Known as Unicata, the University of and for collectors of recyclable materials is an initiative that builds continuous and permanent training processes with recycling workers. Combining the exchange of everyday knowledge about collecting with important academic knowledge that qualifies the work, Unicata makes it possible to boost the appreciation and self-esteem of these workers.
Developed in the city of São Paulo, the Unicata pilot project took place during the first half of this year and was in partnership with the National Movement of Recyclable Material Collectors (MNCR), which made its headquarters available to hold meetings and classes.
According to Luzia Honorato, one of the coordinators, the initiative to train recycling workers is maintained through partnerships with universities, institutes and national and international popular organizations, in addition to donations and volunteer work.
“What you know, you teach us. What we know, we teach everyone. And in this dynamic we end up following Paulo Freire’s method, which is a popular method. I think the biggest challenge at this moment is to invent a wheel, because the University of Catadores is a new invention. And practically 99% of it is voluntary work, people who are not paid.”
“I think the biggest challenge at the moment is to invent a wheel, because the University of Catadores is a new invention”, argues Luzia Honorato / Unicata / MNCR
The students in the first class, who received certificates of completion of the first module of the course in a solemn event at the São Paulo City Council, took theoretical and practical classes in both in-person and remote formats. Another five modules are already being prepared to be carried out within the next year.
Maria Aparecida Rodrigues, known as Cida Preta, lives in the extreme south of São Paulo and has worked in waste collection for 31 years. Today, aged 69, she, who was unable to finish her formal studies, received a certificate of completion for the first module of the Unicata course and says she intends to take the next modules because the university has opened up other possibilities in her life.
“My desire has always been to give a lecture in places, to talk about the need to separate recyclable material, at home. And with Unicata it will be a step forward for me. With the certificates it will be easier so that I can continue walking. Then While I was at unicata I received the certificate one week and the next week I was called to give a talk to around 40, 50 children aged 11 to 14. So it was worth a lot for me.”
Cida, who was once a member of the Guardianship Council and the Health Management Council of the city of São Paulo, works with families in her neighborhood to raise awareness of the importance of recycling and separating waste. However, for her it is essential that collectors are recognized and valued, as well as other urban cleaning workers.
“Our recyclable material is already back on the market in just a month or so. So we’re already helping them, we’re already helping governments with raw materials. We’re already helping them a lot. So it’s only fair of them to make a value worthy for us collectors. Because we are the ones who work, who clean the city. We are the collectors. So they had to pay us to work like they pay the street cleaners, like they pay for selective collection. It’s nothing more fair for them to pay.”
For Cida, it is essential that waste collection workers are recognized and valued, as well as other categories of urban cleaning workers / Unicata / MNCR
Subjects of their own stories
In 2022, a survey carried out with recycling workers identified the main topics that should be explored in depth in the first course. Therefore, with an emphasis on the exchange of knowledge between educators and students, Unicata addresses topics that relate to the daily work of recycling, such as waste disposal, climate change, global warming, social inclusion, poverty reduction, development of a solidarity and circular economy and income generation. The technical knowledge that permeates recycling processes is also one of the focuses of the course.
According to data released by Ipea, the Institute for Applied Economic Research, Brazil has at least 800,000 workers who are responsible for the majority of material recycling processes. However, the lack of income and access to basic rights is a harsh reality for these people.
For Luzia, the Unicata initiative is important because, with the exchange of learning, it helps to empower individuals over their own life stories and acquired knowledge.
“I would say that the biggest objective is to raise the picker’s self-esteem to tell him that he can, he is capable and he can not only live with knowledge, but compete with knowledge, which is a very serious thing in Brazil. It’s I need the collector to be empowered, to take ownership of their wealth, wealth is not money, wealth is opening doors.”
Editing: Nicolau Soares