A recycling hero
Santana do Parnaiba, Brazil
By Paulo Whitaker
Today’s Brazil is synonymous with great promise, as the country of the future with tremendous economic potential. But in terms of our care for the environment, we are far from being a global example.
Although we are the world champion in recycling aluminium cans, we still have many polluted rivers and cities, and our rainforests are being devastated to make room for soybeans, cattle and sugar cane. Recycling cans is high thanks only to the thousands of poor who survive by collecting them.
Roberto da Silva is one of those people – poor and unemployed. Years ago the Tiete River was teeming with fish, but while Roberto gets his food today from the river too, it’s not by harvesting live fish from its waters but rather by fishing tons of plastic PET containers from the river polluted by South America’s biggest city. He collects containers in Santana do Parnaiba as they come floating downriver from Sao Paulo 20 kms (32 miles) away, and sells them to a recycling center.
For the average 700 kg of plastic per week that he pulls from the river, Roberto makes about $4,000 a year. He works with a partner, Esmeraldo, in a tightly coordinated division of tasks. Roberto paddles his makeshift boat down the river, picking up plastic PET containers, until the boat is full. He then returns to the shore where Esmeraldo takes the boat to offload the cargo, as Roberto returns to the river in their second boat.
The containers have to be emptied of any liquid that might increase their weight and give a false reading. I was impressed when Roberto said to me, “It’s not right [to sell the plastic with false weight] and we have to work correctly. We are poor but not thieves like our politicians.”
Roberto doesn’t waste any time when at his task. I found it incredible that they don’t use any protective equipment – no gloves, boots or anything. Even the days I spent with them, when I offered him boots and gloves to protect them from the rotten, stinking river, he laughed and said, “I would rather have the value of those in money.”
He must have attained a high degree of immunity after 12 years of sticking his hands and feet in the dead waters of the Tiete. He said he has never caught any kind of disease during the time he’s been in contact with the river. It must be a biological phenomenon.
The days I photographed their work I used rubber boots, but the rotten smell of the river was unbearable. The heat on the sunny days gave me a headache.
At the recycle center the filth and stench were overbearing. But the worst part of all was the man to whom Roberto sold his material, and his treatment of Roberto. Nobody but him was allowed access to the scale as he weighed the sacks of PET, so Roberto’s efforts were valued in the dark.
Roberto is a hero of recycling.
I hope he never has the health problems associated with anyone working in the putrid waters of the Tiete river. So just in case he changes his mind, I left him my rubber boots.