Garbage recycling in Recife is both part of a highly profitable private economy and a subsistence level informal one. At the top there are the large, highly organized depots and the companies who do the recycling; at the bottom there are the small depots and the undocumented, unregistered Waste recyclers (Catadores). The larger companies buy the garbage from the big depots who sell the material separated and pressed; the big depots buy the garbage from the small depots. And the small depots buy the garbage from Waste recyclers who gather and separate it in the streets, usually in high and middle class neighborhoods where people dispose of a greater quantity of recyclable materials. This garbage is left on the streets to be picked up by the public collection system and isn´t separated into recyclable and non-recyclable materials. Everything is mixed together, from toilet paper to beer cans. The small depots own the hand-carts and pay the Catadores their equivalent amount per weight and material. At each stage the profits are substantially cut.
Despite their important part in this profitable process the Catadores work without documentation, job security or social recognition. Despite their constant presence in the city they remain overlooked by a society which often stigmatizes their work and a government which refuses to acknowledge their legal status. They are, therefore, part of a huge informal economy of Recife’s subsistence, which is increasingly threatened by government initiatives to minimize the informal economy, often without providing an alternative way of making a living.
In light of all this, I decided to document something of the Catadores reality. I began by photographing Catadores I encountered in the streets and was soon led to Arruda, a neighborhood in the North of Recife which holds many small depots, as well as a large number of shanty town houses and the city´s largest football stadium. There, in front of one of the many shanty town houses, with people playing dominos and hand carts parked in the street I was introduced to Renata´s depot.
From that day I started to develop a relationship with the depot and the people who work there, which has become the centre of my project. Besides photographing people working in the depot, I went out in the streets with the Catadores to learn more about their routines. Some of them I would meet as they were waking up from their sleep on the streets. Others, in their houses as they prepared to take their kids to school. And still others I would meet at the depot walking with them on their collections and then returning with them to the depot.
It was in the depot that I first perceived the strength of the Catadores as a community, in contrast with the marginalizing looks society often gives them in the streets. However, it was in my walks with them on the streets that I witnessed their respect and affection for each other; Dona Marluce taking her granddaughters to school before starting work; Vera and her family´s love and care for each other after nights sleeping on the streets; Almir´s worries about his nephew’s lack of interest in studying. Another interesting aspect about the Catadores, was the independence which many found through their profession. For example Almir, a man who has worked since he was seven years old; selling candies on the streets, serving as a doorman in a residential building and, for the last ten years as a Catador. He, like others, explained his preference to be a Catador because of the autonomy he has found in this profession. A man who doesn’t read or write, but who has developed an organized way to collect his recyclables - gathering his white paper from print studios and boxes from Hospitals.
Despite all this committed hard work, joy in independence, affection and mutual support through the difficulties of life, on the 25th of August of 2011 Renata´s depot was threatened with closure by the mayor´s office. A policeman, in a regular car, carrying a gun and acting with aggressive manners, said to Renata, the owner of the deposit that they couldn’t continue working in ´that way´ and that they would have to shut down. Renata asked what she could do to carry on her business without breaking the rules. But, unfortunately, there is no category for small depots to work in this city. Renata, together with her husband, who is also a policeman, holds around 30 informal employees. This act is one of many attempts to minimize the category of free tax workers across Brazil. The current mayor has been applying policies which go against informal jobs that, for a long time, have been the only way many people have been able to afford their daily bread. But this attempt doesn’t seem to give these people another opportunity, nor show them how to fit in. Instead it seems to want them to vanish.