waste watching in são paulo

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In front of the Museo do Afrobrasil in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo, there is a five tier coloured recycling receptacle with a choice of glass (green), paper (blue), metals (yellow), plastics (red), and organics (brown) bins. The letters of some of the labels have peeled off due to age or wear leaving users to their own imagination, or the guidance of the drawings that are part of the label. The glass receptacle reads ‘o’, for example instead of ‘vidro’.

5 bin waste option in front of the Museu do Afrobrasil in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo. Options: (l to r) Glass, Paper, Metal, Plastics and Organics. Credit: A.Bentz
5 bin waste option in front of the Museu do Afrobrasil in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo. Options: (l to r) Glass, Paper, Metal, Plastics and Organics. Credit: A.Bentz

At 12.45 pm on a Friday holiday when I first walk by the bins and peek inside, all have materials that belong in other receptacles. There are plastic bottles in the glass receptacle; plastic wrappers in the paper; and an aseptic container with a plastic bag around it in the organics. The plastics receptacle is completely full but all the others are half empty. While I look, an older gentleman in a green Ministry of the Environment uniform comes by and picks up the metals and then walks away. I wonder what the rationale behind this is- perhaps he is going to sell them to a recycler? Metals, and aluminium especially, enjoys a very high recycling rate in Brazil, as I would discover later. I notice also that there is high plastic ice-cream wrappers and wooden stick traffic and that these two items prove challenging to waste disposers. Consequently, they find their way into each of the receptacles in turn. I leave after fifteen minutes and plan to come back later in the day.

At 4 pm I make my way back to the receptacle. There is a lot of human traffic towards the park exit on the side of the museum as people make their way home after a day in the park. I find a place to stand close to the museum door and opposite the bins and continue to watch. A child stops by not long after I take up my position and reads each of the labels in turn before deciding where to put his ice-cream leftovers. A middle-aged man walks past and puts both ice-cream stick and wrapper into paper. A teenage boy following behind does the same and I wonder whether it was because he saw the man before him do so. Many of the people with ice-cream wrappers throw them into the various receptacles and walk into the museum, possibly because food and drinks are not allowed into the museum. Two women stop to finish their sodas and dispose of their cans into the metals bin before walking into the museum, making me think that my theory is correct.

A large group of what appears to be tourists stops in front of the museum. I expect they will dispose of many things as often happens after a bus trip, but they all walk into the museum without disposing of anything. A young man walking in the grassy lot behind the receptacles with some friends on their way out quickly shoves a plastic bag into the first available receptacle he turned into without stopping to read the labels- he is obviously in a hurry to leave. It happened to be the glass receptacle.

A woman walks by on her way out and stops with a plastic bottle in hand. She, unlike the young man, scrutinises each label then puts the plastic bottle into the glass receptacle. Did the picture of the bottles confuse her? Perhaps seeing the plastics bin was full, she thought the bottle could go in either bin. A young girl walking past with her friends makes a valiant effort to get a plastic bag to fit in the already overfull plastics bin though. Soon after, however, a lady in a blue uniform with the words ‘interativa service’ (interactive service) emblazoned on the back takes out the plastics and puts in a new liner. I wonder how long it will last before it is full, and what the difference between her and the other ministry officials in green is. Before she walks away with the plastics in hand a group of three young men walk past and I notice reusable plastic and metallic water bottles in their rucksacks. I begin to think whether the smallness of the ‘plastics’ bin affects whether people buy plastic water bottles or not.

A few minutes later a boy and a girl who look younger than ten stop in front of the 5 bins and proceed to have a discussion about what item goes where and what each label means. If nothing else, I suppose the colours of the bins must attract children. While I am absorbed in thinking about how children learn what to do with waste items and how beneficial it would be if they were taught early, another young boy walks by with his father. He asks the father what to do with the ice-cream stick in his hand and is told to put it into the metals receptacle. Apparently early lessons can go both ways.

As I begin to think about leaving around 5 pm, a young man seemingly in his twenties stops to put two bottles that were in his hands into the plastics bin. He then proceeds to unzip his bag and take out a third plastic bottle which also goes into the plastics receptacle. While I wonder about why he carried the bottles with him all the way to this receptacle I am suitably impressed. I leave my vantage position and walk towards the bin to pick up a green plastic bottle lying on the ground behind the bins. I put it into the now emptier plastics bin and walk out to find my own way home from the park.

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