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In, Out or Beyond? Waste Pickers and Policy Networks: A Story from Jardim Gramacho (Rio de Janeiro)

Institute of Public Administration, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, Leiden University, 2501 EE The Hague, The Netherlands
Sustainability 2022, 14(24), 16977;
Received: 21 October 2022 / Revised: 6 December 2022 / Accepted: 9 December 2022 / Published: 18 December 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Community-Based Participatory Waste Management and Recycling)


As circularity is momentous, waste-picker communities all around the world are getting noticed. Brazil is at the forefront of waste-picker community inclusion, recognizing, by law, waste-pickers as professionals who must be part of waste management. This level of institutionalization is the result of a political struggle within the national waste policy network over more than twenty years. Understanding these political relations is key to recognising the role of waste-pickers and making the case for justice in the circularity discourse and practices. This research presents the result of an extended case study of over seven years duration conducted by the author on the community of Jardim Gramacho, in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region. Building upon the policy network theory, this paper first maps the policy community and the issue network of waste governance. Second, through a thematic analysis of 20 semi-structured interviews, core themes are identified. These themes depict the waste-picker community beyond a paternalistic reading recognizing their agency and identifying a plurality of roles waste-pickers are playing in the waste policy community, among them the role of institutional stewards. In the conclusion, a research agenda is outlined, highlighting the need for transdisciplinarity in doing research with waste-pickers.

1. Introduction

Waste production has doubled over the last ten years and the coming years will experience an upward trend [1], unless a radical change in the prevailing consumption and production patterns occurs. There is a correlation between income and waste production. The more a country is economically wealthy the more it generates waste [2]. At the global level, in the so-called developed world, the largest stream of produced waste is recyclable (dry fraction, paper, metal, plastic, and cardboard). Yet, only 13% is recycled and over 30% is disposed of in open dump sites, mainly in the global south where waste produced in the north is also received [2,3]. Waste management is, therefore, a multi-scale environmental justice problem. It is global because waste production generates CO2 emissions and contributes to climate change and because waste is exported to lower-income countries [3,4,5,6]. It is local because the management of waste is a municipal government task, though it involves multiple actors and requires multilevel, cooperative, as well as well-coordinated, organization among them. Municipal solid waste management (MSWM) is a complex process, which entails subsequent and costly stages, such as waste collection, transfer, and treatment [7]. The path along which it occurs is a long path, which starts from raw material producers to final consumers, involving multiple stages and a variety of actors, in the public and private spheres. Despite such social complexity, scholars have been approaching “waste” mainly from a quantitative point of view and as a physical phenomenon [8,9,10]. This prevailing approach has prevented grasping the root of the waste problem, that is human behavior, and looking at it as a social, cultural, and, ultimately, political phenomenon. Moreover, the focus on technology has proven ineffective in improving waste management on a global scale. Locally tailored, even rudimentary, solutions can be more effective and less impactful than highly technologically sophisticated ones, such as incinerators, which are now increasingly recognized as problematic techno-fixes [11] to be dismantled or exported to developing countries [3,6]. Local communities play a critical role in identifying future alternatives to these past unsustainable solutions. At the local scale, waste pickers represent a key actor which has the potential to switch the focus of the problem onto people and collective organization and the analysis from material to social values; for example, by reconsidering the labor of waste collection as a benefit rather than a cost. Using this transformative perspective and the related literature gap in the state of the art as an entry point, the present research intended to analyze MSWM as a political process, focusing on the involved actors and institutions, as well as on formal and informal relational dynamics (i.e., networks) and the practices among them. The paper is, therefore, written as a story and reports the findings of an extended case study. It is the result of research developed over seven years, from 2016 until 2022, in a municipality that has hosted one of the largest world open dumpsites in the past and one of the most politically active waste picker communities. This is the municipality of Duque de Caxias in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region. Brazil is at the forefront of waste picker inclusion, thanks to a National Law, approved in 2010, National Law Nº12305/2010, which establishes the Solid Waste Management Policy (PNRS). The research aimed to explore the relationship between the informal network of waste pickers and, especially, waste picker cooperatives and the formal policy community made up of local and national decision-makers. By doing so, the research strived to disentangle the political dynamics of waste governance and shed light on the underpinning institutional components, such as values, actors, and networks, and to understand their roles in the waste governance process. The case study showed that it is not possible to achieve efficiency without justice and that the active inclusion of waste pickers has enabled an improved legal framework for waste governance in Brazil. Without romanticizing waste picker integration, and acknowledging the multifaceted, controversial and naturally contested dimensions of political engagement, this research makes the case for the institutionalization of waste-picking and highlights the organizational power and the empowering ethics of a rooted community of people who proudly identify themselves as waste professionals. It draws upon the theoretical framework of policy network literature, since this allows observing both formal and informal processes, which underpin a political phenomenon, and connecting them to the multiple-scale nature of the problem. By doing so, the paper contributes a research agenda for both theories and practices.
The paper is structured into the following sections: section two briefly reviews the state of the art of the academic debate about waste pickers and outlines the policy network theory, section three presents the extended case study method and the collected materials, section four provides an in-depth description of the empirical context, section five discusses findings and, finally, section six draws conclusions, identifying a research agenda.

2. Background: State of the Art of Academic Literature and Supporting Theory

2.1. Waste-Picking and Waste Pickers in the Academic Literature

Waste picking is older than waste management as a human activity. Archaeologists found evidence of the reuse of trashed materials both in buildings and daily life utensils [12]. Before the industrial revolution and industrial mass production the collection and reuse of metals and similar materials that we commonly define today as “recyclable” has been just as necessary as accessing raw resources for good production. We do not know the identity of the workers involved in this process and how they were organized and integrated into the social system. Yet, we know this activity precedes by centuries the first formal waste management services, which were first introduced in England in the fourteenth century [13]. Nowadays, the figure of the waste picker, and its multiple denominations [14,15], are associated with the margins of contemporary, affluent urban society. Waste started to be a problem with the rise of urbanization. Waste-picking is an economic activity which provides livelihoods for roughly 1% of the world population [14,15] with yearly financial impacts in the billions [16]. In the academic literature, the topic has received increased attention over the last 20 years [16]. Recent publications also show a small change in approaching the topic. Indeed, studies published until the 90s identified waste-picking as a problem [17,18], while, from the middle of the 90s, scholars had started to engage more directly with waste picker communities and report their value and contribution to a more sustainable approach to waste governance [19]. Despite these clear signs of progress in terms of research efforts, the integration of waste pickers is still a niche topic in the waste governance literature, mainly focused on case studies and the global south. The relatively limited amount of study on this topic, when compared to the research on technological transformation and prevention of waste production, is due to both cultural (i.e., science mainstreaming, which still favours techno-specialistic and quantitative analysis) and operational reasons. Indeed, waste pickers represent an informal sector, mainly settled in areas characterized by difficult access and a certain degree of risk, and also official statistics related to these groups are scarce [13,20,21]. Within this niche literature, scholars have been studying waste pickers from four main perspectives:
waste pickers’ health conditions [22,23,24],
community empowerment [25,26] and anthropological aspects [27],
labor, human rights and cooperatives [13,21,28],
social integration [29] and socio-technical innovation [30,31]
Many publications center on a case study, with a meaningful contribution from Latin America [21,31,32]. More recently, scholars have also been analyzing waste-picking practices from the point of view of climate impact and the growing awareness of the inadequacy of incineration [4,5,33]. Incineration is indeed a sworn enemy of organized waste pickers, since deprives them of valuable materials, i.e., livelihoods, and disincentivizes sorted collection [5]. While incineration still has many supporters, these recent studies [6], alongside public policy initiatives [34,35,36] in different contexts, are emphasizing the need to look at different solutions and dismissing incineration considering its emissions in the cost–benefit analysis. A fundamental aspect that all the previous research highlighted when analyzing waste-picking in a historical trajectory is the rise of waste picker movements and, as a consequence, of waste picker cooperatives. At the end of the 90s, starting with the experience of the Colombian and Brazilian waste picker organizations, national movements of waste pickers were established. These national associations have been playing a crucial role in transforming waste pickers into a collective organized entity and enabling their political engagement and action [13,28]. However, an in-depth critical investigation into the complexity of these political relationships is still missing. It was the purpose of this study to contribute to this debate from a policy theory perspective with the ultimate goal of providing insights into the practices of waste governance and its intertwining with socioenvironmental justice.

2.2. Policy Network Theory

The concept of policy networks is a very vague and disputed one, though it represents a fundamental meta-concept in the policy analysis theory and debate. Policy networks are defined as “informal arrangements, characterized by horizontal and decentralized relations” which intervene in a policy-making process [37]. Policy networks scholars envision policy-making as a complex system, or community, made of multiple sub-systems interrelated with each other by an intricate net of relations [38]. These sub-systems are distinguished into two types. On the one hand, sub-systems are institutions and governmental bodies (sub-government), featured by interdependence and demanding coordination. On the other hand, sub-systems can be conceived of as individual actors of the informal political community (attentive public), representing an interest in the issue but having no decision-making power [39,40]. Some authors identified these two groups with the two opposed poles of a typology of structuration. Thus, while the policy community identifies the most structured definition of a political system, on the opposing side there is the issue network [41], which represents informal, open and fluctuant aggregations, unified by a common interest. Other authors emphasized the importance of the unbalanced power relations shaping these abstract social structures [42].
The policy network theory is nothing new in the analysis of a public policy and has received major criticisms for its mainly descriptive nature and poor analytical power [43]. Despite that, the concept of policy networks is useful to map the dense social ecosystem of the Brazilian wastescape, helping to identify institutional, civil society, and business actors and connecting the dots between the formal and informal practices that shape this relational environment.
These concepts allow for representing the waste management process as a political arena, rather than a purely technical field. Through a policy network analysis, McGuirk [44] showed the lock-in effect of networked policy practices which hindered the actions of Dublin Corporation’s Planning Department (Dublin Municipality), and the relations with its institutional and entrepreneurial partners (pg. 667). To provide an analysis of waste management as a political process, and to map the involved actors, the relational dynamics and envisioned networks are understood as institutions that shape social values and identities [45], as well as constructing the rules constraining the actions of the participating actors. Blom-Hansen [38] observed that the ‘rules operating in policy networks are typically informal’ which makes it difficult to frame them at the empirical level. Rhodes’s typology attempted to overcome this limitation. Rhodes [46] identifies three types of networks, within the policy network analysis: (a) network as description; (b) network as theory; (c) network as a normative prescription for reform. Here, I use the concept descriptively to explore my unit of analysis: the MSWM in the RMRJ municipality. From a descriptive point of view, Marsh and Rhodes [41] separated the notion of policy community from the notion of issue network, based on four main categories: membership (number of participants, type of interest); integration (frequency, continuity, consensus); resources (distribution within the network; distribution within the organizational members); power (See Table 1). Based on the policy network theory literature outlined so far, I understand a policy community as being the institutional bundle of policy-making actors involved in a specific stream of policy. In opposition to this concept, I conceive issue networks as a fluid ensemble, more similar to a communicative process, brought about to criticise, make pressure and communicate specific interests and ideas of different stakeholder groups, such as, for instance, businessmen, journalists, academics, lobbyists [45,46,47]. There is no qualitative differentiation between the two categories. I used this classification to separate, on the one hand, institutions with a formally appointed role in the policy cycle, and, on the other, the broader not bounded community of actors who play an active role in the communicative flow of the policy process.
As better explained in the next section, this theory is the entry point to apply my method (i.e., the extended case study) and to organize the analysis of the empirical materials. By outlining the wastescape of Jardim Gramacho as a political arena, and by analyzing it through the lens of the policy network theory, it was possible to first descriptively organize the heterogeneity of involved actors, second to disentangle the ensemble of formal and informal relationships among these actors, and, finally, to identify anomalies and grey areas. The analysis confirmed the analytical limitations of the theory and, through the thematic analysis of the empirical data, identified additional conceptual categories and a research agenda which could contribute, in the future, to overcoming such limitations.

3. Research Rationale

The paper presents the results of research that was developed as a follow-up of a wider project aimed at investigating the implementation of the Brazilian National Law of Waste Management in the Rio de Janeiro State municipalities, which ended in 2016. The results of this project showed a low level of implementation of the national legal requirements at the municipal level [49]. To understand further the reasons behind such a low level of implementation, I decided to focus on the involved actors and investigate their relations in the policy process. To do that with no research funds, I decided to narrow down the geographic scope of the research by identifying a key municipality, within those sampled for the previous project, in which to conduct an extended case study [50]. The extended case method is the overarching methodology which shaped the follow-up research, making room for multiple approaches and sources of data collection (See Table 2). For the data analysis, thematic analysis was employed. The research was exploratory in nature and triggered by the goal of understanding the entanglements of the political relations which drive the governance of waste and the political role waste pickers have played, as communities or as a network of political actors.
The research aimed to reply to the following question: What kind of role(s) do waste pickers and waste picker cooperatives play within the policy community and policy network of Brazilian waste governance?

3.1. Methods and Materials

3.1.1. The Extended Case Study Method

Burawoy [49] describes the extended case method as reflexive ethnography, aimed at developing interpretations surrounding a specific research problem, moving from the micro (the selected case) to the macro (the broader social context), while building upon theory. This approach allows for analyzing data through an undefined and/or prolonged timeframe and actively engaging with the local context, setting a dialog between the theory and the insights provided by the local actors [51].
From the epistemological point of view, the extended case study method lies between pragmatic constructivist logic and the critical theory tradition [51]. The constructivist perspective is evident in the underpinning ideas of the extended case method, whereby knowledge is shaped by social structure and multiple kinds of knowledge (not only scientific knowledge, but also local and traditional/context-specific knowledge) are relevant to understand social phenomena. The influence of the critical theory is clear in the dialectic rationale between theory and practice and researchers and research participants (e.g., key informants and interviewees) which shapes the method, as well as the importance which is recognised in the historical background.
As Wadham and Warren (Ibid.), drawing upon Burawoy, explained, this method is especially powerful in analyzing elements of everyday life and linking them to extra local and historical contexts. The goal of this approach is not to develop new theory, but rather to reformulate existing ones against empirical situational elements. It has three main characteristics:
(1) It is multi-scalar. By connecting the micro (situation) and the macro (structure) levels, it aims at increasing understanding of the “big picture”, and, therefore, of large-scale societal phenomena;
(2) It is transformative and explorative. By (re)interpreting empirical materials through theory, and revising theory in light of empirical data, rather than “reinventing the wheel” [51], the extended case method employs theory to navigate analytical boundaries between different levels of reality (local scale and systemic scale) and the reality and its conceptualization (theory change);
(3) It is relational and democratic. It does not search for linear causality, but rather for the interconnectedness of its multiple elements and layers. It entails a dialogical management of the research process, which is open to multilevel feedback loops and path changes. It is democratic, because it engages multiple sources of knowledge [51]. The voices and opinions of all participants are actively employed to reply to the research questions, attempting to make sense of societal problems and, ultimately, improve the theory.
These elements are applied over a three stage-process:
Find a good theory
Analyse the everyday life of people within a relevant setting and identify anomalies
Rebuild the theory (or set a research agenda) to address the anomalies

3.1.2. The Application of the Extended Case Study of Jardim Gramacho: Empirical Materials

Based on these characteristics, the extended case study was selected since it suited the goal of exploring waste management weaknesses through a policy network framework. Policy network theory was selected. Rather than rebuild the policy network theory, in this research, a research agenda to engage different theoretical perspectives in future work was proposed. Duque de Caxias (hereinafter Caxias) was selected as a case study for its internationally renowned history of waste policies [28] which has already been the subject of documentaries [52], such as “Waste Land”, from the artist Viz Muniz. Caxias was hosted in the neighbourhood of Jardim Gramacho, a peripheral area bordering Guanabara Bay, for almost 35 years, from 1976 up to 2012, the largest illegal landfill in Latin America. Based on that, Caxias homes a large community of waste pickers. Previously published research [25,27] has already narrated the stories of these groups. This paper’s specific contribution is the analysis of the underpinning politics of the Caxias and, in particular, Jardim Gramacho’swastescape” through the lens of the policy network framework.
The extended case method was carried out over seven years, from 2016 until 2022, collecting multiple sources of data. See Table 2 for a detailed overview.
In this paper, I focus on the results of a thematic analysis of twenty semi-structured interviews with waste pickers, local policy-makers, and local and national activists. The other materials, especially media outlets, contributed to outlining the context and the interpretation of the thematic analysis results. Table 2, row 4, shows the interviewee categories.
The interviews were based on a semi-structured protocol shaped by the policy network theory framework (See Table 2). The interview protocol is provided in the Supplementary Materials of this publication. The interviews were aimed at figuring out whether the specific interviewed actor was part of the “policy community” or the “issue network”, and at understanding the relationship with policy community members. In the next section, these two theoretical concepts are defined. To do so, the protocol was organized into four main sections: membership, integration, resources and power. The deductive structure, the reflexive nature of the extended case study and the exploratory and interpretative purpose of the research, enabled emerging themes to be identified inductively. For the thematic analysis, I relied on Ann Blandford [53,54] and drew four main steps from her approach:
(a) initial code generation through the raw data; (b) identification of patterns (i.e., themes); (c) validation of themes; (d) interpretation of themes. For this last stage, I adopted a flexible approach to identify hidden discursive patterns in qualitative data [55]. This meant that I employed the themes as conceptual blocks through which different collected narratives were decomposed and reassembled into a new narrative able to make sense of the research problem addressed. Through the analysis of 20 interviews, I tried to understand how the social ecosystem of waste governance in Duque de Caxias, and especially in Jardim Gramacho, was organized, how it evolved over the seven years of the study and how the integration of the waste picker in the waste policy-making process occurred, or did not occur.
The interviewee sample followed a purposive and process-driven approach. On the one hand, I sought to engage in the four categories of actors involved in the waste policy: local and national governments, waste picker cooperatives, universities and intermediary organizations, such as NGOs, and social movements. On the other hand, I followed a snowball approach to identify available interviewees. The final sample covered mainly waste picker cooperative leaders and activists (10 out of 20 interviewees), but also local government representatives (at both municipal and state levels), and experts involved as activists, researchers and/or consultants. Interviewees’ names were mostly omitted to protect their privacy or fully mentioned when the interviewee’s consent was provided.
The interview guide is provided in the supplementary materials of the this publications

4. The Empirical Context

As Hellen Wadham and Richard Warren described very well, in the extended case study, the description of the context is a core component of the analysis [51]:
But to the extended case method, context is everything: The organization or community is not an arena where such patterns are played out, but a constellation of specific individuals and relationships located in time and space who respond to, resist, and thereby ultimately influence those patterns. (p. 9).
Therefore, the following sections, while describing first the Brazilian regulatory framework for waste management and next the context of Duque de Caxias and Jardim Gramacho, make use of the evidence collected during the extended case study and through the interviews.

4.1. The Brazilian Framework for Waste Management

Brazil is a Federative Republic, where governmental power is organized into three territorial levels: the Union (i.e., national), the State and the Municipality. The 1988 Federal Constitution (CF) rearranged the main political and governmental tasks among the three institutional levels, identifying ‘common matter areas’, i.e., matters where the three entities hold legislative power and are competitors. For the Brazilian Legislation, Waste Management is part of the service set defined as Basic Sanitation (art. 3. PNSB 11445/2007). While the CF establishes joint responsibilities of the three institutional levels for basic sanitation service, a 2013 decision of the Supreme Federal Court identified the Municipality as the governmental entity in charge of basic sanitation services provision. As for waste management, municipal responsibility was explicitly foreseen even before by the National Law of Waste Management, or National Policy of Waste Management (in the Portuguese acronym PNRS).
Four main legal instruments define the institutional framework that regulates the Brazilian national wastescape as a public matter (See Figure 1):
The national Law Nº 11.107/2005 on Public Consortia to provide public service through public–public partnerships (Brazil, 2005);
The national Law Nº 11.445/2007 on the National Policy of Basic Sanitation, i.e., NPBS (Brazil, 2007);
The national Law Nº 12.305/2010 on Waste Management, i.e., the PNRS (Brazil, 2010);
The legislative Decree Nº 7404/2010, which disciplines the NPWM.
The complementary Law n.90 of 22 December, 2011, introduced the so-called ICMS ecológico, a mechanism to incentivize municipal environmental management (and among this, the sorted waste collection) through which the municipality obtains financial resources from the State government.
As David Amorim, the communication coordinator of the Movimento Nacional de Catadores de Materiais Recivláveis (National Movement of Recycled Materials Collectors), or MNCMR, reported during an interview in April 2022, Brazilian waste pickers, through the MNCMR, played an active role in shaping this institutional framework. The relation between this framework and the MNCMR is bilateral, and one has shaped and enabled the other. During the interview he reported the main stages, that over the last 20 years, marked the connection between the waste picker issue network and the waste policy community. At the end of the nineties, the MNCMR was created as the result of a combined mobilization of the waste pickers, together with other actors of organized civil society and the academic world. In 2002, waste picking was recognized as a formal profession and included in the national registry of occupation, the CBO, which is a document containing the entire classification of the formal jobs of the Brazilian National job market. Before the PNRS, the Law on Public Consortia introduced and ruled new forms of agreements and partnerships among federative entities (i.e., municipalities, states, unions and other public institutions), boosting cooperation for public service provision. Later, the Law on PNRS introduced incentives for this kind of inter-institutional cooperation. Concerning forms of agreement and contracts, the Law 11.445/2007, while modifying the national Law on Public Bidding, introduced the opportunity for the Municipality to contract out cooperatives of waste pickers for the selective collection service [56].
The approval of the PNRS in 2010 was the result of twenty-one years of lengthy parliamentary discussion. It was broadly acknowledged by the civil society involved in this sector as a big achievement obtained through dialog and collaborative relations of the movement with the leftist government of the Worker Party, under Lula’s administration.
The PNRS provided the overall scaffold that shaped waste management as a public policy and service, determining basic principles for national and local agendas. These main principles were: forbidding inadequate waste disposal, promoting waste picker inclusion and incorporating up-to-date regulatory instruments of waste management. The regulatory instruments of waste management included the following: sectorial agreements, life cycle, joint responsibility, reverse logistics, final destination minimization (reuse, recycle, recover), and waste-to-energy solution stimuli. The waste pickers’ impact on the PNRS was evident in the nine different mentions of them within the law’s articles. Most of all, the PNRS encouraged waste pickers to organize into cooperative enterprises and assigned the municipality the duty of incentivizing this process.
The social inclusion of waste pickers is a distinguishing element of the Brazilian Waste Management Strategy (Article 7, XII; Article 17, V). Waste pickers all over the world mainly operate in informal [57,58] and marginalized conditions [59]. In contrast, the inclusion of waste pickers is present in the objectives and fundamental goals of the PNRS (Article 7, XII; Article 17, V), and is a key component of integrated management.
If, on the one hand, laws recognized the importance of selective collection and the waste pickers as a professional category, on the other hand, they did not address the issue of health or human dignity, related to the waste collection activity, recommending only, and generally, her/his economic integration (Art. 15, V).
State and municipal level legislation have to incorporate and implement national policy provisions. At the Rio de Janeiro State Level, where the case study of the present research was located, legislation was even older than PNRS. The State Law No. 4191 of 30 September, 2003, established the Rio de Janeiro State Policy on Solid Waste and the related Plan. The State Decree 41.084/2007 regulated the State Policy and, later, Law No. 6805/2014 extended and integrated the policy by introducing the discipline of reverse logistics. Nonetheless, former research showed a lack of implementation of such policies [49]

4.2. Duque de Caxias’s Waste Governance and Jardim Gramacho

Within the Brazilian framework of waste governance, the municipality of Caxias stands out for the political activism of its waste picker community. This is an effect of the socioecological history of this city. With its 929.449 habitants and a GDP of 2318 billion [60] Duque de Caxias is the second city of the Rio de Janeiro State (See Figure 2). Caxias hosts the largest oil refinery of the national oil company PETROBRAS and is home to many large international companies, such as Coca-Cola. Its national and international relevance for waste governance centers on the fact that Caxias used to host, for forty years, from 1972 until 2012, the largest open-air dumpsite in Latin America. This was located on high ecological value wetland, bordering Guanabara Bay, in a neighbourhood called Jardim Gramacho (See Figure 2). The Jardim Gramacho dumpsite used to be the formal and legal final destination for the whole of Rio de Janeiro city (over 6 million inhabitants). This situation continued until the approval of the PNRS, which assigned to the municipality the duty to close open-air dumpsites and to assure the waste had a legal destination to a sanitary landfill by 2014. Until this moment, Jardim Gramacho had been providing work for waste pickers, estimated at around two thousand in number [61] being the actual number of “scavengers” actively involved in the search for recyclable materials on the garbage hills within the dump site. Sidney Moreira Silva, a local activist for civil rights and member of the local movement Forum Comunitário de Jardim Gramacho, during an interview in April, 2022, warned that the actual number of people, whose labor and livelihood depended on the economy generated by the dumpsite, was more likely higher than three thousand. The political decision to close Jardim Gramacho in 2012, came earlier than the legal deadline. It was a decision made by the Rio de Janeiro Municipality, the main official user of the dumpsite, whose administration in 2012 was busy preparing the city to host the 2016 Olympic Games. The speed of the political decision’s implementation, and the lack of sufficient and considered socioeconomic measures to prevent the unemployment impact, were two main critical points surrounding Jardim Gramacho’s story and the debate on waste picker inclusion in Caxias. The main measure to contain social impacts on the large local waste picker category was the attribution of a monetary quittance, equal to 14.000 R$ (at that time around 7000 euros). The funds for the quittance were provided by the Rio de Janeiro Municipality, as the main user of the open dumpsite, and the State government, through a specific fund to support Jardim Gramacho waste picker inclusion. This was received with enthusiasm and was seen as a major achievement by local waste picker leaders in the formal recognition of their services [62]. Nonetheless, based on the main public government discourses conducted through the local media, and confirmed in the interviewees’ reports, the main goal of the public government regarding closure of the landfill was to show efforts to solve a major sanitarian problem. The social consequences of the landfill closure were not part of the discourses [62]. The criteria and mechanisms for the distribution of these resources were not clear. What is clear is that the measure did not cover the entire waste picker population formerly active in Jardim Gramacho and that it also generated diverse impacts on the benefitted people. The largest part of the interviewees agreed that the meaning of this sort of monetary compensation was meant to support the informal worker in finding an alternative job. In some cases, the money was used to bring recycling activity, such as cooperatives forward. However, in other cases, the money, an amount unusual for many waste pickers, fueled social and psychological uneasiness. Before the sudden closure of the dumpsite, the Jardim Gramacho waste picker community actively followed the process, putting pressure on to receive some form of guarantee. According to the interview reports, this process generated conflicts within the community. Anxiety about the perspective of unemployment, resource scarcity, and lack of clarity from the political class were key factors in creating this structural division. As a result of consequently reduced bargaining power, what the waste pickers obtained, beyond individual (but not universalized) financial compensation, was encapsulated into two separate initiatives, carried out between 2013 and 2016 (when this research started). One of the initiatives was coordinated by the municipal government and the other by the State environmental department, and also through the support of public companies, like Petrobras and environmental associations. The Rio de Janeiro State Environmental Department provided funds to create a so-called Polo de Reciclagem (I translate it as a recycling hub and I call it, hereafter, Polo). This recycling hub consisted of a space in the same neighborhood of Jardim Gramacho which was supposed to host ten hangars to gather, store and select recyclable material from different waste picker cooperatives (Interview n.3, August 2019). On paper, the hub was a progressist plan, which also provided space for daycare for waste picker children. This initiative ended up being coordinated by a single major waste picker cooperative, and, today. Only hosts a couple of hangars, a few cooperatives and a total of 38 waste pickers [63]. The Polo is coordinated and identified with the president of one of the waste picker cooperatives and an association called Associação dos Catadores of Aterro Metropolitano de Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG), which is globally renowned, thanks to a documentary shot in 2010 (The documentary is Lixo Extraordinario or Waste Land in English directed by Victor Muniz). The other initiative resulted in the so-called Centro de Triagem, or Sorting center, an initiative of the Environmental Department (or Secretary) of Duque de Caxias Municipality. This consisted of a single hangar for sorting of recyclable material, which was offered in 2013 to seven waste picker cooperatives, together with three lorries to collect and transport recyclable material. At the moment I am writing, only three cooperatives still work in the Centro de Triagem. The rental cost of the hangar (since the municipality was not able to find one to buy) was paid by the cooperatives themselves while the municipality still supported them with the lorries and the fuel costs. The initiative was part of a pilot project the then Municipal Environmental Secretary promoted to a formal space for Jardim Gramacho waste picker cooperatives of the future to work and to incentivize sorted selection. At the time this paper was written, only one neighborhood was selected for sorted waste collection as part of this pilot project, and this is the neighborhood of Vila São Luis.
These two main initiatives identified the main source of resources (mainly space) provided by the public government to the Jardim Gramacho waste picker community. The criteria for the distribution of these resources were not formally established and it occurred through informal networks (Interviews 1–3, 2019).

5. Results

5.1. Waste Pickers and the Waste Policy Network

Applying the policy theory network to waste governance in Duque de Caxias and, in particular, to the neighbourhood of Jardim Gramacho helped me to map the multiplicity of actors involved in the policy cycle. The attempt was not exhaustive, due to the complexity and fluidity of the relationships that characterize the recyclable material market and the entanglement of formality and informality in the waste governance practice. Having said that, based on the analysis of the interview results and other complementary empirical material, I mapped the policy community (Figure 3) and the issue network (Figure 4).

5.1.1. Waste and Waste Picker Inclusion as a Policy Community

The policy community map (Figure 3) is, as expected, simple and less crowded than the issue network (Figure 4). The map is consistent with the definition of the policy community, and the main political arenas, such as governmental cabinets and public policy councils (Councils are a space of public policy debate which is peculiar of Brazilian policy-making institutional framework. They were introduced by the last National constitution (1988) to formally engage civil society actors within the political debate. By law their composition need to cover a specific percentage of seats for each social category and public government members. They can cover different areas and are established by the State government). Therefore, I classified the involved actors into four categories (Figure 3): in blue, state and municipal governments, directly involved in the execution of public policy; in green, different departments of the National government, with a main role in funding; in orange, local bodies with judicial functions, and a main role in control of public bodies’ compliance with the law; in yellow, the consultative mixed bodies, composed of members of the civil society and representatives of public institutions with a so-called role in social control.
In the circle of national, state level and municipal councils are included also waste picker associations and representatives. In this regard, the MNCMR has a seat and takes an active part in the different national councils for the environment, social assistance, solidarity economy, food security and city (Interview with Davi Amorim, April, 2022). Many interviewees confirmed that councils represent the space through which waste pickers can speak up and try to influence the political agenda. On the other hand, it is also worth saying that the role of the councils is mainly consultative and that their creation and work frequency is constantly threatened by political changes. In the waste policy community in Caxias, there are two main governmental actors involved at the municipal level, the Environmental Department (or Secretary) and the Public Service Department. While the first is formally responsible for the sorted waste collection and waste picker inclusion, the second is responsible for waste management, appointing the services of waste collection and final disposal. What is worth highlighting here is that the two bodies have very different financial capacities. The SMMA used to have, at the time of one of the interviews (2019), a monthly budget almost 25 times smaller than that of the SMSP (5 million R$ versus 130 million R$0). This different task attribution suggested that waste collection and waste picker inclusion were understood as ancillary activities, not on the public service provision agenda and investments. As was deduced from the interviews, in the municipal government mainstream waste was a matter of sanitation and not of environmental governance (Interview n.3, 2019). From this point of view, the main goal of waste governance in Duque de Caxias was to collect and provide the correct final disposal of the waste, preventing having the waste in public space. It is possible that, in part, this view was reinforced during the years after the closing of the landfill and when some the interviews for this research were conducted, because of a waste emergency that occurred between 2012 and 2013 with an overload equal to 250.000 tons of waste (Interview n.3, 2016). To date, sorted waste collection is just not implemented by the municipality but operated by the waste pickers within, and outside, the municipal territory, informally and illegally. This operation occurs in compliance with the national law and with small support from the municipal government but, paradoxically, outside the formal municipal waste management system.
The map shows that many departments of the National governments also play a formal role in waste governance and waste picker inclusion.
Based on the interviewees’ reports, it is possible to state that the role of the federal government was especially active during the Workers’ Party (PT) government and, in particular, until 2010. The active role of the MNCMR in the process of definition and approval of the PNRS is also evidence that waste pickers partook in the policy community. Many interviewees reported that, during that period, a substantial quantity of resources was allocated by the federal government to support projects for waste picker inclusion. Many of these projects were financially supported by the National Department of Solidarity Economy (SENAES), which, at the time, was part of the Labor Ministry. Nowadays, this department has moved under the Ministry of Regional Development (the former Ministry of the Cities), and its name was slightly changed, but, on a formal basis, the support for waste picker community creation is still among Its tasks (The current name is SEISP, National Secretary of Social and Productive inclusion). Yet, at the time of the Jardim Gramacho dumpsite closure, this department was crucial to support academic projects for waste pickers and offering space and infrastructure. The space where the Polo was settled was a SENAES’s property. In a continental-scale country, such as Brazil, the local impact of national policies was not given, especially when we consider that the main direct beneficiaries were marginalized people.
The last group of policy community-mapped institutions are local instances of national judicial power. From the policy community’s point of view, their role is straightforward. In Brazil, the state-level public attorney is not part of the national judicial power but an independent public body with the function to protect civil society members’ rights against potential misconduct of public institutions. Among its attributions is environmental protection as well, so it has been playing a crucial role in overseeing the local government’s compliance with federal laws, such as the PNRS. The State Auditing Court is part of the Judicial Power and plays a key role in monitoring the accountability, transparency and efIiciency of local government public spending.

5.1.2. Waste and Waste Picker Inclusion as an Issue Network

All interviewees agreed that the public attorney played a key role in the collective effort for local-level implementation of the PNRS. At the national level, over the last five years, the diminished dialog between the waste picker associations and the governmental bodies resulted in an increased engagement with the judicial bodies and, especially, with the public attorney as a general switch within waste picker national movement strategies of action (Interview with D. Amorim, 2022). This was also true in Caxias and, especially, for Jardim Gramacho. Here the FCJG (the Community Forum of Jardim Gramacho), an association founded in 2005, with the goal of neighborhood regeneration, and within which waste picking and the inclusion of waste pickers is a key dimension, is currently working with the local Public Defence (The Public defense in Brazil is a public institution which offers free legal support to civil society. It is organized into two different branches—the DNA which operates at the National level and the DPE which operates at the local level. This last one can be advocated also to support neighbourhood dwellers in a subject related to sanitation and local environmental damages) to obtain a census of waste pickers and waste picker cooperatives in the Municipality as a basis of data to support the waste pickers’ claim for the implementation of sorted collection (Interview, Dos Santos, 2022).
ThI issue network map (Figure 3) shows the only waste picker groups the municipality relates to are the waste picker cooperatives involved in the Centro de Triagem. Indeed, as municipal officials contacted during the fieldwork also confirmed, the provision of the lorries for recyclable material collections and transport, and the fuel for the three cooperatives which work in the Centro de Triagem, is the only action the municipality currently has in motion to be compliant with the duty to include waste pickers and implement sorted waste collection. In return for these two services (the lorry and the fuel), the waste picker cooperative presidents sign, monthly, a document which allows the municipal government to receive the ICMS (See Section 4.2). Even though this is not enough for the economic sustainability of the three cooperatives, which still struggle to have access to valuable recyclable materials and pay the cost of the hangar’s rental, the three cooperatives still keep this collaboration with the municipality alive (Interviewees, 2019 and 2022). Volunteer initiatives of other neighborhood actors, such as dweller associations (SOS Jardim Gramacho), churches, schools and individuals who are not organized dwellers, help the Centro de Triagem to resist and to continue. All these actors voluntarily sort waste and offer the sorted materials to the cooperatives. From a political perspective, these operational solutions of single cooperatives are trouble-shooters which are just postponing the big underpinning problem, which is the lack of a municipal sorted waste collection policy. The other side of the problem is also pictured by the issue network map, and it concerns the lack of connections among the different waste picker groups. In the aftermath of the dumpsite closure, the resources and projects were distributed among the waste picker community in an unclear and unequal way by the public government. In the end, waste picker cooperatives with stronger leadership secured better access to information and resources. Overall, this created internal competition and conflicts and resulted in a couple of projects, the Polo and the Centro de Triagem, struggling to move ahead and engaging only a minority of local waste pickers. As it is possible to observe in Figure 4, there are three main hubs of waste picker cooperatives: the Centro de Triagem, The Polo, and the CTR. They are organized either as individual cooperatives (the CTR) or as networks (rede in Portuguese) of cooperatives (this is the case for the other two). Even though the competition was never reported as a problem in the interviews, because each hub has its network of recyclable material buyers (in yellow on the map), the main problem is a lack of good quality sorted materials which, after the closure of the landfill, became a scarce resource.
TIe ITCP, a social cooperative incubator, which is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, provides knowledge transfer (especially training on how to manage a cooperative enterprise) and delivers sorted materials to the waste picker cooperatives. It used to do this in collaboration with COMLURB, the Rio de Janeiro municipal public company of waste management. Yet, interestingly, because of the lack of material, ITCP can only offer this support based on a rotation scheme so that different registered cooperatives can alternatively benefit from this service. From 2019 onward, according to one of the interviewees, the COMLURB’s material is not delivered to Jardim Gramacho and the different cooperatives, or networks of cooperatives, need to pay a delivery service to bring material to their hangars causing additional costs. Looking at the link in the issue network map, it is possible to appreciate an overall law density between waste picker organizations, either cooperative or associations, and state and municipal government. The municipal government, with higher financial capacity (SMSP, the Public Service Department), has no link with the waste picker cooperatives but is connected with two categories of private companies formally involved in municipal waste management: those responsible for waste collection and transport and those responsible for sanitary dumpsite management for the correct reception and disposition of the waste. In 2016, the cost of waste management in Caxias was equal to R$ 11 million per month (almost 3 million euros). Of this cost, 64% was for collection and transport only (Interviews, n.3, 2016). The policy network theory allowed the organization and classification of this institutional ecosystem, but not an understanding of the underpinning dynamics. Therefore, the interview data were analyzed through thematic analysis and in the next section this second part of the results are reported.

5.2. Thematic Analysis of Interview Data

The thematic analysis was meant to connect the micro (the context of Jardim Gramacho and the situation of the local waste picker community) with the macro level (waste picker socio-ecological condition and political role) of the analysis while going beyond the policy network theoretical framework.
Three main themes emerged:
the primary role of material conditions in waste picker discourses;
the effect of collective values and class identity in waste picker organization and organizational structuI
the transformative/emancipatory potential of political inclusion, and its impact, in terms of a specific type of institutional awareness and commitment, which I defined as “institutional stewardship”.

5.2.1. Material Conditions: Labor, Wage, and Resources

Resources are included in the Marsh and Rhodes typology. Though their meaning and dynamic impact on the different actors who participate in a policy community or network or both are not explored and problematized. Recyclable materials represent livelihoods for the waste picker communities. They always clearly separate, in their discourses, the concept of final waste (rejetos), which they use little, and the concept of unsorted waste (resíduos), from the concept of recyclable waste, which to them is not waste at all but livelihoods and vital materials (materiais). They need good quality recyclable materials to sell them to intermediary buyers and this need triggers their struggle for the implementation of a formal, universalized door-to-door sorted waste collection. This material dimension allows identification of the subjects that waste pickers and municipal governments oppose and on which they have divergent views of waste governance, and, therefore, of the main issue areas in which waste pickers act as change makers. Sorted waste collection is the most important of these subjects. It is a costly solution from the perspective of part of the municipal government while it is the only legal one according to waste pickers and national law.
“There is a narrative that maintains sorted waste collection is expensive. I disagree. It is clear that the highest cost of waste management is with waste logistics (collection and transport) which has nothing to do with waste separation” (Interview n.3, 2019).
This point of view of an environmental manager, who used to work as a consultant for the municipality in 2014, is also aligned with the perspective of members of the Municipal Environmental Department interviewed in 2016. Yet, the municipal implementation of sorted waste collection resulted in no more than a pilot project in a single neighborhood. It was clear to the administration that the lack of sorted waste collection resulted in higher waste management costs, since transport and final disposition services were rated based on the weight of the waste. In 2016, the Municipality was spending 7 million on waste collection alone, according to an interviewee report and the public websites of the State Audit Court.
The other main controversial subject was related to the recognition of waste picker jobs as part of the waste management cycle by the Municipal government. As evidenced in interviews released by consultants and local administrators, the waste picker job, the one to separate valuable recyclable material, is intended to be paid for through the provision of some logistic infrastructure (the lorries and the fuel). The municipality of Caxias does not intend to formally contract waste picker cooperatives for their services. Despite the declaration that “waste pickers are main partners for us” from a municipal representative, interviewed in 2016, in practice the waste picker inclusion, something the municipality has to do by law, only results in the offer of lorries and fuel to the three cooperatives of the Centro de Triagem, which also express great gratitude for that. On the other hand, especially after the many governmental promises that were made after the closing of the landfill, the expectation of waste pickers was evident in the statement of this interviewee:
“We want to be hired” (Interview 1, 2019).
The third controversial topic for the waste picker community consists of their legalization and of all the necessary bureaucratic forms and documents that they need to comply with to be formally included in the waste management cycle. “Licence” is a key code in this part of the thematic analysis and represents a crucial resource for waste picker cooperatives, since it is the necessary premise to be hired as a waste collector. To obtain these licenses, which in Brazil are costly, they need information and money, which the majority of waste picker cooperatives do not have. This places them in a loop of informality they were supposed to be out of, based on the PNRS. To exempt organizations involved in the recycling supply chain from these bureaucratic requirements, is the main cleavage of waste picker action and struggles and a major inequality aspect raised by interviewed experts and activists.

5.2.2. Organizational Values and Structure: Union, Collective Action, and Class Identity

This theme challenges the policy network theory and shows the descriptive and analytical shortcomings of a theory shaped by the British and American political systems. Indeed, while Rhodes and Marsh’s classification ended up associated with issue networks with low levels of structuration, this research shows that in the context of Brazilian waste policy, issue network components, such as waste pickers had to organize and create structures which were more defined than those designed by law. The National Law, the PNRS, advocates for waste pickers to organise themselves into cooperatives. Yet, the law does not define the necessary support to enable these cooperatives to access the market and be competitive. A clear example is a need for legalization and unachievable legal documents:
“It’s like you say you can take part in a public selection or bid, so let’s prepare yourself and invest time in studying, but I do not give you the CPF (The CPF is the Individual Taxpayer Registry.)” (Interview n.3, 2019)
Despite the lack of legalization and the unsuitable institutional environment, the organization is a fundamental dimension of the waste pickers’ work. “The organizational process is crucial”, says David Amorim, from the MNCMR (Interview April 2022) when I asked about the impact of the transfer of compensation resources through the waste picker communities after the closure of open-air dumpsites. He stressed that the transfer did not pass through the movement and where waste pickers acted as an organized community, they were able to lobby and convey their struggle and energy toward a collective, long-term strategy and obtain investment for larger infrastructures. In saying that he compared the post-closure effects in Jardim Gramacho with the successful case of the CENTCOOP in the federal district (Brasilia).
The open-air dumpsite itself was organized into groups with different roles (for example, the scavengers, the waste guardians, and the waste marketers). This aspect was reinforced through the switch from individual workers to members of waste picker cooperatives that, in Duque de Caxias, was accelerated by the dumpsite closure. Once the landfill closed, their source of income and livelihood failed (Interview n.3, 2019). Building up cooperatives was the only way for many of them to go ahead. Building up a cooperative also meant learning how to manage a firm. This turned out to be an emancipatory process for cooperative member waste pickers. They learned how to structure a budget, how to define a pay slip with social insurance and pension costs, for example, and how to develop and keep commercial relations. This Ias an incremental process I witnessed by interviewing the same cooperatives over seven years. This also proved wrong the idea of local public administrators that:
“they are waste pickers they only know how to collect and separate waste” (Interview n.3, 2016)
The organization is also at the core of the political action of waste pickers as a national movement. In his interview, Davi Amorim, explained that the organizational process is crucial to achieving a political goal. It results in the territorial structure of the movement, the regularity of meeting frequency, and the definition of goals and strategy. The organization is then part of their class identity and this allows them to set in motion their actions as a collective. Ethics and common values are building blocks of this collective identity, and words such as “union” and “together” are key codes of this theme. On the other hand, it is also important not to romanticize the category in general and to take into account the individual agency of the waste pickers who do not always act as members of a community, but rather as free, individual players. Diversity of interests and values are, of course, present in this category as in all other professional categories. For example, the idea to develop a recycling hub, that is the Polo, did not spark the interests of all cooperatives (Interview n.3, 2019). Those with a network of potential buyers did not perceive a collective hangar for waste collection as a better option, even with other services included, such as a day-care. These groups also did not join the claim to implement municipal sorted waste collection that many cooperatives had been bringing forward.
Despite these considerations, the waste pickers who took part in this research communicated a strong sense of belonging to their community and professional category, along with feelings of pride and satisfaction in their job.
“I am the third generation of a waste picker family. My grandfather in the ’50s was already a waste picker…I am the coordinator of the Work Group on Labor and Wage of the Forum…first Labor and the Wage” (Interview, Dos Santos, July 2022).
“This is the best job and we are all passionate about it…we know we are working for sustainability…we provide an important contribution to society” (Interviews, n. 1-2, 2019).
These feelings are foundational to a class identity which also allows them to act as a movement and bring their struggles for resources ahead. This is part of a collective and labor ethics which boldly characterizes almost all the waste pickers interviewed in this research. This is also what enables waste pickers to be part of the communicative flow of the political process, i.e., part of the issue network.

5.2.3. Political and Institutional Stewardship: In, out or beyond the Policy Community

The engagement of judicial body actors in the waste issue network by waste picker activists (See Figure 3) has a twofold meaning. First, it suggests the lack of partnership between the waste picker community and the local government. Second, it indicates the active engagement of the waste picker community in the formal, institutional public policy community, in a specific form that I call institutional stewardship. By institutional stewardship I mean the attitude of a component of the waste picker community to know, use and engage with public bodies. As with any space, also immaterial spaces, such as public institutional spaces, need to be actively experienced and used by a “steward” who takes care of them. Waste picker activists occupy and take care of these spaces, such as public policy councils. On the other hand, the increased role of these judicial and defence entities in the communicative flow, i.e., the policy network, is a sign of a lack of dialog with the municipal government. The underpinning contradiction is that waste picking and waste picker community are formally acknowledged as the actors in charge of implementing sorted waste collection by the National Law, the PNRS. Nonetheless, at the local level, the municipal government has not implemented it, being de facto legally defaulting. The politically active component of the Jardim Gramacho waste picker community is then working as institutional stewards, claiming for the full implementation of national law and sustainable practice to bring forward a struggle these waste picker activists acknowledge is of public relevance, while employing formal institutional channels. This idea is well aligned, and allows us to expand on previous research, which showed the role of waste pickers as environmental stewards [25], while also adding on that the political practice of waste picker activists is not that of insurgent and border actors, but rather that of institution-builders, actively embedded in the policy community. In the case of Jardim Gramacho, active waste pickers are not against the state, they are against the non-state. From this point of view, this case is representative of the national-scale of waste picker activism in Brazil. As David Amorim reported in his interview, the MNCMR has a twofold well-defined political strategy (Interview, April 2022). On the one hand, the national waste picker community adopts a “direct action” strategy, meaning a kind of insurgent practice, which aims at provoking and contesting the public government to achieve recognition and consent of collective rights [25]. This kind of strategy is implemented without intermediaries but through initiatives, such as petitions, street demonstrations, and social network activism. The second strategy is part of the issue network and conducted through direct bargaining with members of the policy community, with the aim of the implementation of the public policy, in this case specifically of the PNRS, and not against it. These dynamics are also present in the case of Jardim Gramacho.
Going through the analysis of this theme, it was possible to grasp that the relations between the policy community and the waste picker community are not linear. Waste pickers are at the same time in and out of the making of the waste policy process. They are part of the “structure” (i.e., institutional framework) [65], for example, as members of local public policies councils. At the same time, they are against the government, and especially the local governments, claiming their right to be included and asking for formal and factual recognition of basic human rights. However, the relations involved are beyond this kind of dialectic and the descriptive dichotomy community–network. Indeed, the relations are beyond the consent of the policy community and the opposition through the issue network, so, in the claim for consensus, the waste pickers still suffer a condition of subordination and marginalization, especially determined by specific authorization mechanisms, such as sectoral rules and related bureaucratic practices [66]. This is undoubtedly evident in the bidding conditions to be hired as official service providers, for example. To access the bidding process, the waste picker cooperatives need to have all kinds of necessary documentation that certifies their suitability to provide the service. The list of these documents is long and goes from the establishment of the cooperative as a legal entity (which entails, at once, many others related to labor law), to the fire and safety certification of the hangar and the transport vehicles, up to the so-called waste manifesto, that is the license to operate in the waste sector. Access to these documents requires technical knowledge and financial resources that are forbidding for the vast majority of waste picker cooperatives. At once, they constitute the main barrier to accessing the formal market of waste service provision, and the main institutional barrier.
In one of the interviews a local environmental technician, a former consultant of the municipality, reported:
“the so-called waste manifesto is a form with an invoice that helps control where the waste goes. each actor involved in the cycle has to declare who is delivering this waste. for the collectors’ cooperative to be part of this cycle, its legality level must be maximum […] this is like you are going to take part in a public tender. You are ready. You studied but you have no your CPF (The Cadastro de Pessoas Físicas (CPF; Portugu“se for "Natural Persons ”egister") is the Brazilian individual taxpayer registry identification)” (Interview n.3, 2019)
In Jardim Gramacho this kind of institutional barrier represented one of the main bottlenecks for the development of local cooperatives after the closure of the dumpsite and the take-off of the two main projects supported by local government (the Polo and the Centro de Triagem).
“the licensing of the pole is not coIuded … many things were not working because the cooperatives were not able to legalize themselves to issue a waste manifest” (Interview n.3, 2019)
This barrier to the legalization of the cooperatives, combined with the outlawing of the landfill, created a lock-in for the waste picker community, eroding the informal network, while keeping the doors of formal relations closed.
“in Jardim Gramacho many things happen illegally […] with the closing of the dump, informal relations became more difficult” (Interview n.3, 2019)
This main issue though has not been politicized. This means that it has been approached not as a political trap, but rather as a fatal bureaucratic trap, by local cooperatives that have not transformed the issue into a collective struggle.
This is clear, especially from the words of the local leaders who are politically active and involved in shaping and bringing forward waste picker claims for inclusion. On the one hand, being part of the policy community, through participation in different local collegial instances, is a source of pride, learning and emancipation for the active members of the Jardim Gramacho community. Active participation in the policy community, as well as in the broader issue network, offers knowledge building where concepts and words are acquired, and these are acknowledged as emancipatory.
“I widen my perspective when I take part in deliberative practices in the public spaces…because I am a leader…” (Interview Dos Santos, July 2022).
On the other hand, the disarticulation and fragmentation of the local community into small networks or niches of small cooperatives has drained critical energy to develop a collective strategy and bring the common struggle forward.

6. Conclusions

Waste production is increasing globally, representing not only a concern, in terms of resource consumption and soil pollution, but also a threat, in terms of the growth of CO2 emissions. We have knowledge, information and technology to invert this trend but they have proved insufficient without changes in everyday life habits and their underpinning values. Waste picker communities, with their proximity to wasted materials and social, and, in some specific cases, political struggles, offer meaningful examples of alternative values (i.e., sufficiency) to push the necessary cultural change in our lifestyles (by our I refer to western white elites) and in our relationship with material consumption. This paper reported on the results of a seven-year extended case study in one of the most symbolic waste picker communities of Latin America, Jardim Gramacho. The research had three main goals. First, to unravel and descriptively depict the dense entanglement of actors involved in both the policy community and issue network of waste governance in this neighbourhood of the municipality of Duque de Caxias (the second in the Rio de Janeiro State). Second, the study sought to understand the role of the waste picker activists within the two policy processes, the informal flows (the issue network) and the formal structures (the policy community), with other members of these two processes. Third, consistent with the purpose of an extended case study, the study sought to highlight the limitation of the existing theory to analyze policy networks and outline a research agenda to go beyond the limitations and scale up the findings. To answer the research questions, members of the studied waste picker community played a multiplicity of roles in the political arenas, navigating in, out and beyond the boundaries of the policy networks. The analysis of twenty interviews, documents and informal conversations show that the relations are much more complex than the policy community vs issue network dichotomic model can explain. Indeed, waste pickers have been, and currently are, at the same time members, opponents and oppressed components of the policy community. These results were supported by another main piece of evidence, which was the diversity of the local waste picker community and their agency and subjectivities as individuals and groups of individuals. Indeed, the interviews reported different narratives witnessing commonalities, as well as differences, in the way waste pickers understand their role, their mission and their future. In this study, the politically active component was especially relevant. This group showed the existence of a structured, multi-scaled, organization of waste pickers unified by a strong class identity (pride in being a waste picker), driven by collective (rather than individual) values and facilitating the role of institutional stewards. By institutional stewardship, I mean the role this active community of waste picker is playing in claiming the implementation of public laws and in doing that through the competent use of public space and bodies. Recognizing this rooted public culture is key for the institutional inclusion of waste pickers in the formal part of the Brazilian wastescape. Nonetheless, these research findings show that the relationship between waste pickers and public institutions is not linear and not always cooperative, being multifaceted and conflicting. This is especially the case with regard to the institutional barriers that small waste picker cooperatives face in formalizing (or “legalizing” in Portuguese) their activity. This requires the political will of decision-makers at different institutional layers and, therefore, the active inclusion of waste pickers as a professional category (a class) in the political process.
The reflections on these results suggest the following three points for the future research agenda:
(1) revising the policy network theory (rather than demolishing it for a new theory) by adding dialectical elements which make room for analysis;
(2) thoroughly investigating the material aspects of the waste pickers’ inclusion in the waste market, from both political ecology and ecological economic points of view;
(3) adopting a transdisciplinary approach, meaning working with waste picker communities, rather than on them.
Regarding the first point, the policy network framework’s main limitation is in being a descriptive and neutral tool for analysis. By relying on this theory, this paper did not aim at investigating the complex power structure which underpins relations in communities and networks. Yet, the findings of this study could contribute to revising the theory. Actually, the boundaries among the categories in the policy network framework could first be questioned and then better explored through the use of some of the conceptual dimensions that arose through the thematic analysis of this study, namely political and institutional stewardship and organizational values and class identity. These categories delineate a flow between formality and informality, between the community and the network, which bridge these two spheres, while shaping both the political subjectivity of waste pickers and their power, power entailing the ability to take action, as in Gramsci’s conception. These action and political dimensions can transform a static, descriptive model into a dynamic and analytical framework. Such a theorical development goal requires further empirical investigations in different contexts, or comparing these results with those from other research concerning waste pickers and public government relations, such as those cited in this paper [25].
The second point of the”rese’rch agenda entails bringing forward this study in all its ecological relevance, trying to better understand its material root causes and implications, but from critical perspectives. Jardim Gramacho is a relatively new neighbourhood in the municipality of Duque de Caxias whose history is entirely connected with the placement of an impactful infrastructure, such as an open dumpsite, in an area of high ecological value (the Guanabara Bay), and is also associated with labor exploitation [61]. It epitomizes the case of a sacrifice zone, the underpinning material (economic) dynamic of which deserves further empirical investigation. This case is highly valuable to problematize the circular economy discourse from the perspective of marginalized communities. Political ecology and ecological economics offer two unique angles from which to study this case from the material point of view.
As for the third point, and consistently with the goal of this special issue, further research with waste picker communities, in and beyond Gramacho, must adopt a transdisciplinary approach. Local communities do not want to be used as data mines and waste pickers interviewed during this research clearly expressed their distrust and disenchantment with the academic world. This has also to do with the hegemonic procedures and frames of academic work, laden by productivity standards and funding needs. A transdisciplinary approach allows for promoting cultural and structural changes in both waste picker communities and the academic world.
The purpose of this research was to work with, and learn from, waste pickers, while contributing to collecting and systematizing multiple voices on their conditions and their political actions and relationships. The main limitation of this work was the increasing difficulty, over the last two years, to maintain ties with the local community, due to the pandemic. This generated positionality problems in the interaction with waste pickers who could not always recognize a pay-off in offering their time in interviews and conversations. This story aimed also at going beyond this problem and giving back to them.

Supplementary Materials

The following supporting information can be downloaded at:, Interview Guide.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Ethical review and approval were waived for this study in compliance of the rules of the Faculty of Science and not applicability for the Faculty of Governance of Leiden University. Indeed anonymity is respected and an oral informed consent was provided by all subjects involved, especially those whose names are cited.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Data for this research are sensitive interviews not publicly available.


I want to acknowledge my twenty interviewees and all the dwellers and waste picker of Jardim Gramacho and the citizens of Duque de Caxias and neighbouring municipalities in the Baixada Fluminense, who offered me their precious time to explain the mechanism of local waste picking, their stories and sharing their feelings, knowledge and expectations. Among them a special thanks to Cleonice Puggian (from UERJ) for her help in providing valuable contacts and Ana Lúcia Britto (from PROURB—UFRJ) who supervised me at the beginning of this work, Sidney Cunha Delino and Rosinete dos Santos from the Forum Comunitário of Jardim Gramacho, and Davi Amorim, from the Brazilian National Movement of Recyclable Materials Waste picker. Finally, I would like to thank four anonymous reviewers for their valuable input on a previous version of this manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Timeline of the National Framework for Waste Management.
Figure 1. Timeline of the National Framework for Waste Management.
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Figure 2. Neighborhood of Gramacho localization map. Jardim Gramacho is a section of it [64].
Figure 2. Neighborhood of Gramacho localization map. Jardim Gramacho is a section of it [64].
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Figure 3. Waste policy community.
Figure 3. Waste policy community.
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Figure 4. Caxias municipal waste governance issue network.
Figure 4. Caxias municipal waste governance issue network.
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Table 1. Rhodes and Marsh = Policy Network Typology.
Table 1. Rhodes and Marsh = Policy Network Typology.
VariablesPolicy CommunityIssue Network
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N. of participants[M1] Selected number of participantsBroad open participation not fixed
InterestProfessional interests Variety of interests
Integration (Interaction)
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FrequencyFrequent and structured Intermitting, random, fluctuant
ContinuityRule-based (fixed) membershipOpen, undefined, changeable
ConsensusRooted on shared values, outcome-orientedNo formal agreement or conflicts
Resources (Distribution)
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Intra-network resourcesEach partner has financial resources. Information is formally exchanged Diversity of resource availability. Information is informally exchanged
Intra-organization resourceHierarchical flow through the leadersUnruled and flat flow
Power (Allocation)
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Access and balanceBalance of power among members or legitimate unbalance Unruled power distribution and access
Source: Adapted by Rhodes and Marsh [48].
Table 2. Data collection materials and method.
Table 2. Data collection materials and method.
Data Collection Method.2016201920212022
Participatory observationWaste sorting centerWaste sorting centerWaste sorting centerJardim Gramacho neighborhood
Informal conversations Citizens
Member of the municipal environmental council
Activists, waste cooperative leaders, waste cooperative workers
Semi-structured/Unstructured Interviews1,2: ITCP (University incubators for cooperatives);
3: Municipal environmental alderman
4-11: 7 cooperative leaders
12: State programme officer
1, 2: 2 cooperative leaders;
3: 1 environmental consultant
1,2: coop leaders1: 1 cooperative worker
2: 1 Communication director of Waste Picker National Movement
3: 1 Activist
4: 1 Municipal Environmental Officer
Interiew monthJune–AugustAugustAugustApril-July
Secondary sources and documental materialsState account court
Municipal document
SNIS (national statistic system)
Media outlets
Local and national blogs and news paper Academic papers
National report
Note: Numbers in italics in the table corresponds to those cited in the text.
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Maiello, A. In, Out or Beyond? Waste Pickers and Policy Networks: A Story from Jardim Gramacho (Rio de Janeiro). Sustainability 2022, 14, 16977.

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Maiello A. In, Out or Beyond? Waste Pickers and Policy Networks: A Story from Jardim Gramacho (Rio de Janeiro). Sustainability. 2022; 14(24):16977.

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Maiello, Antonella. 2022. "In, Out or Beyond? Waste Pickers and Policy Networks: A Story from Jardim Gramacho (Rio de Janeiro)" Sustainability 14, no. 24: 16977.

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