For decades, an informal recycling cooperative in Brazil has collected tons of recyclable material, which it sells back to heavy industry each day for reuse. The system, however, is plagued by inefficiencies: routes are haphazard, coordination is weak, and knowledge is easily lost when individuals leave the cooperatives.
Brazil is now trying to turn this army of informal recyclers into a crack recycling operation capable of collecting and selling a city’s recyclables without central coordination. Researchers at the University of São Paulo have teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to optimize recycling routes, schedule waste pickups, and transform an overlooked sector of the economy into the next investment opportunity. To do it, they are attaching tracking sensors to carts and trucks, analyzing the data, building dispatching and scheduling applications for the web, and then mapping it all to city grids.
The project, known as Forage Tracking, does not deploy revolutionary software, or sensors. It is just a clever application of existing technology to solve social challenges.
"We are using real-time technology to make waste management more participatory and effective," says Dietmar Offenhuber, a researcher at the MIT’s SENSEable City Lab in the Brazilian publication Institute Science Today. "The idea is to help the informal recycler cooperatives with cheap technologies to document their knowledge and improve their operations."
Ultimately, the program will enlist private corporations, government agencies, and thousands of informal workers in a single and (potentially) efficient waste collection system. In the future, Brazilians should be able to schedule waste pickups on their smartphones. Those pickups wouldn’t be made by the city, but by informal workers.
But it’s also looking like a sign of things to come. Economic growth in the developing world, if it will lead to more than just slightly less stratified inequality, needs to lift up the poor and middle class, as well as the rich. That requires more than corporations and the state, argues Robert Neuwirth in his new book Stealth of Nations. It demands cooperation between the formal sector and the innovative but informal economy of the street (as we reported on earlier this year).
Brazil—by bringing recycling cooperatives into its solid waste system through Forage Tracker and new laws—is taking a small step in that direction.