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Trash Pickers and position taking regarding the environmental field: the

participation in the recycling chain in Southern Brazil

Leandro Rogério Pinheiro (L. R. Pinheiro)

Sociologist and doctor of education. Professor at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do

Sul/Brazil, interested in issues concerning social movements, work and educational


Affiliation: Faculdade de Educação / Universidade do Rio Grande do Sul


Phone numbers: 55 51 81276715 / 33722995



Rua Marcílio Dias, 702/309

Menino Deus – Porto Alegre/RS

CEP 90130-000


Trash Pickers and position taking regarding the environmental field: the

participation in the recycling chain in Southern Brazil

Abstract: By considering the legitimization of environmental concerns in the composition

of institutional spheres and in the production of social practices, I analyze the configuration

of the environmental field along with collective actions related to the recycling of solid

waste in southern Brazil. Consequently, I seek to “understand how the trash pickers

constitute their position taking in the recycling productive chain and in their interaction

with the environmental field.” By analyzing the accounts of different agents who act in this

chain, as well as the socio-demographic data and historiographic references, I argue that

the position taking by trash pickers is organized upon a history of precarious inclusion;

what is more, transience at work and solidarity ties regarding subsistence in the field

combine with scarce interest to environmental causes.

Key words: Trash pickers; Position taking; Participation; Environmental field; Recycling

of solid waste.

The production and consumption model we have generated and the signs of

exhaustion in has presented for the past decades, have fostered reflections about the

sustainability conditions in our socioeconomic system. This is a context in which both

practices and disputes regarding the preservation of the environment have been established

in actions conducted by a plethora of agents, which include social movements, companies,

and public administrators, amongst others. Consequently, Lopes (2006) characterizes the

“environmentalization1” of the social conflicts.

I prefer to maintain “environmentalization” in accordance with Lopes (2006). Even if this may be

considered an inexistent word in the ordinary vocabulary, this coined expression denotes in a very specific

way the phenomenon of interpenetration between social conflicts and environmental themes, which is the

So far, the amount of waste periodically disposed of has become the target for

work of an ever-growing group of people, denominated in Brazil as “trash pickers 2.” They

make a living out of picking, selecting and commercializing recycling materials and, in

accordance with my own observations, participate in the public administration of waste by

constituting a sort of precarious inclusion which, generally, is not propagated in the

discourses of valorization of the social structures of recycling.

In this article, aiming at inquiring the relationships built in the social practice of

recycling, I seek “to understand how the trash pickers constitute their position taking in the

productive chain of recycling and in their interaction with the environmental field 3.” It is

my opinion that this is a possible way of explicating the contradictions of this field: social

space translated by discourses supposedly positive — regarding recycling for example—,

but charged with power relations and social-exploitation practices hardly ever discussed4.

In order to do that, I present a brief historic account of the ‘environmental field’

articulated to appropriation of the term ‘recycling’ in Brazil, and, afterwards, narrate the

activities developed by the acting agents in this productive chain, signaling the tasks which

are typical of trash pickers, of the representatives of the public apparatus, and of the

intermediaries in the commercialization of recycling materials. After that, the focus of this

ultimate context of the research depicted in this article.

In Brazil, such denomination corresponds to the political option of the “Movimento Nacional de Catadores

de Materiais Recicláveis” (MNRC, National Movement of Trash Pickers). Henceforth, in this article, the

expression “trash pickers” is used to refer to them.

The notion of “environmental field” as used in this article was developed by Carvalho (2002) via the

appropriation of Bourdieu’s (2007) “social field”. Appropriate explanations are given throughout the text.
The analyses presented here are the result of a research conducted between 2009 and 2010, as requested by

the Education Ministry of Brazil, which intended to characterize the socio-educational profile of the trash-

picking population who partake associations, cooperatives, and informal groupings. Such initiative also

responded to the demands of the MNRC (see footnote 1).

article is directed to the characterization of the workers in recycling units by analyzing

their familiar, gender and educational conditions, aiming at dealing with data related to

their social position and then about the way the trash pickers articulate with the power

structures of their field in order to promote inferences about the interaction agent-field.

However, before starting the analyses mentioned above, the references adopted in

this context will be detailed. Also, the description of the empiric corpus will be rendered,

as follows.

1. References and starting points

By focusing on the agents’ development5 (including social demographic

conditions and current social practices), my intention is to achieve an understanding of

how they have established relationships which also integrate the environmental field.

In this process, I perceive two conditions which are important for this analysis.

Firstly, the agents, upon narrating, revisit the links established between past and present,

making an inventory of interactive/conflictive relations which are built along their

development, highlighting, thus, the social relationships in which their life conduction is

circumscribed, rendering an analysis of their field of practice and illusion. And, secondly,

such narrative manifests a (re)construction of the historical and cultural development of a

certain group regarding the processes which constitute the modus operandi of a specific

social context.

In this sense, I consider that the production of narratives about practices intends to

reveal, in an approximation to Bourdieu’s (2007) contributions, a certain ‘“enchanted”

Regarding this research, “development” designates the entire pathway taken by a subject or a group

throughout their lives, focusing on the movement in time and space, on the changes of social position, and on

the relevant experiences and knowledge produced along the way. In Brazilian Portuguese, the common

expression is “trajetória.”

relation with a game that is the product of an ontological complicity relation between the

mental structures and the objective structures of the social space’ (p. 139-40), which we

may call illusio6. Bourdieu (2007) defines the field and the positions which constitute it as


It is possible to describe the social field as a multidimensional space

of positions so much so that any of the current positions may be
defined in relation to a multidimensional system of coordinates whose
values correspond to the values of the different pertinent variables.
The agents, then, are distributed in this field the following way: in the
first dimension, in accordance with the global amount of capital which
they possess and, in the second dimension, in accordance with the
composition of their capital — i.e., in accordance with the relative
value of the different types in the set of their possessions (p. 135).

According to my understand of it, Bourdieu (1999; 2007) establishes the basis for

a perspective that evinces the interdependence between our education7 and the objective

conditions which surround us, so that we may conceive the trash pickers’ narratives beyond

the perspective of a personal account as a source able of conveying the collective and

social characterizations, including structures of power. Upon acting, the agent would

manifest his relation with the social field, his associations, contradictions and conflicts,


there is not a position in the system of production and of circulation of

symbolic goods — and generally, in the social structure — which is
not related to a certain kind of position taking and which does not
The translation of the consulted texts in Portuguese into English is responsibility of the author of this article.

By “education” I try and mean the processes concerning the agents’ learning in different social spaces and

integrated to both formal and non-formal socializing initiatives throughout their development. In this sense,

“education” is distinct and extrapolates the practices produced in schools and institutions and based on

academic knowledge.

exclude a whole repertoire of taking positions abstractly possible
(Bourdieu, 1999, p. 160)

The position taking represents, thus, the positions occupied and constituted by the

agents, among solidarity ties and disputes in the field, in accordance with capitals that

comprise it and with the power relationships that constitute it.

Therefore, through the contrast among the trash pickers’ narrative and between

them and my own reading of reality, as an investigator interested in the understanding and

change of the productive chain of recycling, we sought to identify the social conditions of

collective and social production of the participation of workers in the recycling units in the

environmental field. In the next section, I explain the methodological arguments for such a


1.1 On the constitution of the empiric corpus and the analysis of such data

This research was conducted in the population of trash pickers organized in

associations or work groups in units located in ten cities in the south of Brazil, distributed

in distinct estate sub-regions, each with different economic-productive activities and

socioeconomic growth levels. The groups were selected in accordance with criteria of

physical and operational structure of its facilities, political affiliation, communital relations

and geographical distribution in the city.

In the beginning, the research included a survey for the collection of socio-

demographic data, interviews on the development of the trash pickers’ work and life, and

information on the management and working conditions in the cooperatives which were

consulted, along with contact with representatives of the public administration and of non-

governmental organizations (NGO) which helped the associations.

At the end of this step, we added the sociodemographic data of 200 trash pickers

and the information on the working conditions of 30 recycling units distributed in 11 cities

of Southern Brazil. What is more, a total of 100 qualitative interviews about the

development of trash pickers, public administrators and NGO representatives — more than

35 hours of recording — who act in the field of environmental preservation.

The data, already tabulated, were considered in relation to the references regarding

the topics environmentalization, environmental field, recycling practices in different

Brazilian cities, and socioeconomic constitution of Southern Brazil.

The readings taken, especially those regarding the contributions of Carvalho (2002)

on the formation of the environmental field in Brazil, have helped in the identification of

the agents and capitals which build the social space under analysis: mainly public

administrators, environmentalist organizations and movements, and supranational

organisms that focus basically on the production of symbolic capital regarding ‘nature’

valorization. With the contribution of the contrast among the interviews with different

agents, it was possible to evince the details of the most recurrent disputes, “agreements”

and interests at play, by emphasizing in the sketch of such field the practices regarding

recycling and by evincing how the trash pickers integrate and share the environmental


So we started the third stage. The research has continued in an association of Porto

Alegre/Brazil, where we produced individual and collective narratives from photos about

the quotidian. The images were produced by five trash pickers in three essays and totaled

more than 400 pictures. Thus, we have contrasted interpretations on the recycling work,

claims to improve living conditions and participation possibilities for these workers.

In the scheme presented below (figure 1) the agents and capitals constituent and intervineint in the

environmental field are represented.

By collecting information about the sociodemographic conditions of the trash

pickers — income, schooling, leisure activities, dwelling place and conditions, familiar

origin and organization, etc. — I tried to scatch a space of practice and objective conditions

in contrast with those of public administrators and of NGO representatives. Upon

following the itineraries evinced in the interviews — geographic migrations, labor

activities, socializing and leisure activities, etc. —, I sought to visualize which were the

disputes and interests built in the developments of the current recycling workers, to

identify the dispositions established in the relations of this collective, and finally to

configure the habitus from which capitals and illusio are articulated by trash pickers in the

environmental field. By seizing Bourdieu’s (2010) words, I tried to understand:

[…] the domain of the existence conditions and of the social

mechanisms whose effects are exercised over the setting of the

category in which they take part — that of students, workers,

magistrates, etc — and the domain of the constraints inseparably

psychological and social associated to their particular position and

development in the social space (Bordieu 2010: 700).

According to what is summarized below, the characterization of “position taking”

included: the succinct reconstruction of the environmental field, specifically in what is

related to the recycling practices — constituent agents, capitals e and social disputes and in

a historic process —; the recovery of the production processes of the trash pickers’ habitus

— socioeconomic factors, work and school experiences and current life conditions —; and

the characterization of their action strategies in the present of the field — as a result of the

conditions and contexts presented before9.

It is worth mentioning that a report with the results of the research was delivered to the Brazilian Education

Ministry aiming for the government agents and for the representatives of the National Movement of Solid

2. The formation of recycling production chains: in order to begin an account from

the environmetal field

Since the 1960s and 1970s, due to the emergence and the consolidation of

ecological movements and the consequent extension of the debates on the limits of the

model of capitalist development, the management of waste has undergone reformulations

in Brazil. This moment is defined as “ecologization” of the policies of urban cleaning

(Oliveira, 1995). The extension — and, in some cases, even the change — of focus of such

policies happened as they started to direct not only the promotion and maintenance of

public health, but also the protection to nature. In other words, “the trash started being

viewed as the cause of environmental pollution, demanding thus the control of the effect

caused by it over the environment” (Oliveira, 1995, p. 56).

The 1970s were the period for the creation and consolidations of state regulation

agencies in Brazil and of deliberative supranational organizations aiming at ecological

themes, as well as it was the decade of the construction of the environmentalist movements

and organizations, which, according to Carvalho (2002), developed in consonance with the

proposals of the counterculture initiated as early as the end of the 1960s.

In this period in Brazil, the practices of the environmentalist movements were still

punctual and localized, and the incorporation of the theme in the government activities

happened amongst the pressure posed by international organizations. However, such a

context fostered the entrance of environmentalist agents in the state apparatus, which made

it become one of the power structures able to effect the dissemination of the setting of

issues and interests regarding the “environment.” Such process lasts at least until the

beginning of the 1990s, when it grants a more effective constitution to the state

Trash Pickers (Movimento Nacional de Catadores de Resíduos Sólidos - MNRC) there inserted, to use such

information. There has been no reply so far.

organizations which are concerned with preservation themes and a more explicit

acknowledgement of the “environment” as a theme for discussion by the general


As far as I can understand, talking about “environmental field" is not possible

until the 1990s: it is a space for practices and disputes which aim at the production and

reproduction of “nature” as an asset which should be preserved, or rather, an entity

invested with the right to exist and to have a dialogic interaction with human survival

(Carvalho, 2002). Therefore, the agents that constitute it propose a guiding ethics — of

universalizing intentions — regarding the “society-environment” relations, which

integrates the dispute for symbolic capitals regarding the organization/regulation of

patterns of production and consumption when they establishe nature as an object of social


Henceforth, the production in the environmental field is modernized into a

romantic-ecological ethos — built along with the practices of intellectualized urban middle

classes10 —, which argues against what is understood as “utilitarism,” “consumption,” and

“predatory progress,” and the mobilization of individual behavior is used as a strategy.

Hardly does such ethos find room amongst the practices of religion-affiliate institutions —

such as assistance and/or militant associations —, so that, at least in the beginning, the

capitals of this space contributed to a certain “sacralization” of nature.

The production of the environmental field and the symbolic capital it engenders

would then happen first in the practice of environmentalists organized in associations and

NGOs and later as the participation of state bodies and supranational organizations, also

constituted by committed environmentalists.

Both Carvalho’s (2002) ideas and the interviews with the public administrators and NGO representatives

suggest that the environmentalist causes originate and modernize amongst agents of usually higher schooling,

generally undergraduation, who have access to a comprehensive cultural capital.

Later on, academic professionals — at first biology professionals associated with

the environmental illusio — began to partake the disputes with more emphasis by

articulating the cultural capitals at their disposal in order to determine the environmental

issues and norms, highlighting the promotion of environmental education in schools and


By the end of 1990s, companies which aimed to enjoy the symbolic capital from

the environmental field started to associate their practices with ecologically responsible

activities, usually under the label “corporative social responsibility.” Thus, they tried to

amplify the bases of their symbolic capital aiming to convert it in economic capital. That is

why the field underwent an explicit conflict: the economic field established practices for

the ratification of patterns of production and consumption criticized by those concerned

with the symbolic environmental capital.

Nowadays, there are groups of supranational organisms, state bodies for

environmental regulation and preservation at the local, state and federal levels, a number of

national and international environmentalist organizations, institutions for research and

teaching, and companies and associations that make use of environmentalist themes —

trade unions, political parties, media corps, etc. If the social practices concerning recycling

are evinced, we can integrate trash pickers, the MNRC and the intermediaries, whose

practices still seem too connected with the working practice and with the production of

economic capital, as will become evident below.

However, the recycling of solid waste, in spite of being an aim since at least the

1970s, became a public proposal for the solution of environmental and social problems in

Brazil only in the beginning of the 1990s. Presented since then as a little productive

technique and, because of it, unfeasible in ample scale, the recycling of solid waste was

restricted to some pilot experiments (Oliveira, 1995) which, generally, tried to cope with

the growing contingent of people who lived on trash.

In some cases, the first associations started before the initiatives of the public

administration for the implementation of selective collection of waste. This would be the

case of the city of Porto Alegre, for example, whose municipal implementation started

officially in the 1990s, comprising what, in the beginning, was presented as “the

radicalization of the option for the poor” linked to initiatives from the religious field

(Martins, 2003). Therefore, such practices are converted in public policy, acquiring

visibility as a form of symbolic capital which ended up tensioning the relationship between

society and its waste.

Linked to the debates about the production and destination of trash, we have, in

this context, the belatedly emergence and consolidation of a productive chain organized

around recycling materials, but differently in every location. Even if we find occurrences in

the first half of the 1990s, the setting of associations and the juridical formalization of

cooperatives do not happen until the end of this decade and throughout the decade of 2000.

Consequently, the information retrieved from the interviews signal that the

associations were formed from the common condition of social vulnerability and from the

access to the waste as a means of living. Given such a situation, social movements for

supporting the collective organization and the demands for better working conditions

would be in vogue11, and the State would be moved to serve the trash pickers’ groups. In

this context, the public power starts to articulate the trash pickers’ work — named as

As examples, we have the supracited National Movement of the Recycling Material Pickers (Movimento

Nacional de Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis - MNRC) or the associations affiliated to religious sects,

whose practices include the political organization of vulneralized populations.

‘income-generating initiative’ — and the need for managing the amounts of waste

produced, especially, in the urban centers, as it is clear in the following personal account12,

[…] We started here in 1994 […] In the beginning it was hard in here,
there was no energy, no water, no nothing. There was no lift to load
the burdens, we had to load everything with our own arms, it took us a
month to do a cardboard load […] The trash used to be burned in the
past […] burned night and day […] and the smoke would go
downtown […] (Male trash picker, Dois Irmãos City).

The constitution of the recycling productive chain is formed by the entanglement

of different interests and capitals It is possible, then, to consider the partaking in ecological

and environmentalist movements and practices as the establishment and reassessment of

disputes and capitals related to the capitalist development which, associated to the public

problem of management of waste amounts

Global that we generate, determine the demand for
sustainable solutions for the society as a whole and, especially, for the public

administrators. The work of trash pickers and of associations (however organized

Research and Education
politically-wise) which, directed to survival, is articulated to act especially in the selection

and commercialization of recyclable waste, is integrated to this demand.

Social and environmentalist/
ecological Movements Media corps
In the diagram below, I try to schematize the distribution of power in the

environmental field. This scheme places the relative positions regarding both the economic
and the cultural capitals. These are the more effective
Environment andcomponents
Waste of capital for the
Public Administrators
environmental field: Companies
(corporative social
Political Parties
Religious associations and
Recycling Processing
Trade unions Companies
All the personal accounts transcribed and translated from Portuguese into English in this article are part of

the research mentioned in footnote 2. The author assumes entire responsibility for the translations. As a
Trash pickers and
matter of style, the accounts are kept in the informalrecycling
register inunits
their translations, as they are in the original.
Economic Capital +

+ Cultural Capital
Figure 1 – Representative Diagram of power distribution in the environmental Field.

Given this succinct description of the emergence of the environmental field and of

the public practices of recycling in a productive chain out of the generation of urban waste

in the South of Brazil, I can now explain how the current activities are distributed among

the social agents involved, focusing on the trash pickers.

2.1. The recycling chain and the trash pickers

In this section, I present the objective conditions under which the trash pickers

work by promoting the understanding of the parts of the environmental field summarized

above. As will be evinced, the capitals at play in the relationships under scope now tend to

the material survival, having a fragile adhesion to the environmental illusio.

The selective collection of waste in the consulted cities and towns is structured as

follows: 1) domiciliary and/or commercial collection of waste is made by the intervention

of the public apparatus, of private companies or of tertiarized hybrid ones, or by the trash

pickers (in agreement with the city administration); 2) the collected material is given to

recycling associations — in which, usually, the trash pickers are located —, which take the

first step regarding the treatment of solid urban residue — selection, pressing and

packaging, in accordance with the available equipment —, and then; 3) the cooperatives

commercialize the resulting work by usually selling it to intermediaries (called

‘atravessadores’ in Portuguese13), who are in charge of hoarding enough amounts to sell

them to the beneficiating industry. The waste of the selection process is sent to landfills or

to ‘trashers,’ along with the organic waste.

The bonds that the trash pickers built during labor interfere in the quality of their

work and in the income generated by the associations. However important industries,

social movements and NGO may be, the presence of the city administration outstands in

this process. The latter usually provides the place, the equipment and the materials for

recycling, whereas the formers offer equipment and improvement in the facilities, besides

technical and management assistance.

Among the bonds established in the beginning of the activities, the most talked

about by the subjects is the partaking in the city councils, a datum which is coherent with

their historical attributions regarding the destination of waste. Consequently, the

importance of municipality in the organization of the recycling productive chain, in the

hiring of trash pickers, and in the institutionalization of these workers’ action space, should

be given a face.
I suggest ‘traders’ for this word in English, since, literally, it would be translated as ‘crossers.’

Another important link in the maintenance of the productive chain is the

commercialization of the materials. As a rule, the associations do not have a monthly

necessary production for a direct sale to the industry, so the associations establish relatively

lasting agreements about the provisions with private intermediary companies, called

‘traders’, which buy and hoard enough material for such negotiation.

Such condition increases the exploitation of the trash pickers’ work by reducing

the prices of the materials they commercialize. The trash pickers, then, seem not to

consider, however, that the lack of articulation between the units is a significant problem: it

interferes in the possibilities of commercialization and negotiation, which could be solved

if they gathered their efforts toward promoting a change in their relation with the traders.

On the other hand, these commercial practices are not usually object of government

concern and intervention, whether because the associations avoid such participation or

because there is a supposed ‘non obligation’ of the government, even if it knows and, in

some cases, admits the traders’ interference.

The reality faced during the research signals, nevertheless, that the relations and

practices consolidated both in the contraction of plants and in the commercialization of

what they produce have established working conditions and income levels which are

unsatisfactory and insufficient, which, in most cases, contribute to the maintenance of the

social vulnerability spotted in this segment.

Having characterized the current space of practice above, I present the social

development of the trash-picking worker in the following section.

3. The trash pickers and the construction of their habitus

3.1 The constitution of the work contingent

Throughout the 20th century, the socioeconomic formation of the South Region of

Brazil changed its emphasis from the cattle-raising production onto the agricultural one,

and from this onto the industrial production. Besides, the regions of late colonization

(especially those which happened during the 19th century) presented considerable

diversification regarding the industrial production14. During this time, the processes of the

mechanization reached the agriculture — especially from the 1960s and 1970s —, with the

rising the soy production (Lagemann, 1998).

The mechanization of the farms made a considerable number of peoples’ jobs

available, and they started seeking for alternatives in the urban centers. To this process of

rural exodus, which happened differently in each sub-region, the processes of

mechanization and restructuring of production industries intensified in the 1990s are

associated, which increased the rate of structural unemployment and, it seems, reinforced

the informality of work links (Montali, 2000). Even if the employment rates have been

improving in Brazil for the past few years 15, with reference to the lives of those agents I

interviewed, their informal conditions of work have not been altered, which reveals that

their participation is built upon the maintenance of the precarious activities which integrate

and support the relations of the economic field in this region, which have as examples the

under-employment in bricklaying, in coffee plantations, and in trash picking.

Consequently, I propose the hypothesis that the constitution of the recycling

productive chain has benefitted from a historical relations of precarious inclusion which, in

accordance with the economical-productive peculiarities of each regions, has generated a

contingent of migrant workers with reduced economic and cultural capitals who search for

Examples of such regions are the cities of Porto Alegre and Caxias do Sul in the state of RioGrande do Sul,

and Joinville and Blumenau in Santa Catarina.

For further details, the reader is referred to the data produced by ‘Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e

Estatística’ (IBGE – Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), on the site

different means of making a living as ‘the doors are shut for them’ in the places where they

live and work16.

It is that the sales of fodder started going down and we came to live
here. Then we started working with bricklaying. Always “fighting”!
After that, it was the pig, yeah. We raised pigs, then we already got
paper, cans, we started like this. After that, they forbade the pigs; only
papers then […] (Female trash picker – Porto Alegre)
[…] I already have lots of CVs all around, but there are people who
have a lot of prejudice. So they pay too much attention to the person’s
appearance, if the place they live appears on the news and they don’t
like us then, so all this counts. And it’s difficult, really difficult. So it’s
just that it is really difficult for us to find a job then. (Male trash
picker – Londrina)

3.2. Developments at work and at recycling

The interviews with the trash pickers signal that the involvement with recycling 17

would be the culmination of experiences in informal jobs. The narrated developments

range from the informality of job to precarious working conditions to migration in search

for better life conditions. There are accounts of insertion in activities and spaces whose

requirements regarding education and/or qualification were not a parameter for job

selection and, in conformity with the socioeconomic formation of the state sub-regions that

were covered, which have been the setting for the formation of a contingent of people in

The income per capita for the families is around U$ 126,40 (R$ 227,50). In order to locate this datum

precisely, it is important to highlight that such research on the 2008-2009 home budgets, made by the IBGE,

informs that for the 40% with the lowest incomes in the population of the Southern region in Brazil the home

expanses per capita reaches up to around U$ 225,50 (R$ 406,00). It was considered a ration U$ 1,00 : R$

The trash pickers used the expression ‘recycling’ to define their job. That is why I use it here, even if their

activities are mainly selection, pressing and packaging.

precarious inclusion (Martins, 2002) who, several times, would follow the same paths

historically taken by their families.

[…] Listen, I was born in Minas Gerais, there the biggest city is
Portiguara, but my documents are from Campestre, a small town. So
we came here, to Itaúna farm, in 1947, I was 3. So I stayed there till I
was 11, when I went to a small farm to work on a plantation […]
(Male trash picker – Londrina)
[…] I started working in the farm as a farm worker with my uncle, I
was ten and worked already. That’s how I learned about life […] I was
19 when I came [to Porto Alegre] in 1970. So I started as a bricklayer,
in jobs by my brother –in-law. This way I started as an assistant
because I didn’t know the job […] (Male trash picker – Porto Alegre)

In accordance with the personal accounts, the elements that contributed to the

choice for recycling by the agents were (1) the relative proximity of their houses to the

association facilities; (2) the flexibility of working relationships — working hours and time

off, amongst others —, which allows them to look after their children and family; and (3)

the presence of friends and family in this activity, fostering the subjects’ insertion, whether

it individually or collectively via the associations. Furthermore, the very fact that the

recycling work does not require prerequisites such as specific age, education 18, health

conditions, ‘good appearance,’ fixed address, amongst others, is also relevant19.

Besides, the analysis of the accounts signals some variations that intervene in the

choice for the continuity of recycling and shows us the hypothesis that it is necessary to

Regarding schooling, it is possible to say that, amongst the interviewees, 85% has not finished elementary

school (all the 9 years), out of which 43% has not finished the first 4 years.
It is important to highlight that the trash pickers, in most cases, dwell in places built in irregular territorial

occupations, with three or four rooms for families with 5 to 6 members average. The urban areas where they

live have restricted provisions of sanitation service, water or electricity. About 80% of the people interviewed

were bread-winner women aged below 35.

consider them conjointly, as follows: (1) current income and working conditions; (2)

projections related to age group; (3) expectations related to the amount of time spent on

recycling — in which the identification with work and colleagues would be found —; (4)

perspectives envisaged in the production chain of the region; and (5) symbolic recognition

of recycling. All this seems to configure the probabilities intuited by the trash pickers

regarding their working conditions and development.

The trash pickers, in the meantime, integrate the environmental fiels for survival.

Guided to capitals constituted in the practical work for survival and with a certain amount

of symbolic legitimating violence due to their precarious existence conditions, the

intentions that move them seem to concentrate, on the one hand in the practices for familiar

financial maintenance, showing their abilities for the administrations and, optimization of

minimal resources. On the other hand, they move around the valuing emphasis of the

familiar nuclei, with focus on the recurrent affective testimonials about their relatives, from

whom they would supposedly find stable support and would concentrate their sociability

due to the constrained cultural assets typical of impoverished places.20.

Therefore, the same scarcity of economic and cultural capitals that were

experimented by previous generations is reproduced in the recycling practice. Such

precarious composition of power, associated with the stigmatization of a service regarded

as the treatment of social residue, signals a habitus which is constituted by transiency and

constantly seeks for new practices that guarantee more economic capital at the expense of

The trash pickers mention that the most accessed cultural assets are those they find in their own homes or

those restricted to their neighborhoods in the preripheral city aresas. The most common ones would be:

watching TV; going to bars, balls or chat groups in the streets; watch football matches which, in the absence

of proper places, are held in the neighborhood streets.

possible interest in symbolic environmental capitals, which is less acknowledged,

becoming, as a result, invisible.

Once the life conditions and entrance into the productive chain and in the

environmental field by the workers in the recycling units have been dealt with, the

accounts regarding the position taking can be analyzed, especially with regards to the

strategies and solidarity ties established by the trash pickers in the social space.

4. On position taking and participation

In the outline of the recycling productive chains, strategies developed by the trash

pickers in the context that they face need to be observed. Thus, the constitution of their

participation and subsistence in the social relations cannot be dismissed.

Regarding and in addition to the socioeconomic and power relations mentioned

above, I can cite, as an example, the solidarity ties established between the recycling

associations and the traders: the exclusiveness of supply and compensatory assured

payment; or, even, loans and advanced payments which the traders grant to the trash

pickers, who, acting under unstable, adverse conditions, find immediate support in those

who explore them.

[…] He [her husband] was a trash picker before, and he could improve
his life; he was buying from some ten, fifteen groups. Now, he has the
documentation. So we suggested selling our cardboard to him […]
(Female trash picker – Londrina)
[…] We sell to Porto Seguro [a trader], to ASCALIXO [an
association]. ASCALIXO pays a bit more, but they’ve bankrupted,
and they are just coming back […] (Association manager – Rio

Consequently, I have observed that the places occupied by the agents have flexible

delimitations, which, often, makes the ‘bounds’ that we could imagine regarding the roles
the people involved play end up being diffuse. There are cases in which the trash picker

associations would work as traders; there are workers who, after being trash pickers,

became traders of associations in which their relatives worked — what is more, they

supported such facilities by possibly offering transfer to some of its members.

Henceforth, the social practices that configure this productive chain extrapolate

the stiff delimitation of roles and, furthermore, cooperate in the maintenance of constituted

relations — at more or less intense levels of exploitation. It is my understanding that, upon

naturalizing and legitimizing such activities in the development of their daily strategies, the

trash pickers also build a configuration of the recycling productive chain and of part of the

environmental field: as it seems, it is not a matter of economic and material concern alone,

but of social nets of survival and coexistence maintenance.

My hypothesis is that during their development, a certain amount of transience is

appropriate for the agents and it alters from a mark or condition to a constituent part of a

habitus. It is, thus, from this viewpoint that the subjects seem to build their position taking

in relation to the world in general and particularly in relation to recycling as a paid activity

and as an access to a specific social universe, the environmental field.

We should consider, then, the connections and the development from the

following point of view of environmental field (Carvalho, 2002): social space and

symbolic universe delimited by a “heterogeneous group of doers and diversity of practices,

beliefs and values […] whose common axis refers to the valorization of nature and of the

environment as assets” (p. 16).

Therefore, upon conceiving their jobs as provisory and circumstantial, these

subjects establish position takings based in the interaction (in disagreement) with

precariousness and by prioritizing subsistence. Thus, working as a trash picker eventually

becomes a condition devoid of the usual discourse which promotes recycling. During our

dialogs, the trash pickers expressed the supposed value of their activity as a service done to

the environment, but also expressed a feeling of undervalue of their work in their desire for

a different job.

Besides, these workers rarely associated the production of the symbolic capital of

the environmental field — in which recycling is inserted — to the exploitation net in which

their own work activities were included and from which we could inquire the

contradictions of the production of the capitalist relations.

Final remarks: the field from the trash pickers’ practice

The recycling work, in most cases, is an option for making a living. The need of

survival, the augment of income, the improvement in life quality, and the desire for being

inserted in the consume market also constitute the interest for these agents, establishing

congruent position takings which also structure the forces at play which sustain the

recycling productive chain. The appropriation of the environmental capital, thus, represents

more of a discursive strategy in the situation of an asymmetric relation — whose outcome

is unexpected — than the evidence of a spontaneous option for the ‘environment.’

Consequently, whenever they waste a more effective compromise, whenever they

appropriate the environmental capital only with respect to the benefits they may gain in

return, they rewrite the field by imprinting upon it their own marks. Regarding recycling,

for example, these marks are the manifestation of difficulties for the productive chain to

develop due to the lack of accumulated knowledge: the constant transience of agents and

the evasion of knowledge condemn the cooperative to a never-ending resume.

This, probably, explains the prevalence of the fragilized participation of trash

pickers in the power spaces of the field, where public administrators, entrepreneurs,

educational and research institutions, and environmentalist organizations prevail. The

difficulty for the formation of leaderships, also a consequence of the constant rotation

observed in the associations, limits the possibilities of deepening the debates and of

significant reformulation not only of the working dynamics, but also of the agents


Without a huge investment of resources in the facilities and equipment, as well as

without the regulation of the market and of the recycling productive chain, it is difficult to

alter the current state of affairs regarding the exploitation of the trash pickers, which is the

reason of the desertion of these workers. This means, therefore, the urgent

acknowledgement of the socio-politic stance regarding the permanence of these workers in

the sector, preventing the privatization/tertiarization of services which are essential to the

public life in the cities.

The trash pickers face the need for the increase in the amount of waste in order to

increase their income, whose amount is controlled by a network of intermediaries via price

regulation. Therefore, the augment of the income of a population historically used to access

residually the material and symbolic resources generated by the system is conditioned by

the work production as well as the production of wast in the cities, in spite of all their

contribution to maintain it. In face of such conditions, the advertized sustainability neglects

both the socio-cultural conditions of its realization and, in the meantime, the relational

environment in which the productive chain and, especially, the trash pickers’ practice

happens day by day.

This is, therefore, an option for breaking a historical cycle of precarious inclusion

of a population who, seeing that their place is being threatened, will probably try to

migrate to another activity, very much likely to be informal and precarious. Giving a face

to the trash pickers’ current life and working conditions and to the contradictions between

the production of this social position and the symbolic valorization of an essential public

service like recycling, is just the first step in order to amplify the symbolic power of the

trash pickers.


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