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Rag Pickers: Engineers for a Cradle-to-Cradle Future
Minar came to New Delhi more than 10 years ago with his family from a small village in rural India to find opportunity in the city. He is one of 3000 people in the Vivekanan Camp, one of 300 million, a quarter of India’s population living in poverty, each with a story. Minar and his family are commonly called "Rag Pickers," self-employed men and women that account for the 47 percent recovery rate for plastic produced in India. I met Minar last month when I first visited his camp to learn about the true life cycle of plastic.
I wanted to cast these men in a different light. Literally, I wanted to cast them, using plaster of paris. They are social entrepreneurs, earning no government pay for their work, doing a service for the whole of the country. Minar is a gold mine of information about what people throw away, what’s worth picking up and what gets washed down the Yamuna River. These three areas describe the plastic pollution problem: Individual beliefs and litter, Industry product design and defense, Government policy and waste management. Often one blames the other, leaving wasted time and resources to join the tangible waste piling up around the world.
I told Minar that I had taken a boat across the Yamuna River, which provides most of the drinking water for 18 million people in Delhi, and drains their waste as well. I spent an afternoon with Sunny Verma from the NGO “SWECHHA: We for Change” in a boat across the lower end of the river, where 80 percent of it is raw sewage, zero dissolved oxygen, and as Sunny put it, “This river is dead.” Putrid black anaerobic muck bubbles methane to the surface with every oar stroke. Before I could finish my description Minar interrupted me and said, "There are no plastic bottles there." I showed him a photo in my camera. “See, there are no plastic bottles. Nobody wants the rest of it.”
Minar is right. There are no bottles here. Plastic films, like plastic bags and food wrappers, pile against the bridge pilings. Minar explained that it takes 350 plastic bags to make 1 kg, whereas only 30 plastic bottles equals the same weight, of which he earns $.30.
"But what if the plastic bags were thicker?" I asked him.
"It depends how thick, then I might collect it," he responded, adding, “But if they are dirty, I must wash them, otherwise the wholesaler will not buy them from me. He’ll remember me and not buy any of my plastic.”
He must constantly weigh the cost/benefit of his work against time, monetary return, personal health, wear and tear on his bicycle, and the needs of his family. His father left long ago, leaving him to care for his mother, grandfather and siblings. “This life is not easy,” he says.
The products that he doesn't pick up are the ones that are not designed for recovery. If we held manufactures to a standard of recovery, by asking the rag-pickers and the recycle centers around the world "what is not recyclable by design," then make those products obsolete, plastic would begin to lose its place as a major polluter. You simply wouldn't see it, or need to bury or burn it. The production-consumption-recovery loop would begin to close.
The loop of plastic waste comes to a semi-closed loop in Mumbai in the Dharavi Slum, where plastic is collected, sorted, melted, pelletized and resold. Rakesh, a guide with Reality Tours, meets us at the bridge that goes over the train tracks and into the Dharavi slum community built on reclaimed landfill. With 540,000 people/km sq., Dharavi boasts of being the heart and industrial center of Mumbai, where $2/day labor beats any other market in the world. Mumbai is one of the major recipients of plastic waste from the U.S. and Europe, and Dharavi is where a poor and eager workforce doesn’t complain. Through a maze of narrow alleys and raw sewage channels, we enter the plastic smelting zone, but we smell it first.
Giant sacks, piled two stories high, are filled with everything plastic, from washing machine parts, to bottle caps and Barbie dolls. There are thousands of them. In damp and dark rooms, men and women squat on piles of mixed plastic and sort it all by hand into separate types. “It’s the feel and smell of it that makes them know what it is,” Rakesh explains. The ear-piercing crush of plastic into penny-size fragments happens in rooms where men stuff larger pieces into giant funnels with rotating blades attached to heavy flywheels.
We meander between sacks of sorted plastic to a place where the rooftop is billowing black smoke. My eyes and throat burn. “Here is where they melt it,” Rakesh explains, adding, “…and they sleep and eat here because the owner, who only comes into the slum once a month, likes the free security.” Inside the long dark room there’s one man on one end pouring shredded HDPE into a hopper, which is then melted inside what looks like a red-hot cannon. I pick up a broken piece that reads “York,” as in NY. On the other end of the cannon the melted plastic is extruded like spaghetti, cooled in a bath of water, and then chopped into tiny pellets.
This plastic may have come from food-grade plastic, but will not return to it, because toxins absorbed into the plastic is not removed in this process. This plastic gets another life as a lesser-quality plastic product, which keeps it out of the environment for now. Two men working here are shirtless, wearing sandals, covered with tiny bits of plastic and soot. Their lifespan here is 50-55. They are the ones that turn the plastic that waste pickers, like Minar in Delhi, collect for 15 Rupees/kg ($.30) into plastic worth 40 Rupees/kg ($.90) in exchange for $2/day minus 20 years of life.
I returned to the Vivenkanan Camp with my molding materials and plaster of paris, just as Minar pulls into camp with 4 giant bundles, the days catch of plastic bottles, strapped to his bicycle. I asked last week if I could cast him. My intention is to acknowledge his important role in society, and the dignity he deserves for his work, as the “Sanitation Engineer” of India. He agreed. I cast his hand first, so he would trust the process. Thirty children gathered around us. Justin Bastien took a dozen photographs of him and everyone, including Minar’s grandfather, who was squatting comfortably next to stuffed sacks of plastic bottles.
Thirty minutes later I had a plaster cast of Minar, his strong jawline, arched neck and closed eyes gave a powerful performance. His grandfather looked over and gave the cast a smile and a ‘thumbs-up.’ In time I will recast his image with some of the plastic he collected for me, so that my original intention will be served—to show that the people that pick up the waste of the world are the best qualified to tell us how to design a cradle-to-cradle future.
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By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
- Brazil's New President Could Spell Catastrophe for the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
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