How likely is it that a passer-by in the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, would know the price of recycled PET resin? Not very, perhaps, but considerably more probable than most people would assume. Around 55% of PET packaging is recycled in Brazil, compared to around 24% for plastic packaging in general. In a city of more than 12 million inhabitants, there are anywhere between 2,000 and 30,000 ‘catadores’, informal recycling workers that collect plastic, carboard, aluminium, and other waste from the city streets.
The numbers vary widely because the vast majority of the workers aren’t registered. However, the Brazilian newspaper A Folha de Sao Paulo put its estimate at 2,100 while a survey from Cataki, an app that connects catadores with waste producers, calculated this to be closer to 30,000 workers. The National Movement of Catadores of Recycled Materials (MNCR, from the Portuguese) estimates that there are around 800,000 active catadores in Brazil, with women making up 70% of the category. Overall, catadores are responsible for collecting around 90% of everything that is recycled in Brazil.
Much like the rest of the world, the increased offer of cheap virgin materials from Asia has led to a drop in demand and price of recycled polymers in Brazil. According to the Interministerial Committee for the Socioeconomic Inclusion of Waste Pickers and Collectors of Reusable and Recyclable Materials (CIISC), the inflow of plastic waste into Brazil rose by 7.2% between 2019 and 2022, while resin prices have dropped an average of 28% over the last 12 months.
According to data collected by Sustainable Plastics, during the first two weeks of August, European polymer prices for rPET clear flake prices fell by €100/tonne, clear food-grade pellet prices were down by €90/tonne and coloured flake prices fell by €40/tonne.
Dwindling demand for rPET resin is impacting recyclers in Brazil and the catadores are amongst the first to feel the impact. At the end of August, national broadcaster Globo aired an interview with catadores from the streets of Sao Paulo, who shared they were shocked at the unprecedented drop in prices.
In an attempt both to slow the fall in prices and to shore up the national recycling industry, on 1 August the Brazilian Chamber of Foreign Trade (Camex) raised the import tax on waste plastic, paper, and glass to 18%. Until this August, these products had been exempt from import taxes, and plastic waste was taxed at 11.2%.
In a statement, the Ministry of Development, Industry, Trade and Services (MDIC) said that the measure was intended to strengthen national solid waste recycling and reduce the impact of waste in the environment. It also said the measure was expected to benefit the catadores, because the increase in import tariffs would make the collection of recycled materials more profitable again.