Thiago Mundano created Pimp My Carroça, a movement that uses graffiti, art, and viral social media to give visibility and dignity to garbage collectors in Brazil, who are important but marginalized recycling agents. His initiative is already producing legal in cultural changes in how these workers are treated, and gives people a platform to be part of the change through replicable events.
The New Idea
Despite the fact that the waste pickers contribute a large public service by collecting 90% of the waste that is effectively recycled in Brazil, they are not acknowledged or compensated. Instead, they are in a precarious situation, without a formal job and living off of the materials they collect on the streets and in the trash. To address this, Thiago Mundano created Pimp my Carroça (carroça is the cart used for the waste picking), a movement that aims to bring visibility to the waste pickers using art and popular participation, and with it give value and dignity to their work.
Pimp my Carroça consists of a one-day event where every autonomous waste collector can participate and receive free consultations in health, psychology, and aesthetics. Meanwhile, their carts get structural improvements, basic security items, as well as their own makeover, or “pimping,” by graffiti artists who turn the carts into mobile art pieces. The artists paint catchphrases and images on the carroças to boost the collector’s self-esteem and improve the carts, which are not only their source of income but sometimes their only possession. The bold designs also give more visibility to the waste collectors and increase their interaction with other people, literally putting a face with their work and even reducing prejudices against waste pickers, a marginalized community. The project invades the streets in a creative and fun way, rethinking the occupation of public spaces and stimulating society to reflect on consumption and waste habits. The event also promotes graffiti as a tool for social messages, while stimulating social work, cooperation, and collaboration.
To increase the impact of his project and to spread the idea across the country and the world, Mundano developed a strategy for sharing his social innovation: Pimpex. Inspired by TEDx, Pimpex is an independent version of Pimp my Carroça which allows anyone in Brazil to open a crowdfunding campaign and raise money to create an event to "pimp" carts and to offer diverse services to garbage collectors. Thiago created a support kit to help citizens organize the Pimpex event, including booklets and all the necessary materials. Thiago envisions recycling becoming a dignified and valued job, and he is now working on influencing public policy to help pave the way. In São Paulo, he is in dialogue with City Hall to allow collectors to use the city’s newly created cycle paths, which would give greater security to pickers who are currently being expelled from these paths by the police and forced to move around unsafely in the middle of cars. In two years of work, Pimp my Carroça has already painted more than 250 carts in 11 cities in 7 states in Brazil – with an international edition in Lima, Peru - thanks to the financial support of more than 1315 sponsors and the mobilization of more than 780 volunteers.
Although waste pickers collect around 90% of what is effectively recycled in Brazil, they are not recognized or paid for this work. The collectors’ work conditions are dangerous: they use bags and carts pulled by humans or animals, often in heavy vehicle traffic, and they are subjected to health risks from handling trash. They are socially marginalized, in an invisible and unsavory job; most people are unaware of the waste pickers’ contribution to both recycling and overall cleanliness of cities. Approximately 390,000 Brazilians declare themselves to be waste collectors; however, this is a conservative estimate as many others do not report their waste collecting, either because it is not their only source of income or due to the prejudice and negative stereotypes of the occupation.
Many cities do not have an official policy to separate and dispose of trash, thus their environmentally correct disposal relies solely on the work of waste collectors. Nevertheless, the collectors are not supported with the infrastructure to do so. In São Paulo, there are 16,000 waste picking carts. Yet while buses, taxis, and bicycles all have designated paths, waste picking carts share the streets with the cars, which tend to not show respect for their space, making the waste pickers’ commutes hazardous. In many cases, municipalities prohibit the circulation of carts on public roads entirely. In Sao Paulo, City Hall removes carts that are not properly parked, but there are no designated cart parking spots. This means that a waste picker’s only possession could be taken away from them at any time.
Primarily as a result of the National Solid Waste Policy enacted in 2010, some public policies have been created to include garbage collectors in municipal recycling systems. However, this only applies to garbage collectors organized in cooperatives and associations. The vast majority of collectors are autonomous, and hence rarely included in these policies. Furthermore, as the autonomous waste pickers work informally, they are subject to exploitation by small scrap dealers. Since cooperatives collect more waste, they can sell it for a higher price than autonomous waste collectors. In parallel, in Brazil millions are invested in public sanitation concession contracts, public-private partnerships, and investments made for the sake of environmental sustainability. These deals do not reach the collectors, however, and neither do companies consider these great recycling agents as part of possible reverse logistics programs.
The work of garbage collectors will exist as long as a country wastes materials with potential to be reused and recycled. Unemployment is another factor leading people to look for recyclable materials to sell. There are waste collectors in every country in the world, a number estimated to be 20 million people. Waste is an abundant raw material, so it is likely that this work will continue to exist, but it should be recognized a dignified occupation with safe working conditions.
Thiago Mundano created Pimp My Carroça to give voice and visibility to waste collectors, in order to transform the way they are seen by society and bring dignity to their work as environmental stewards.
Pimp My Carroça begins with a public event that brings together professionals and volunteers to assist garbage collectors, most of whom are homeless. The event takes place in the streets and has the format of a circuit, where the waste collectors progress through eight pit-stops. First, at the welcome tent, they register, get a reflective Pimp My Carroça t-shirt and a name tag to mark the stages as they go through the stops. In the “check-up” tent, a clinical practitioner sees them; in the “Eye pimp” tent, ophthalmologists check their vision and they receive a pair of glasses if needed; in the “auto body shop” tent, they can get a massage; in the “wig update” tent, beauticians offer haircuts; and finally, in the “balance” tent, a psychologist speaks with them.
Next, the waste pickers’ carts are “pimped up” (the name is an allusion to Pimp my Ride, a popular American TV show hosted by a rap artist that consists of taking cars in poor condition and restoring and customizing them). The carroças get a clean-up in the “car wash” tent; in the “metalsmith” tent, the wooden and metal structures are repaired and improved, the tires are changed and basic security items installed, such as horns, mirrors and reflective strips; in the “fuel” tent, artists and graffiti artists paint the carts, making them mobile works of art in the city and thereby making them visible. Besides the general painting, the collectors choose a message to be painted on their carts. Thiago has created a narrative for the garbage collectors that portrays them as "invisible superheroes" -- a complete shift in the way they are currently seen by society. Examples of the messages include: “my car does not pollute,” “recycling respect” or “a waste picker does more for the environment than an Environment Minister” (the latter got Thiago a meeting with the Environment Minister). The waste collectors’ phone numbers are also painted on the carts, enabling them to increase the amount of material they collect, and thereby their income. Finally, the collector also receives safety gear, such as reflective pants, a raincoat, and special gloves.
The last stage of the circuit is “Carroceata” (combination of “cart + “parade”), a mobile exhibit of the pimped carts. The carts are not pulled by the collectors, but instead by the volunteers, who are then able to experience the physical effort that the collectors undertake every day. In the first edition of the event, the parade ended in front of City Hall, where the Pimp Manifesto was read and given to the Mayor of São Paulo.
While many of the surface level changes occur during the event, the effects of Pimp My Carroça are longer lasting. With their carts now mobile pieces of art, self-expression, and advertising, the waste collectors report that they are more confident and even happier at work. Furthermore, the colorful carroças increase their visibility in the city in a fun and sometimes humorous way. With the carts as a conversation starter, more people interact with the waste pickers, contributing to their humanization and reducing prejudice towards the stigmatized group. In addition, the project plays with the use of public space. The art stimulates reflection on the themes of consumption and waste across all sectors of society, promotes the expression and engagement of graffiti in social causes, and encourages collaborative work. Additionally, the collectors that are registered and need medical follow-up receive follow-up from the Pimp my Carroça team. The volunteers involved with the collectors also often end up supporting them personally.
Thiago believes in citizen participation in social transformation. Thus, his initial activity was made possible through crowdfunding. Through this conscious engagement of others, Pimp My Carroça has become a movement involving hundreds. In order to engage even more, and to replicate the initiative beyond what he himself can do, Thiago developed a strategy for sharing his social innovation. He created an online crowdfunding channel of Pimp My Carroça so that anyone can produce a smaller edition of the project independently; this is called Pimpex (inspired by TEDx). The platform allows anyone to open a crowdfunding campaign and raise money to create an event to "pimp" at least one cart and offer services to waste collectors. A supporting Pimpex kit comes with all the required materials for the event. One year after Pimpex was created, 61 waste collectors in 11 cities of Brazil have participated.
The initiative has already become a reference for other projects with collectors of recyclable materials, and organizers are often sought out for interviews, academic projects, and other activities. In this way, the project is constantly evolving, adapting its activity for other contexts. Thiago also organized a “Pimp Our Ecopoint” event to revitalize this space and boost garbage collectors who frequent public disposal sites aimed at recyclable waste. Another, "Pimp My Cooperative,” not only revitalized the carts of cooperative garbage collectors, but also the cooperative itself, in order to make it a better workspace. Thiago is also developing an app where the waste pickers can register to be connected to people that want to recycle waste. Because he is aware that this is a global problem, Thiago plans to discover waste pickers around the world and collect their photos online through a hashtag and create a global consciousness of the issue through a global photo exhibition on waste pickers.
As the first goal of Pimp my Carroça is to bring visibility to waste pickers, the project has a strong emphasis on communication via social networks and in the media, inviting civil society to engage with the subject and reflect on the importance of garbage collectors both for cleaning and recycling in municipalities. Pimp’s Facebook page has over 19,000 followers. The initiative has generated spontaneous media, including the country’s main vehicles, and in this work with media, Thiago takes the time to point out the difference between recyclable materials and trash to change the way society sees this waste – as a raw material with economic value -- and those who work with it.
The Pimp My Carroça team model is one of self-management; decisions are made horizontally and everyone is motivated to contribute based on their abilities and the role they wish to have within the scope of each project. To this end, open virtual tools are used and shared at the management and production levels, ensuring greater participation outside the team of four staff to partners and volunteers. Although the team is small, the project has a large network of people involved who follow it and engage with opportunities as they arise.
Thiago envisions recycling work being valued, better paid and carried out with dignity across the world. Pimp My Carroça is involved in generating public policy changes, both short-term and long-term improvements related to the issue. Thiago and his team co-developed the Pimp Manifesto with garbage collectors in 2012; it has already been distributed to several significant politicians such as Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva, the current and former presidents of Brazil, and Fernando Haddad and Gilberto Kassab, the current and former mayors of São Paulo. While this is yet to generate concrete results, politicians are now aware of the vulnerable situation in which garbage collectors live and work, as well as the need to transform it. Thiago was invited to a meeting by the Minister of the Environment to present his project, where he showcased his famous cart phrase "a waste collector does more than an Environment Minister" and began to discuss policies for the social inclusion of garbage collectors to be implemented in Brazil. In São Paulo, Thiago is in dialogue with the City Hall to allow collectors to use the city’s newly created cycle paths, which would give greater security to workers who are currently being expelled from these paths by the police and forced to move around in the middle of the cars. Thanks to Thiago’s campaigning, cyclists themselves have welcomed this proposal and are in favor of sharing the paths with this group.
In the two years, it has been operating, Pimp My Carroça has painted more than 250 carts in 11 cities of 7 states and through an international edition in Lima, Peru, with the financial support of over 1315 donors and the mobilization of more than 780 volunteers and 230 artists. Today, there is a notable difference in recognition and interaction between garbage collectors and the general public and public institutions, mostly in the city of São Paulo. ‘Pimp’ is invited to discussion events and meetings with important movements to discuss the issue of the social inclusion of recyclable waste collectors. Advancements are seen in the education field as well. Teachers are starting to call waste pickers to talk about recycling in their classrooms, and schools are using Thiago’s materials and photos in their books. A university professor in Ceará held a Pimpex and improved the structure of the carts with the help of Engineering students. Schools are using Thiago’s materials and photos in their books. Society is now seeing more clearly how important the work of the garbage collectors is and interacting with them on the street, donating waste. The garbage collectors, in turn, are working more safely and feel more included in the city fabric of the city as they come to recognize and value their important role in it.
Thiago practiced karate from an early age, earning his black belt, which he says influenced his ethics and determination. After he stopped practicing karate, he realized that he needed a new outlet for his energy, so took up graffiti. This form of art granted Thiago a distinct perspective on the city, allowing him to get to know it from new angles, and took him to places where people do not usually go. He always chose messages and designs that would encourage people to reflect on their role in resolving social problems. Graffiti artists usually seek out the best places to showcase their distinct techniques, and use handwriting that is sometimes difficult to read. Thiago, on the other hand, sought to connect with the context and give voice to a social problem related to the place.
In 2007, São Paulo city council implemented the Clean City project, which included the removal of the city's graffiti, covering it with grey paint. Thiago began painting these grey walls, which would then be painted over the next day, writing messages for those who would remove his graffiti. When this graffiti started to have a major presence in social and other media networks, he realized that people were listening and that this could be a great communication tool to create dialogue about social problems. Known for his creativity and humor, a photo of one of his paintings was shared on Facebook 200,000 times in one day.
As both graffiti and waste picking are activities taking place in the street, Thiago had the idea of painting a garbage collector’s cart. Unlike the walls, the city could not erase the paint on the cart and it would travel around the city, further increasing the message’s exposure. He realized that this art also had a positive impact on garbage collectors: it increased the interaction of these workers with other people, reduced prejudice, and improved their self-esteem, making them more happy and confident in carrying out their activities. From this starting point, Thiago began to paint carts and would ask what the garbage collectors would like have written on their carts. Through interacting more and more with garbage collectors, he realized he needed to do more than paint; he also needed to bring safety and dignity to their work. This was how he decided to expand the range of services the collectors’ deserved, and also make his idea collective, through Pimp My Carroça. Thiago acknowledges that this is global problem, so he envisions his legacy to be a global one.