By Marcela Canavarro, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The idea that Carnival is a democratic event where everybody can celebrate also resonates within the business arena. This is especially true within the aluminum recycling chain that generated R$1.6 billion (US$ 857 millions) in Brazil in 2008, according to a report released by ABAL (Brazilian Association of Aluminum) and Abralatas (Brazilian Association of Manufacturers of Recycled Cans).
The starting point is the poor workers who collect garbage in the streets to increase their weekly income. It’s an informal job that paid them about R$492 million (US$264 million) in the same year, when the financial crisis dropped the recycling business by five percentage points.
For these people with little or no formal education at all, aluminum is a kind of currency. Street collectors were responsible for gathering most of the 12.3 billion units of drinking cans that were recycled in 2008 reflecting the basic rule of the economics: prices follow the demand.
“We bought 12.7 tons of aluminum cans in the last year’s Carnival because the prices were low. We paid R$1.60 (US$0.86) per kilo and kept them for a month and a half when we sold for R$2.40 (US$1.29) per kilo”, says Eliete Alves, a representative of CooperNorte, an aluminum recycling co-operative that gathers people who work collecting garbage in the streets. Mrs. Alves is one of those workers and seems to have no clue that she is using economic parameters to explain her profits.
Prices are always too low during the Carnival time. The workers can make from R$350 to R$700 (from US$187 to US$375) working at the Sambódromo for four days. The co-operative pays them in cash and then keeps the cans to sell later”, she explains.
Mrs. Alves says that the collectors compete to get the proper credentials that allow them to work in the Sambódromo for the Samba Schools parade. A partnership sealed by Comlurb (the city’s garbage company), Riotur (the tourism bureau in Rio), LIESA (an association that gathers the samba schools and organizes the parade) and Coca-Cola will provide sixty positions for the informal garbage collectors this year. With only 33 of them in the last Carnival, the program got 7,650 cans in Sambódromo.
The blocos, street parties that take place all over the city, are attended by thousands of people everyday. Last Saturday, the first day of Carnival, the biggest bloco Cordão do Bola Preta attracted 1.5 million people who left nineteen tons of garbage. On Saturday alone, Comlurb collected 92 tons of garbage. The official numbers of recycling materials are not available yet.
The blocos association Sebastiana and the Federation of Co-operatives of Recycling Materials Collectors (Febracom) organize informal collectors to clean the streets after the blocos parade.
The official schedule included more than 400 blocos this year. In the pre-carnival weekend, in the first week of February, Sebastiana and Febracom collected 54 bags (1,200-liter size each) of plastic, paper and cans. In the three first days of Carnival 225 associated workers gathered eight tons of recyclable materials.
“Our main goal is to contribute to keep the streets clean and to re-use the garbage. It’s also an opportunity for the informal collectors to increase their income and perhaps get motivated to associate to a co-operative or to create new groups”, says Sebastiana spokesperson.
The informal collectors have been working in the recycling business before the industry organized itself to transform used aluminum in order to drop their costs of production. Therefore they were ready to take a position in the chain when the recycled aluminum’s advantages attracted transnational companies with subsidiaries in Brazil such as the British Rexam and the Americans Novelis and Aleris.
With no government subsides Brazil is now the largest recycler of aluminum in the world. In 2008 Brazil transformed 165.8 tons of cans – about 91.5 percent of national consumption, a percentage below the previous years average of 96.5 percent. During the week of Carnival the number of cans collected usually increases from eight percent to eleven percent according to the coordinator of the Recycling Comission at ABAL, Henio de Nicola.
“The industry relies on the garbage traders who rely on the informal collectors who rely on the high volume of garbage which is generated through the industry production. The aluminum industry has been structuring this process since the Eighties and has ended up organizing the informal collectors’ jobs”, explains Mr. de Nicola, excited about the fact that the industry has been growing by thirteen percent per year thank to the lower costs of transformed aluminum that is being used now to build cars and produce steel.
The whole chain also includes the bigger traders who buy cans from the informal collectors and re-sell them to the recycling factories. The entire process can take only thirty days counting from the day the can leaves the factory, is consumed, then wasted, collected, sold to the trader, re-sold to the industry and then transformed.
Last year a provisory law (MP 476) signed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stimulated the industry to buy cans directly from the street collectors. The idea is to give tax breaks to those who create social benefits and are ideologically aligned with green attitudes.
Besides providing another source of revenue for those with a low-income, each kilo of recycled aluminum saves five kilos of bauxite, a natural commodity used to produce the primary aluminum. The transformed metal consumes nineteen times less energy than the one produced by traditional means and releases only five percent of toxic gases in the atmosphere compared to other methods. The recycled metal keeps the basic characteristics of the original aluminum.