhuber, D., & Lee, D. (2012). Putting the Informal on the Map – Tools for Participatory Waste Management. Proceedings of the Twelfth Anniversary Conference on Participatory Design 2012, PDC ’12. Roskilde, Dk.

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