The Light Project: Incentivizing Recycling in Rio de Janeiro

Posted By: Andrew Downie|Dated: October 13, 2011

Just days after her company set up the first large-scale recycling project in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown, Fernanda Mayrink saw a young man hand over two bags of garbage at the collection point. It was all she could do not to grab him and give him a big hug.

The Light Project

“I was so excited at seeing him dropping off garbage on his way to work that I said out loud, ‘What a great sight!’” recalled Mayrink, community outreach officer for Light, Rio’s electricity company. “He heard me and he laughed.”

“Seeing him was symbolic, you could see that the project is taking off and that people are getting into the habit of recycling their refuse. It took him two minutes on his way to work. What we want is for that to become a habit.”

When it comes to recycling, Brazil is among the world’s leaders (first in aluminium, second in plastic bottles, third in steel cans and fourth in the reuse of solid plastics) but most of that is down to individuals rather than organised schemes.

The Light project that kicked off last month in one of Rio’s best-known shantytowns, or favelas, aims to change that. Taking its lead from a hugely successful project run by an electricity firm in the north of the country, Light is offering clients money off their bills in return for household garbage like paper, metals, plastics, tetrapak, glass and cooking oil.

The project began in Santa Marta, one of Rio’s most iconic favelas. (Michael Jackson shot the video for They Don’t Care About Us here in 1996). Until recently controlled by heavily armed drug gangs, Santa Marta is one of the 68 favelas ‘pacified’ by Brazilian police aiming to transform the city ahead of the 2014 World Cup Final and 2016 Olympics, both of which will be held in the so-called Marvelous City.

Police entered the favela in 2008 and expelled the traffickers and the 6,000 residents now live in relative peace under the command of community police officers. One thing, however, hasn’t changed.

“You don’t see drugs and guns any more but you do see lots of rubbish,” said Mayrink, Light’s community outreach officer. “This project encourages recycling within the company’s concession area and at the same time contributes to sustainable development and the consumer’s pocket. Light wins, the customer wins (and) the environment wins.”

Many of Light’s clients in Rio’s pacified favelas have, in one obvious way, already won. Not only can they come and go without fear of being struck down in one of the regular shootouts, they also have a proper electricity supply for the first time in years.

Before, many residents took pirated electricity for free from atop nearby poles. Outages and spikes were common and gangs wielding machine guns made it impossible for Light’s technicians to carry out maintenance.

Since the favelas were pacified, Light has rewired homes, swapped old bulbs for electricity saving fluorescent ones, and bought new refrigerators to replace the ones that guzzled energy.

It has also brought together the residents of the favela and those living on the streets below. Those residing near the shanty are encouraged to bring their garbage into the favela’s two collection points. They can opt to take the refund themselves or donate the credits to a local charity.

“The idea is to unite the community and the people living around it,” Mayrink said.

Mayrink hopes the new project will expand into potentially hundreds of others if it takes off but for now she is content to oversee the transformation in Santa Marta.

“I love this idea,” she said with a contagious smile. “There’s no chance that this won’t be a success.”

Do you think an initiative like the Light Project could be implemented in India? What kind of incentives can be provided to curb the amount of garbage polluting our country? How can both the private and public sectors work together achieve this?

About the Author:

Andrew Downie


Andrew Downie fled a factory job in Scotland almost 20 years ago and set off to find adventure in Latin America. Since then he has lived in Mexico, Haiti, and now Brazil, writing and reporting for publications such as The New York Times, Time magazine, Esquire and GQ.  He spent eight years in Rio de Janeiro and currently lives in São Paulo.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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  • Amy

    This gives wonderful insight to simple but effective solutions to waste management in the developing world. I live in Mumbai and there is such a need for community-run recycling efforts. If anyone out there knows of any in Mumbai, let me know! Thanks. 

  • Harshal Kulkani9

    hey this veryy nice concept please provide some more details ……………

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