Why is Rio so dirty?

Carnival, last year

Carnival, last year

RioRealblogTV début

Why is Rio so dirty? almost every visitor asks, even those who love the place, people who end up staying.

This question set RioReal blog in search of both answers and trash, for the three-minute pilot of what we hope to be an ongoing series of RioRealblogTV videos. Please watch, share, and tell us what you think, both about trash in the city and the short video itself. Soon, we’ll be looking for funding.

What we found

One thing we found was not as much trash as there used to be. The campaign begun last year, Lixo Zero (Zero Trash), with its fines, has had an impact. In areas where the inspectors have been active — downtown and some South Zone neighborhoods — trash collection has gone down as much as 58%!

Trash is still one of the biggest complaints among residents of favelas, where the geography often hinders collection.

We also heard about the Brazilian mentality (which appears to be changing, albeit slowly) regarding the disposal of trash in the street. This blogger is old enough to recall the first Earth Day in the United States in 1970 — a day spent along with other teens, picking up bagsful of trash around the trolley tracks in suburban Newton, Massachusetts.

Forty-odd years later, it’s shocking in Rio for visitors (and locals) to note the general lack of concern about paper and plastic left lying around. Along the Ipanema waterfront, for example, kiosk administrators abandon even their own customer territories to the city garbage men, the orange-suited garis.

But then, we love those garis, don’t we? Rio’s famous dancing, smiling gari, Renato “Sorriso” Luiz Feliciano Lourenço, must be smiling because he loves to pick up after us, right?

That’s not what Landenberg Benedito da Silva, a gari we interviewed, said. And the garbage men, who claim they’re underpaid, aren’t all smiling, either. Some of them are on strike, during Carnival, of all times!

Aside from a lack of concern for the environment, Brazilians may also have a fragile sense of responsibility for public space. This is, after all, a nation where many politicians often think of public assets as belonging to them and their clans, rather than to everyone. And the government has been known to simply grab what we thought was private property, like when the Collor government sequestered bank account holdings, in 1990. So why, when we have extra work protecting our own stuff, should we bother with anything beyond the sidewalk out front?

Angels may exist

One might fine you, the other pick up your trash

And yet, some people do bother. Such as Alexandre Fernando da Fonseca, who bikes to the beach every weekday, to pick up trash. Allan Ribeiro presides over a Carnival bloco, Eu Amo a Lapa, that does its best, amid the fun, to encourage safety and cleanliness.

Whether the litter is overwhelming or not, there’s a central figure in the trash story of this city: the trashpicker, who gets ten cents an aluminum can. You’ll find one of those angels at the very end of our video.

Our fabulous video team: Jimmy Chalk, Gabriel Michaels de Carvalho and Kate Steiker-Ginzburg

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Why is Rio so dirty?

  1. Gerry Eigen says:

    Julia, I enjoyed your video and certainly would enjoy it more in English. It is definitely an improvement for the blog.

  2. Rio real says:

    Thanks Gerry! Did you see the subtitles?

  3. Siri Chateaubriand says:

    Great video, Julia and team. I loved the interview with the gari. Parabens!

  4. PTRio says:

    Have you hugged a Gari lately? They are truly the unsung hero’s of this City. Great video, well done and to the point. I have a list of movies/documentaries about Rio which I recommend to friends and family who are thinking about visiting. One is Lixo Extraordinário, the Vik Muniz documentary. I recently saw that the full video is available on YouTube. WelI worth watching.

    I live close to a Zona Sul favela, there are eight trash cans lined up on the sidewalk, and trash is picked up usually three times per day. Broken trash cans are replaced as needed, but when the trash is picked up all the cans are always full and an amount equal to what the cans hold has usually been left on the street and sidewalk and which inevitably ends up becoming a total, bad smelling, mess. Hello? Is there any thought process which might allow for providing enough trash cans to meet the demand? There is ample room to double the number of cans. They don’t disappear, nobody seems to steal any of them, but there are never enough to hold all the trash left there. It takes the Gari’s significantly more time to sweep and scoop up the trash left outside the provided cans, probably double the time needed to empty the full ones. To me, that exemplifies one important aspect of the how and why of this trash issue.

    The comment in the video about how people never say they are going to commit a robbery so the police will have work but throw trash on the street saying provides work for the Gari’s is so very true and I have heard it said many, many times. Throwing trash on the street is an act of disrespect, not generosity or philanthropy. Do these same people throw trash on the floor of their kitchen to give their maid more work? Perhaps some do, but if I were that maid I would walk out.

  5. Rio real says:

    Thanks for this comment. I have noticed a multiplication of trash cans but, like the porta-potties, they never seem to be enough!

  6. Andrew Carman says:

    Thanks for the post. My theory is (and I was just talking about this at Favelissues) that it’s a question of the social contract. I think people don’t mind being one among many to screw things up. I mean, they don’t “mind” in the sense of not being consciously mindful. I think the first person may be acting in a more overtly inconsiderate way and the graph slopes down from there. I think most cultural phenomena follow a similar curve: from intentional act to less intentional act to unconscious habit. It’s a good thing to think about, since this issue is a microcosm for better or worse, for so much of our habits in the western world, maybe just as people. We become creatures of our habits and our culture is a creature of our aggregated habits.

  7. Elizabeth Leeds says:

    Couldn’t find the video link.

  8. Rio real says:

    Liz, it’s embedded in the post, above. But for some reason WordPress doesn’t embed for subscribers!! At any rate, here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-XicdjFKRA. And for those who don’t speak Portuguese (not your case, I know), click on the “captions” icon, under the screen, for English subtitles.

  9. geoffz says:

    I live in a small city but there is a general city ordinance that prohibits ALL plastic containers from being sold in ALL markets and store establishments. Many many ‘chain’ stores have started this trend and as a result, people are being their own cloth containers to put their purchases. The stores also sell these recycled containers as well. Just a thought.

    • Rio real says:

      Geoff, how wonderful that would be, here! A few years ago the city imposed a regulation against plastic bags in supermarkets. But.. somehow.. it never went into effect.

  10. Perhaps a mascot featured in a long lasting anti littering series would help. Giveh eh Hootchi, dontchi pohlutchi. Cool vid btw.

  11. Great video, I just subscribed to your Youtube channel and I’m looking forward to the next video.

    Is all trash recycled in Brazil? Plastic cups and bottles, too? And do trash-collectors receive money for plastics?

    I’m shocked people dump their rubbish on the beach. At outdoor festivals it’s a little easier to understand, as you’re often packed in and garbage-cans are usually over-flowing, plus there’s a conscious-calming justification that festival-promoters will ensure the areas get cleaned up after the event.

    But leaving garbage on the beach seems pretty callous…

    • Rio real says:

      Thanks so much for watching, subscribing and commenting! Next video coming up in about ten days. No, not all trash is recycled. Informal trash collectors are the central figures, and they focus on aluminum cans as they bring in more $. I participated in a recent debate on trash and was surprised to discover that the best solution is not recycling, according to a Comlurb executive, but having packaging purveyors buy back plastic, glass and paper from consumers. Up to sometime in the 1990s, Brazilians did have to turn in glass bottles to buy new soft drinks, water and beer.

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