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Curitiba: An Environmental Showcase

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Last Fall, Urban Ecology Professor Stephen A. Goldsmith, Director of the Center For the Living City, led a group of University of Utah students on an urban innovation study tour to Curitiba, Brazil. I went along as visiting faculty and we shall be returning this October. The following is the first of what will be a series of reports on our observations.

Walk any of the streets in Curitiba, a city of 3 million in Brazil south of Sao Paulo, and you will likely see an extraordinary site. A two-wheeled cart with handles in the front pulled by a man or woman. At about 6 foot long and 4 foot wide, this individually crafted carrying vehicle resembles an oversized shopping cart. Simple in design but remarkably so adaptable that loads of cardboard 10 to 12 feet high can be seen well balanced and stable as the operator pulls it silently through the often cobblestone streets.

The operator is undoubtedly poor but rather than dependent on sheer charity, this hard worker is one of approximately 10,000 Curitibanos who collect trash, deposit it at a recycling center and obtain fresh food and bus tickets in exchange. For every 4 pounds of recycling garbage they deliver, they get a pound of fruits, vegetable and eggs, and for every 2 liters of used oil and plastic bottles turned in, 1 kilogram of the same fresh foods are exchanged. In these carts, only cardboard is carried but people collect by other means glass, metal, paper, plastic, used oils and contaminated material for recycling as well.

This is only one aspect of a broad, far reaching program that keeps approximately 10,000 people gainfully employed. Throughout the city, as well, one notices men in bright orange uniforms diligently sweeping streets, sidewalks and city parks, clocking an average of a little more than a mile a day. When you witness the care that goes into sweeping away even the tiniest of cigarette butts, you understand that diligent is clearly the appropriate word.

About 2,000 public and private employees, known as "garis," are responsible for sweeping, collecting and transporting garbage and operating the landfill. Of those, 600 are street sweepers and 550 are trash collectors. That keeps a lot of people employed. Each day, 1,460 tons of garbage is collected by street sweepers and trucks alone. The theory is that the cleaner the city is, the more residents will take care of it and do their part. From the looks of the city, the theory seems to work, although like so many cities the graffiti problem is huge.

The trash collectors and street sweepers are only part of a much broader official city mindset that reflects both a huge culture of recycling and progressive environmental policies. School children, for example, bring plastic to school for recycling and get back at Christmas time toys made of recycled plastic. No better way can be devised to involve kids in the culture of recycling at an early age. The kids, in turn, educate the parents. All public and private schools are required to separate the garbage. The environmental mindset can be seen across the board, even in shopping malls. Fast food eateries serve on real plates with real silverware. Styrofoam is a rarity. Stores and museum shops sell products made from recycled goods. The thinking is pervasive.

Go to the UVR (Unidade de Valorizacao de Residuos) recycling plant and look down from a second-floor passageway and you would think you had stepped back into the time of a mass production manufacturing plant. In a way, you have. Two hundred and thirty people are employed over two shifts sorting trash for a monthly wage of $385 that is the local minimum. They stand in groups, masks over their noses and dressed in protective clothing, tossing objects plucked for a moving assembly belt. Green bottles in one barrel, clear in another. Milk cartons here, yogurt containers there. Toothpaste tubes in another. It is an amazing operation to watch.

A buzzer is heard for lunch break where workers are served a fresh meal in the company cafeteria. A little park is seen on the grounds and an adjacent shed has a pool table for the employees' use.

An estimated 70 percent of Curitiba's garbage is recycled. Thirty to forty percent of that garbage, approximately 900 pounds a month, is deposited here. Garbage trucks deliver three times a week. There are four other government facilities like this one and 13 private ones elsewhere in the city, all of which process the other 60 percent of the city's recycled trash. There are 23 sites around the city, including nine bus terminals, where individuals bring their collections.

Separated materials are sold to industries. Glass becomes glass again, metal is used for screws and nails, paper into paper goods, used oils go into cleaning products. Sixty kilos of paper saves one tree. Profit, after operating costs, is used to buy wheelchairs and other products needed by the handicapped or elderly.

In the UVR front office is a remarkable display of products made from recycled materials by some of the people who work for the non-profit organization that runs the factory, Instituto Pro-Cidadania de Curitiba. It is a small sampling of possibilities. An insulation material is made of recycled cement, sand, Styrofoam and glass bottles that both maintains a steady temperature but has acoustical values as well. Chairs are made out of green quart-size bottles slipped into each other and juice boxes filled with newspapers to give strength and body. A roof tile made of former toothpaste containers is reportedly more durable than cement tiles and comes with a five-year warranty. A handbag crocheted out of aluminum can flip tops, curtains made from VHS tape, picture frames and decorative wall moldings made from Styrofoam -- the possibilities seem endless.

Curitibanos talked about recycling as far back as the end of World War II. Nothing was really done about it until the farsighted mayor Jaime Lerner came to office in 1972. He served three terms as mayor and two as governor of Parana. Known internationally for developing Curitiba's innovative mass transit system, which will be dealt with in a separate article, Lerner also introduced a pervasive environmental mindset that has remained a part of the culture long after his tenure. The recycling program is only one component of his across the board strategies of dealing with urban problems, such as low-income housing, parks, mass transit and environmental challenges which subsequent articles will cover.

The recycling program implementation was as innovative as the idea itself. Nicolai Kluppel, Lerner's assistant whose came up with the idea, essentially built the separating, compressing and weighing system himself on land the city used to house the homeless. He used elements from donated or discarded machinery, set up a conveyor belt and all the attachments and three months after the program started, 70 percent of Curitiba families were separating trash. When he first suggested the idea to Mayor Lerner, the response was "go do it but there is no budget for it."

The Green Exchange Program, Cambio Verde, began in 1989 for much the same reason that other innovative urban strategies evolved -- out of necessity. Curitiba went from a population in the 1940s of 150,000 to one million in the 1980s. The rapid growth gave rise to the infamous favellas, common in big cities in developing cities around the globe. People built helter skelter out of cardboard, plywood and brick along riverbanks and hills, all very close together on undeveloped land. Garbage collection was impossible. Random dumping created great social, economic and health problems.

"It was difficult to collect the garbage," Lerner recalled in an interview in New York City last spring. "Trucks couldn't maneuver the narrow streets, steep hills and deep valleys. People were dumping trash into rivers and fields. Kids were playing in garbage that was piling up. We started with a simple idea. The city would buy bagged and separated garbage brought to the closest place a truck could get to. The citizens were paid with bus tokens at first. In three to four months, the neighborhoods were all clean. It was a win/win solution."

What is so significant about the multitude of Lerner's mostly simple solutions to urban challenges is that the solutions always start small and build, are invariably low cost and are widely embraced by Curitibanos. From the start, the recycling program was labeled "Garbage That Is Not Garbage."

From paying for garbage with bus tokens, the program evolved into adding fresh food, books, football and show tickets. The program is flexible enough to adjust in varying ways.

Lerner is a short rotund man with a contagious enthusiasm and energy. He has won every kind of international environmental award, including the UN Environmental Award. "We can't have landfills forever and we can't ask others to accept our trash," Lerner says. "Garbage removal is a citizen responsibility. I was looking at our collection system and just realized it had to be a curbside pick up system and we went from there. Many cities make things complicated that shouldn't be complicated.

"You have to keep things simple and just start working. There are too many complexity sellers in life. Things are usually less complex than experts make them appear. Experts don't observe closely how a city works," he adds with a slight tone of exasperation. "Planners want all the answers ahead of time, a known trajectory of how things will proceed and work out. Innovation is starting something and seeing where it goes, leaving plenty of room for correction. It is about simplicity, not complexity."

This novel garbage collection system had an unanticipated bonus. After the trash recycling program was up and running, it was discovered that at least one deadly mosquito-born disease was eliminated by 99 percent.

By now, the spin-off benefits are endless, including the reduced number of garbage trucks the city needs to purchase and maintain, a benefit one would not immediately think of. Most extraordinary, 100 percent of Curitiba homes separate and recycle. The children who were included when these programs began are now adults, and families just automatically do it.
The same simple approach was applied to cleaning up garbage-filled lakes and bays when Lerner was governor of Parana. Environmental clean up of any kind can be very expensive. A neighboring region took out a $800 million loan from the World Bank. Lerner applied the "trash is not trash" approach instead, this time using fishermen. "We made an agreement with them," Lerner explains. "If a fisherman catches a fish, it belongs to him. If he catches garbage, we bought it from him. If the day was not good for fishing, the fishermen went for garbage. The more garbage they caught, the cleaner the bays became and the more fish they would have." Yet another win/win, low-cost solution.

This may be only one aspect of the many interconnected programs. As other aspects are explored in upcoming articles, it will be clear that an environmental ethic pervades the culture. Justifiably, Curitiba is considered the most environmentally friendly city.

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