GAIA press release

One foot in the movement and another in the U.N.: Waste Pickers at Rio+20 and the People's Summit push for socially inclusive sustainable development


The People's Summit: a vibrant, sprawling stretch of social movements in their full glory. White tents spread across kilometers of public park near the city center, teeming with political activities, decrying a false green economy that incentivizes pollution and the commodification of natural resources.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development: located far from the city center, requiring official registration and buzzing with international delegates wearing slick suits.

This week, waste pickers with the Movimento Nacional dos Catadores (The National Waste Pickers' Movement of Brazil) have been carrying out a constant stream of activities in their tent in the People's Summit. Some of the highlights include a plenary on the closing of the open dumps in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, a presentation on judicial aspects of the National Waste Policy, and resisting incinerators around the world.

In the panel "analysis of the national and global context for waste pickers", waste picker leaders from India, Colombia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay exchanged experiences with the Brazilian waste pickers.

"The national waste policy changed things," said Alex Cardoso, an MNCR leader who was responsible for giving the national analysis. "Waste pickers have become more visible in the media and elsewhere, but big companies have also been taking advantage and gaining a stronger presence." The incineration industry has become stronger, and now the waste pickers are fighting harder against it."

Waste pickers discuss national and global contexts

Cardoso spoke about the shocking number of open dumps still spread throughout Brazil. In only three Northeastern states, there are 1,750 open dumps, he said. "There needs to be a diagnosis of how many women and children are there, how many waste pickers are working in those dumps.

Silvio Ruiz, of ARB (Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá) based in Colombia, provided the context for Latin American waste pickers. "Our concerns are the closing of open dumps [without the consideration of the workers who earn their livelihoods there], privatization of waste and recycling, and industries being closed off to waste pickers."

Lucia Fernandez, global coordinator with the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, provided an overview of the situation for waste pickers around the world. She showed the African newsletter where waste pickers' organizations have been identified by WIEGO in more than eight countries in Africa. Organization levels vary considerably but the challenges remain the same: "dumpsites are being closed all over the world and waste pickers need to get orgnized to be included into new systems."

Sushila Sabale, of the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers, who began working as a waste picker when she was 10 years old, spoke about how waste pickers desperately need to organize in order to make advances. Her cooperative is working towards Zero Waste and the inclusion of waste pickers in the solid waste management system. That includes health care, education, counseling, and ending child labor.

At the U.N. Convention Center

These ideas were also taken to the U.N. convention center, Rio Centro, where the delegation of waste pickers talked about achieving Zero Waste in a socially inclusive way. That means fighting the incineration industry and putting a stop to the closing of open dumps without any consideration of the populations that survive off of them. Zero Waste is also a revolution in the relationship between waste and people. This official side event of the summit featured representatives from waste picker organizations, unions, environmental advocates, local government and community leaders and experts on solid waste management.

Giomar Santos, a waste picker leader with the National Movement, is fighting against an incinerator in the municipality of São Bernardo, near the city São Paulo. Corporations sometimes say that incinerators are a solution to the worldwide waste problem – that incinerators create Zero Waste. This is not true, Santos, explained.

"The incinerator will take recyclable materials from the waste pickers," she said. "We are also extremely concerned about the pollution it will create in São Bernardo and in the surrounding communities."

Mariel Vilella, GAIA's campaigner talked about meanings of Zero Waste. "Zero Waste has become a very popular name, but there are different concepts of what it is. It is a goal where nothing would be wasted, but it happens through a process, that involves a reduction of waste, changing consumption, recycling, reusing, and making a revolution in our relationship with waste," said Vilella.

Jyoti Mhapsekar, with Stree Mukti Sanghatana, spoke about the Zero Waste system that's been adopted in the city of Mumbai, India. There, women waste pickers have been trained in composting and biogas.

"Preaching about the environment is not enough," she said. "We have to practice it at home."

Alexa Kielty, with the Department of Environment of San Francisco, U.S.A., spoke about how residents there are now required to compost because of a Universal Composting Ordinance. In 2009, a three-bin system was introduced – one for trash, one for recyclable materials, and one for organic waste.

"The more trash they produce, the lower their garbage bill," she said. "It needs to work like a utility."

But in San Francisco, as in the rest of the United States, waste pickers are not incorporated into the formal recycling and composting system.

"Informal recycling started 150 years ago -- even before society was thinking about it, we were recycling," said Silvio Ruiz. "We suffered discrimination and violent displacement so we found a dignified way of surviving through waste."

Ruiz affirmed that waste pickers need to be prioritized to provide municipal recycling services. "We believe that private companies need to deal with waste and waste management but don't need to be involved with recyclable materials because this is what we do to survive," he said.

For more information about the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, contact Deia de Brito: or +21 8346-7343. Visit

For more information about Zero Waste, contact  Magdalena Donoso, GAIA: or +21 8394-7180. Visit

Deia de Brito

Communications Officer

The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers

Brazilian cell (Rio de Janeiro): +55 21 8346 7343 

Skype ID: deiadebrito

Assessora de Comunicação/Asesora de Comunicación

Aliança Global de Catadores/Alianza Global de Recicladores

Celular (Rio de Janeiro): +55 21 8346 7343   

Skype: deiadebrito