Solid Waste & Recycling


Waste Land

I recommend the documentary Waste Land to anyone interested in waste management or environment and poverty issues in the Third World.The film -- co-directed by Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, and photographed by Dudu Miranda -- revolves around...

I recommend the documentary Waste Land to anyone interested in waste management or environment and poverty issues in the Third World.

The film — co-directed by Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, and photographed by Dudu Miranda — revolves around a return visit to Brazil by artist Vik Muniz, a Sao Paulo native who now lives in New York. Muniz is famous for re-creations of well-known artworks using offbeat perishable materials, such as Mona Lisas made of peanut butter and jelly, a Last Supper made of chocolate syrup, and portraits of children on a plantation in St. Kitts made from white sugar on black paper.

Muniz travels to Jardim Gramacho — the world’s largest landfill, which receives 70 per cent of Rio de Janiero’s trash, to create artworks made from garbage. Muniz spends nearly three years interacting with the catadores, or trash pickers, photographing them and then turning their images into enormous works of art that commemorate their lives. Muniz comments that the catadores have become society’s human “garbage” — the bottom of a social hierarchy that Muniz seeks to overturn through his radical art.

Muniz enlarges the photographs of the catadores onto gigantic canvases laid on the floor of a nearby industrial space using a projector mounted on a high scaffold. The shadowy outlines of faces and bodies are then sketched, not with pencil or paint, but with actual garbage taken from the landfill. Under the direction of Muniz standing on the scaffold with a laser pointer, the catadores themselves execute the paintings using waste materials. When a colourful image made from bottle caps, shredded rubber, pop cans and other salvaged debris is complete, Muniz photographs it and then develops it into a gallery-size giclee color print.

The “art” is not simply the final framed series of works, which Muniz eventually shows around the world, but the process via which they were created, the documentary film, and ultimately the transformative power the project has on the lives of the catadores. Muniz donates money from the sale of the artwork to the catadores, lifting them out of poverty.

About 3,000 trash pickers worked at Jardim Gramacho when Muniz began his project, earning $20 to $25 per day — a decent wage by local standards, for those who can adapt to the stench and rough working conditions of the landfill. The film brilliantly depicts the day to day lives of the workers and their families, following them into their nearby favela (shantytown) dwellings.

We get a front row glimpse into the lives of a wide selection of catadores. There’s 18-year-old Suelem who has worked in the garbage since she was seven and is proud of the opportunity to support her two children (with a third on the way) away from the prostitution and drug trafficking that has consumed most of her peers.

At the other extreme of age Valter — the landfill’s elder statesmen and a recycling guru who delights in rhymes and morals. All the catadores repeat his mantra that “99 is not 100” — meaning that recycling just one item (a soft drink can, say) makes a difference.

Another notable is young Zumbi, the landfill’s resident intellectual, who has worked at Jardim Gramacho since the age of nine. Instead of recycling books for their paper, he keeps them and has started a community lending library in his shack. He’s on the Board of ACAMJG, the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho, led by founder and president Tiao. Inspired by political texts he found in the waste, Tiao convinces his co-workers that organizing could make a difference. He thinks of himself as an environmentalist and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes corrects a national talk-show host on live television, saying, “We are not pickers of garbage; we are pickers of recyclable materials.”

Tiao’s ACAMJG has built a recycling centre where scavenged materials are sold to middlemen, and a small medical centre for the workers, but his dream of better things is surpassed when he travels to London with Muniz. They bring along the artwork Muniz created from Tiao’s photograph — a copy of the famous 1793 painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. When it sells at auction for $50,000, Tiao cried uncontrollably. Thus begins the process via which all the catadores lives are uplifted.

Muniz, who grew up in poverty, is irrepressibly happy throughout the film, and expresses his amazement that “the educated elite really believe they’re better than other people.” His near mystical faith in the transformative power of art forever changes the lives of a small group of people, and perhaps, by extension, how we think of garbage itself, and the world’s poor who scavenge among it.

Waste Land was produced by Almega Projects and O2 Filmes, was released by Arthouse Films.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at

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