Plas­tic waste chokes life out of river, but lo­cal com­mu­nity is fight­ing back

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Re­cife di­ary San­dra Lav­ille

Maria das Gra­cas started col­lect­ing her plas­tic bot­tles af­ter she saw the body of her neigh­bour float­ing past her house, car­ried along with the pol­lu­tion that helped cause the deadly floods.

She stores them by the front door of her one-storey home, which sits on the lit­ter-strewn banks of the Te­jipió river in north-east Brazil.

When she has enough she will take them to the lo­cal stor­age skip, where a lit­ter col­lec­tor will pay her two re­als (60 cents) for 50 plas­tic bot­tles. She’s not just do­ing it for the money. She’s do­ing it to stop the tide of plas­tic drown­ing this com­mu­nity.

Ev­ery day Maria and other res­i­dents of Co­queiral, a poor neigh­bour­hood in the city of Re­cife, feel the im­pact of the world’s plas­tic binge. It is vis­i­ble in the wa­ters of the river that once flowed freely through the area.

Fifty years ago when Rildo Wan­dray was a boy, he would jump into the Te­jipió and swim, while his friends fished be­side him. To­day the river is stag­nant, ob­structed at ev­ery trib­u­tary by a tide of plas­tic waste; Coca-Cola and Fanta bot­tles, wa­ter con­tain­ers, crisp pack­ets and wrap­pers.

Glob­ally, some 2 bil­lion peo­ple live in com­mu­ni­ties with no rub­bish col­lec­tions. While in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion has fo­cused re­cently on the marine plas­tic lit­ter cri­sis, the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of plas­tic waste on the world’s poor­est is no less de­struc­tive, caus­ing flood­ing, dis­ease and hun­dreds of thou­sands of pre­ma­ture deaths from toxic fumes caused by the burn­ing of waste.

In Re­cife the plas­tic waste is ex­ac­er­bat­ing al­ready dev­as­tat­ing flood­ing from ris­ing sea lev­els caused by cli­mate change. And those liv­ing around the Te­jipió have grown tired of wait­ing for the gov­ern­ment to act.

For Das Gra­cas, the tip­ping point came when flood­ing took the life of one of her neigh­bours. “I was trapped in­side my home with my son,” she said.

“There was noth­ing we could do, the wa­ter came up and we could not get out. I looked out and saw a body float past. She was face down, I could see the hair. That night the flood nearly took me too. Ever since then I have col­lected my bot­tles, I wanted to try and do some­thing to re­duce the waste go­ing into the river.”

Or­gan­ised and sup­ported by the lo­cal bap­tist church through its project In­sti­tuto Sol­i­dare, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are mo­bil­is­ing: street protests, pub­lic meet­ings, aware­ness cam­paigns. They are also try­ing to build a net­work of en­trepreneurs who can make a liv­ing out of col­lect­ing the waste, and turn­ing it into prod­ucts they can sell.

The Re­cife cam­paign is sup­ported by Tear­fund, the in­ter­na­tional NGO that is lob­by­ing for global de­vel­op­ment fund­ing for waste projects to be in­creased from 0.3% to 3%: a move that would push waste higher up the in­ter­na­tional agenda, re­duce global plas­tic lit­ter­ing, help cut marine lit­ter and im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment and the lives of the world’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble.

In Re­cife, Evan­dro Alves, who leads In­sti­tuto Sol­i­dare, says the world’s poor­est are suf­fer­ing the most from the plas­tic waste cri­sis.

“The sit­u­a­tion here in this com­mu­nity, where life is al­ready in­cred­i­bly hard, has been get­ting worse,” he said. “We are see­ing more and more plas­tic be­ing used and thrown away, and it stops here in their com­mu­nity. So we de­cided to mo­bilise.”

Young peo­ple in Re­cife are at the fore­front of the cam­paign, elic­it­ing sup­port and mo­bil­is­ing on so­cial me­dia. In one di­rect ac­tion, pupils whose school is on the river­side, re­moved some of the waste from the Te­jipió: a sofa, plas­tic bot­tles, a TV, ta­bles, plas­tic chairs and built a house on the banks which they called Casa Lixo (House of Trash). An­other post saw chil­dren hold­ing a fash­ion show from clothes cre­ated out of plas­tic bags and cups.

Some women are in­volved in an en­ter­prise mak­ing hand­bags, jew­ellery and toys out of the plas­tic and other waste col­lected from their com­mu­ni­ties. It pro­vides them with em­ploy­ment and a small in­come.

Carol San­tos, who lives on the banks of the river with her three chil­dren, un­der­stands the need to take per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for the waste she cre­ates. But she also be­lieves her com­mu­nity has been aban­doned by the state and that large multi­na­tion­als like Coca-Cola could do more to clear up the pol­lu­tion their prod­ucts cre­ate.

“The com­pany could help to col­lect the waste and sup­port the com­mu­nity to re­cy­cle it, but it doesn’t. We don’t see them,” she said.

Her home is flooded sev­eral times a year. “When the rains come the flood de­stroys ev­ery­thing. It is a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion – at least nine times a year I lose ev­ery­thing, my chil­dren get sick from di­ar­rhoea when it floods, it’s aw­ful for them. We live here be­cause we have nowhere else to go.”

Moisés Lopes/Tear­fund

Lit­ter cri­sis … the trash-filled Te­jipió river in Brazil; be­low, flow­ers made from the plas­tic

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