Turning Trash Into Treasure

After spending a week working at ASMARE, an association of “catadores” or garbage collectors in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, I have come to truly appreciate the staff’s unrelenting commitment and passion to reduce poverty and homelessness. By providing meaningful employment to many of the city’s outcasts and neglected, whose livelihood depend on collecting and separating garbage, ASMARE is more than just an employer to its nearly 200 official collectors. It’s a provider of hope and a path to a new life that includes housing and access to healthcare and education.

No one personifies this optimism more than Dona Geralda, who looks much younger than her 73 years and has boundless energy to match. She founded ASMARE 22 years ago and has become a celebrity in her own right, having traveled the world to give lectures and meet with dignitaries. However, on any given day she can still be seen separating paper, cardboard and plastic at one of the main collection sites. “I can do it better and faster than the others,” she said with a smile in her eyes.

During a recent visit, our team of SAP volunteers – Lena, Jan and I are spending a month developing a communications plan for ASMARE – had the opportunity to meet Dona Geralda’s husband Seu Zezinho (84), who was sitting on an old chair, donning what looked like a sparkling gold Carnival hat, patiently removing the metal tabs off of cans. He said, through a translator, that he wanted to look nice for our visit, and that he did. Married for more than 50 years, they have nine children – the first when Dona Geralda was 16 – and nine grandchildren.

So, needless to say, it was quite disconcerting to hear that the selling of recyclable materials, ASMARE’s core business, can no longer financially support the association, primarily due to increased competition.

Fortunately for ASMARE and its catadores, there are several other, mostly untapped, revenue streams, including taking other people’s discarded bottles, bottle caps, fabric, car tires and cardboard boxes to name a few, and creating and selling recycled art.

The Philosophy Behind Recycled Art
Mauricio Soares, 48, who has a degree in communication with a focus in specialized design, is just one of a handful of officially employed administrators at ASMARE. The goal of the association is to be self-run by its members, the catadores, and to have people like Mauricio provide social guidance and business council.

For our team to better understand the “culture of garbage,” he provided us with an interesting and unexpected perspective on the art of recycling. He explained, “A bottle after you use it is not trash. It is still a bottle that has the same qualities. It’s still a plastic bottle that can be used again as a bottle or as something else, like a piece of art, recycled using its original material. So, in Brazil, we’ve started to discuss the concept of trash. When we talk about recycling, we talk about materials and using the bottle again. That’s why we don’t work with trash, because it has an end.”

To illustrate his point, Mauricio conducted a mini workshop for and with our small team. In a few short steps, using only a PET bottle, a small wooden stick, a bead, scissors and a candle, we made a beautiful vase with flowers. Admittedly, my technique has some room for improvement. However and more importantly, with this short exercise I learned the important distinction between trash and reusable materials. I learned how to turn waste into art, a practical lesson in sustainability that our team will urge ASMARE to bring to schools. Having catadores show their work and conduct workshops will improve their image, as they are seen as people living on the fringe of society. In turn this will help boost their self-esteem.

Back at Reciclo, the restaurant where we’ve set up our workspace for our one-month social sabbatical in Belo Horizonte,I have a newfound appreciation for the chairs made out of old car tires and the ones made out of compressed paperboard and advertising banners; the chandeliers made out of the base of aluminum cans and the inside of waxed cardboard juice boxes; and the candleholders, napkins holders, decorative figurines made out of coat hangers and PET bottles. All of the items are for sale, but no one seems to know it. Our task is to help ASMARE promote to the community, the country and the world that there is a vision, path and market for recycled materials and sustainable art.