Brazil Takes Can-Do Tack On Recycling
80% of nation's aluminum containers find their way back to manufacturers
Michael Astor / AP 3jan00
RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazilians don't pay deposits on containers, rarely separate their trash and think little of tossing an empty soda can from a car window. "Please Don't Litter" signs are roundly ignored.
Yet Brazil is poised to catch up with Japan as a leader among the world's biggest countries in recycling aluminum cans.
The reason is Luiz Carlos Carola, and a legion like him.
Carola was homeless when he started collecting cans outside the Rio bus station three years ago. Today, he has a roof over his head, spends his weekends at a modest .beach resort outside the city and earns about $260 per month- not bad money in a country where nearly half the people get by on $150 per month or less.
"As long as there are ill-mannered people, I'll earn a good living," Carola says.
Ecological consciousness has been slow in coming to Brazil, where the poor have little education and the well-off have maids to pick up after them. Throwaway containers are tossed everywhere; and beachgoers think nothing of leaving a pile garbage behind when they go home.
All the same, the Brazilian Aluminum Association says the country should recycle 80 percent of the 9.5 billion aluminum cans sold in 2000. That would put them up with the current leader, Japan, which recycled 79 percent of its cans in 1999.
Some small European countries recycle almost 90 percent of their cans, but the association says Japan and Brazil are far ahead of other populous countries.
For instance, the United States recycled 63 percent of its cans in 1999, and Europe as a whole recycled 41 percent. The rate was 51 percent in Argentina,. South America's second-largest economy after Brazil.
There's more than altruism involved. Recycling can be good business.
To produce a ton of aluminum from scratch requires 5 tons of bauxite and 16,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. With recycling, you need a ton of old cans and just 750 kilowatt-hours of electricity, a boon for a country straining to meet electricity demand.
Aluminum cans are relatively new to Brazil. They were introduced only in 1990, when the Skol brewery began using them to provide a smaller, more convenient alternative to the traditional 22-ounce glass bottles.
Since then, the market for aluminum cans has grown more than 3,000 percent, and recycling them has become a $110 million per. year industry that employs an estimated 150,000 people, the aluminum association says.
"The mainspring that drives (recycling) is the sheer volume of garbage pickers we have," says Elder Rondelli, marketing and recycling manager for aluminum-maker Alcan.
"But it's not just because Brazil is a miserable country and it's just the poor who are recycling. It's starting to penetrate the middle class."
Aluminum is the gold of garbage picking - pound for pound worth 10 times more than plastic; 12 times more than glass and 30 times more than paper on the local recycling market. A full-time can collector can earn up to five times the minimum wage.
Thanks to cans, Carola is now what the Brazilian government calls a microbusinessman.
Still, the aluminum industry wants to move beyond reliant on the professional trash collectors. With an educational program &. rected at schools, churches, hotels and tenant associations, it is trying to teach privileged Brazilians to recycle.
The most aggressive of these efforts is headed by aluminum-can-maker Latasa, which accounts for half of Brazil's can market and a fourth of all recycling. Today, 55 percent of Latasa's cans are made from recycled aluminum.
Latasa has 16,000 institutions involved its a program that awards cash and prizes in return for used cans. The company also has 47 recycling centers around Rio arid Sao Paulo where collectors can sell aluminum for the equivalent of 36 cents per pound and also buy food at discount prices.
"We saw the proliferation of cans could be a problem, so we decided to invest in recycling early on," Latasa's recycling director, Jose Roberto Giosa, said.
Giosa says Latasa's success has stirred interest in recycling other products.
"Other sectors will have to follow because the public demands it," he says, pointing out that 18 recycling laws are pending in Brazil's Congress.
But Giosa questions whether legislation mandating recycling is the proper approach.
"We developed a Brazilian solution, we didn't have to copy anyone and we learned through trial and error," he says. "It was done without taxes or subsidies, and it was based totally on the market. That's why it works."
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