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A job with contradictions: environmental stewards and exploited workers of the informal sector
Solid waste is an environmental concern throughout the world. The work of handling this waste involves diverse hazards, and is the focus of many prevention activities.1–4 In Brazil, as elsewhere, the increasing consumption of goods has generated a huge volume of waste, raising questions about the impacts of inadequate collection and traditional waste disposal technologies on the health of workers, the public, and the environment.5–7 Recycling presents many benefits, but like any new productive enterprise, its effects on those who do the physical labour must be weighed when assessing its full societal and environmental impact.
High unemployment, combined with proliferating amounts of solid waste, and a growing global market for recycled materials, have created the conditions for the rapid expansion of the work of collecting and selling trash. In Brazilian cities today, ragpickers (catadores de lixo in Portuguese) collect, separate, classify, and sell all types of recyclable materials. It is not known how many people work as ragpickers in Brazil, but a recent study estimated 500 000 in 2003, including adults and children (Forum Lixo e Cidadania, 2003). The majority of these workers rely solely or primarily on ragpicking for their livelihood, and have incomes less than twice the level defined by the Brazilian government as a minimum living wage, which comes to about US$173. They often live near dumps or in the low income areas of cities, and collect recyclable materials and food at dumpsites, riverbanks, street corners, and residential areas (Fórum Nacional Lixo e Cidadania, 2003). This relatively new and apparently growing labour force is responsible for handling a large share of all Brazilian recycled materials. Their work, entirely informal and lacking in almost any controls, employment benefits, or regulations, has …
Financial support: CAPES, Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, Brazil. Partially supported by grant #D43TW005749, “Work and Health in Brazil and Mexico” from the John E. Fogarty International Center of the US National Institutes of Health
Competing interests: none