The carts that garbage pickers wheel down the streets of Sao Paulo often look as if they came from the Museum of Funky Art. Colorful cartoon faces — with bulging eyes, flared nostrils and thick lips — peer from the sides of the metal and wooden carts.
Then there are the messages spray-painted in Portuguese: “My cart doesn’t pollute.” Or: “If corrupted politicians were recyclable, they would be worth less than cardboard.”
The carts are the work of Mundano, a 28-year-old Brazilian street artist who started a movement called Pimp My Carroca back in 2012. The movement borrows its name from MTV’s hit show Pimp My Ride. But instead of fixing up old cars, he and fellow artists in Brazil repair trash carts, or carrocas, and then customize them with eye-popping art. Mundano himself has made over more than 200 trash carts since 2007.
That’s his way of thanking the roughly 1 million waste scavengers in Brazil for recycling the country’s garbage. In a TED Talk in October, Mundano called them “invisible superheroes.”
Brazil generates more than 200,000 tons of trash a day. About two-thirds gets dumped into open landfills. Only about a third gets recycled — mainly by waste scavengers, according to the Brazilian recycling organization CEMPRE.
Catadores — as they’re called in Brazil — collect and sell recyclable materials that others throw out: cardboard, scrap metal, soda bottles. And they can haul away more than 50,000 tons of recyclable waste each day.
“I can’t imagine Sao Paulo without their work,” Mundano tells Goats and Soda. “Here, we don’t have a good [trash] system from the city hall so Sao Paulo would be much more dirty.”
Yet it’s a thankless job, in Brazil and around the globe. Most of the world’s 15 million waste scavengers operate with no help from businesses or the government. In many countries, like Mexico, scavenging is illegal, says Martin Medina, author of World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production.
“Once people put their waste on the curbside, it’s considered to belong to the city,” Medina says. A scavenger can be arrested or forced to pay a fine or bribe.
By contrast, Brazil’s federal government actually hires some groups of scavengers. But local authorities are slow — sometimes even unwilling — to embrace the catadores, Medina says. They often fail to see that these trash pickers not only clean up the city but can save the country billions of dollars by recycling materials that would otherwise be thrown away.
Without data on the benefits of catadores, he says, local leaders aren’t likely to change their minds.
That’s why street artist Mundano is aiming at the hearts and minds of residents. Many of them consider waste pickers to be nuisances. “People don’t see them, almost as if they are invisible,” he says. “[The communities] don’t look at these people; they don’t say ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you.'”
With spray cans in hand, Mundano set out to change that attitude, starting with his own city. “When the carrocas are new and colorful, with funny messages, people started to interact,” he says. “One day they are completely invisible and the next day people are like, ‘Whoa! Nice cart, can I take a picture?'”
He hopes the next step is for residents to ask the waste pickers to stop by and collect recyclable materials from their homes.
What started as a one-man project soon turned into the Pimp My Carroca movement. Twice a year, dozens of volunteers in Brazil donate their time and money to catadores passing by. Mechanics and artists renovate the raggedy trash carts. Eye doctors, psychologists and massage therapists tend to the pickers. Veterinarians examine their dogs. The catadores are also given safety gear: bright shirts so they’re more visible at night, mirrors to see oncoming traffic, gloves, raincoats and glasses.
Mundano is more than happy to continue painting — even if it can be hard for him to catch a break. “I’m always in trouble [now that] they’ve found me,” he says. “They’ll ask me, ‘Oh paint it again! I want this message now.'”
But he’s happy to keep on pimping their carts.