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Cultivating Climate Justice: Brazilian Workers Leading the Charge toward Zero Waste

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

The streets of Belo Horizonte were filled with singing, dancing, chanting, and marching. It was not a holiday or an election day or a soccer game. The chant was: "We don't want incineration! Recycle! Recycle!" 



It was September 19, 2014, and this was the launch of a national Zero Waste Alliance, Brazil style. Exuberant, celebratory, and led by recycling workers.

The recycling workers of Brazil have long been a powerful force in protecting their communities and the climate. Now they are on the forefront of a nation-wide movement for zero waste.

Zero Waste: A Just Alternative to Pollution

To those hearing about it for the first time, "zero waste" may sound unrealistic. But in fact, zero waste alliances are forming all over the world and making great strides toward building a new kind of economy that is good for people and the planet. Zero waste encompasses the full lifecycle of our stuff, starting with reduced extraction and responsible product design, and ending with all materials being reused, recycled, or composted.

The current practice of burning or dumping waste is a major contributor to climate change. Pound for pound, burning waste is even worse for the climate than the dirty practice of burning coal. It also releases cancer-causing toxins and other air pollutants. The potential benefits of zero waste for the climate and clean air are enormous.

But at its best, zero waste is about much more than reducing pollution and greenhouse gases.

Whereas incineration and waste dumping frequently violate the principles of environmental justice, zero waste has great potential to improve the lives of people that feel the greatest impacts of our "dig, burn, dump" economy.

This is particularly true when zero waste systems are designed with worker rights at the center, as in the case of Brazil, where recycling workers are at the forefront of the zero waste alliance. And in Brazil, where the workers collaborate closely with local non-governmental organizations like Instituto Polis, the labor-environmentalist alliance is fundamental.

So how did the workers of Brazil get involved in a zero waste alliance? They started by getting organized.    

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