After plastic waste contributed to deadly floods in Recife, one neighbourhood took action. Now people can earn a living by cleaning up the river in a scheme being imitated around the world
Maria das Gracas started collecting her plastic bottles after she saw the body of her neighbour floating past her house, carried along with the pollution that helped cause the deadly floods.
She stores them by the front door of her one-story home, which sits on the litter-strewn banks of the Tejipió river in north-east Brazil.
When she has enough she will take them to the local storage skip, where a litter collector will pay her two reals for 50 plastic bottles – about 40 pence. She’s not just doing it for the money. She’s doing it to stop the tide of plastic drowning this community.
Every day Maria and other residents of Coqueiral, a poor neighbourhood in the city of Recife, feel the impact of the world’s plastic binge. It is visible in the waters of the river that once flowed freely through the area.
Fifty years ago when Rildo Wandray was a boy, he would jump into the Tejipió and swim, while his friends fished beside him.
Today the river is stagnant, obstructed at every tributary by a tide of plastic waste; Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles, water containers, crisp packets and wrappers.
Globally, some 2 billion people live in communities with no rubbish collections. While international attention has focused recently on the marine plastic litter crisis, the devastating impact of plastic waste on the world’s poorest is no less destructive, causing flooding, disease, and hundreds of thousands of premature deaths from toxic fumes caused by the burning of waste.
In Recife the plastic waste is exacerbating already devastating flooding from rising sea levels caused by climate change. And those living around the Tejipió have grown tired of waiting for the government to act.
For das Gracas, the tipping point came when flooding took the life of one of her neighbours. “I was trapped inside my home with my son,” she said.
“There was nothing we could do, the water came up and we could not get out. I looked out and saw a body float past. She was face down, I could see the hair. That night the flood nearly took me too. Ever since then I have collected my bottles, I wanted to try and do something to reduce the waste going into the river.”
Organised and supported by the local baptist church through its project Instituto Solidare, local communities are mobilising: street protests, public meetings, awareness campaigns. They are also trying to build a network of entrepreneurs who can make a living out of collecting the waste, and turning it into products they can sell.
The Recife campaign is supported by Tearfund, the international NGO which is lobbying for global development funding for waste projects to be increased from 0.3% to 3%; a move which would push waste higher up the international agenda, reduce global plastic littering, help cut marine litter and improve the environment and the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
On Thursday – in advance of the Commonwealth Summit in London next week – international development secretary Penny Mordaunt is expected to address the need to increase UK funding globally to tackle plastic pollution, after lobbying from Tearfund and other bodies.
In Recife, Evandro Alves, who leads Instituto Solidare, says the world’s poorest are suffering the most from the plastic waste crisis.
“The situation here in this community, where life is already incredibly hard, has been getting worse,” he said. “We are are seeing more and more plastic being used and thrown away, and it stops here in their community. So we decided to mobilise.”
The movement in Coqueiral, Alves believes, could be replicated across the developing world; taking the idea of a circular economy and localising it to empower the people to press for government action, but also to take advantage of the opportunities waste creates.
“The waste is a problem but it is also an opportunity for people to earn a living, to create a circular economy for themselves,” he said. “This could be transformative and improve the quality of life for people in the poorest areas of the biggest cities. This is a battle for everyone and everyone needs to be part of it. We understand this is not a short fix, this is a long fight.”
At public meetings, and marches through the streets residents hold placards aloft, demanding “Clean River, Healthy City,” and “Salve Orio Tejipió e suas communidades.” (Save the River Tejipió and our communities)
Young people in Recife are at the forefront of the campaign, eliciting support and mobilising on social media. In one direct action, pupils whose school is on the riverside, removed some of the waste from the Tejipió; a sofa, plastic bottles, a TV, tables, plastic chairs and built a house on the banks which they called Casa Lixo – House of Trash. Another post saw children holding a fashion show from clothes created out of plastic bags and cups.
Some women are involved in an enterprise making handbags, jewellery and toys out of the plastic and other waste collected from their communities. It provides them with employment and a small income – and in a small way builds the kind of circular economy which a 2010 Brazilian law promised but failed to create.
Olga Gomes, one of the women who works in the group Seleta, said: “We are putting a lot of work into researching the market and looking at trends and trying to make sure we can make a business out of what we are doing. For me it is empowering – it has given me work and given me a social life.”
Her optimism is shared by all the women, some of whom have been helped to flee violent relationships through the work provided and the social support of the Seleta project.
For Gomes, the task for the future is clear. “I want to see my grandchildren swim in the river like I did and I want this work to take me across the ocean.”
The movement is being adopted by some of the poorest communities across the world. In Jos in Nigeria and Maputo in Mozambique, other groups have formed. They are driven, as in Recife, by young people, who use their knowledge of digital media to spread the fight against waste across the globe.
Naomi Foxwood, senior campaigner for Tearfund, said: “This crisis is growing as disposable items – plastic bottles, disposable nappies, single-use polystyrene containers – are increasingly being used in quickly urbanising low- and middle-income countries.
“Young people, in particular, are at the forefront of this. They have energy, organising power, and a great sense of justice. For them it is a justice issue because often municipal waste is just dumped in the poorest communities, whereas it is collected from the more wealthy areas.”
For those in Recife, there have been small victories. Last year the state government responded to the pressure and dug out the river upstream of Coqueiral to improve the river flow. The result is fewer floods so far this year. But the residents know the battle will be a long one.
Carol Santos who lives on the banks of the river with her three children understands the need to take personal responsibility for the waste she creates. But she also believes her community has been abandoned by the state and that large multinationals like Coca-Cola – whose plastic bottles are clearly visible in the mass of waste blocking the Tejipió, could do more to clear up the pollution their products create.
“The company could help to collect the waste and support the community to recycle it, but it doesn’t. We don’t see them,” she said.
Her home is flooded several times a year. “When the rains come the flood destroys everything. It is a desperate situation – at least nine times a year I lose everything, my children get sick from diarrhoea when it floods, its awful for them. We live here because we have nowhere else to go.”