Follow the bottle: PET recycling economy and waste picker empowerment in Brazil
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/11/2021
Mello Pereira Da Silva, Tatianna
This thesis seeks to understand and problematise waste pickers’ underprivileged socioeconomic condition in Brazil from the perspective of their active participation in the recycling economy. It uses a Cultural Political Economy informed analytical toolkit that includes a political-economic, a semiotic, a material and a spatio-temporal dimension to examine how the recycling economy is configured in Brazil. Premised on the adverse incorporation of waste pickers into the economy, it further asks how and in what ways their participation may take place on unfavourable terms. Academic literature concerned with waste pickers’ empowerment, especially in the Brazilian context, typically advocates for their organisation around collectives and the subsequent formalisation of their work by local authorities as providers of waste management services. Implicit in that literature is the assumption that informality is the root cause of their vulnerable socioeconomic condition and, hence, that empowering them entails expanding the reach of our current market-oriented development model, incorporating them into the so-called formal economy. Critiquing the formalisation and cooperatisation approach, this thesis rejects the dichotomous view of the economy (formal-informal) upon which the prevailing literature is based. The Global Production Network approach, with its focus on the social processes that underpin the global economy, provides the methodological schema used to navigate the complex interconnections of places, scales, actors and processes that constitute the PET recycling economy. The investigation unfolds using ‘follow-the-thing’ as a research technique. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are the thing selected to follow. My 7-month-long fieldwork journey started at Lixão da Estrutural, located in Brasília, which used to be one of the biggest dumpsites in Latin America and progressed until the point where PET bottles were repurposed into a new product, ready to re-enter the consumer market. To move along the recycling network, I used a snowball referral technique and a mixture of interviews and participant observation with waste pickers, brokers, wholesalers and recyclers, as well as with representatives of a sectoral association and of governmental bodies. The ultimate aim of this thesis is to denaturalise and re-politicise the prevailing academic approach to the study of the causes of waste pickers’ poverty exposing some of the mechanisms in operation to constrain their power, their capacity to capture value, and the extent of their embeddedness in the recycling economy. In so doing, it hopes to contribute to opening up new forms of actions previously unthought-of for the promotion of waste pickers’ empowerment.