The recycling programs of our local municipalities' have taught us that not all trash is created equal. This is also the case in Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil. With more than 2,400,000 inhabitants and nearly twice as many in the official metropolitan area, massive amounts of trash are accumulated every day. And, not all of the trash automatically finds its way into the waste stream.

To learn more about how the trash and waste diversion problems are handled in Belo Horizonte and the employment opportunities they create, I attended a mini work shop together with two SAP colleagues.  Our instructor was Mauricio Soares, one of a handful of officially employed administrators at ASMARE. Founded 22 years ago, ASMARE is a local non-profit organization that provides the infrastructure to connect garbage collectors in Belo Horizonte, the so-called catadores, with the training and social services they need to become self-reliant professionals.

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ASMARE in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

At night when there is less traffic, catadores remove garbage from businesses and the street and cart it to one of two central collection facilities. There, they spend hours separating their load by hand into reusable recyclable materials, including paper, cardboard and plastic.

ASMARE provides a path to a new life for its employees, many of whom have spent time in prison and living on the street. Its founder, Dona Geralda Marçal, started as a catadora at age eight and later developed trash recycling into a business in large part to create opportunities for people to get out of poverty. Currently, there are approximately 200 ASMARE garbage collectors. And, over the years many catadores have moved into other lines of business, creating a better living for themselves and their families.

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Evan Welsh of SAP

What brought me to ASMARE in Brazil is the very first SAP social sabbatical. Over a period of four weeks, nine SAP employees offered their skills and business expertise to three non-profit organizations in Belo Horizonte. Our talents included supply chain management, HR, finance and communications, among others, and our common goal was to help those organizations create a bigger socio-economic impact.

Three of us were assigned to create an integrated communications plan for ASMARE in just 19 days. This included the design of a new logo and website as well as a catalog of all ASMARE products and services and the organization’s first electronic newsletter.

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Vase Created out of a discarded plastic bottle

But first we had to learn all about trash, and its hidden beauty.  According to our instructor Mauricio, a discarded plastic bottle is still a bottle that can be used again as a bottle or to create other things, like art. “We don’t work with trash, because it has an end,” he says. Instead, they work with recyclable materials.

Using only a PET bottle, a small wooden stick, a bead, scissors and a candle, Mauricio showed us how to make a beautiful vase with flowers. The exercise helped to distinguish between trash and reusable materials. In the process, I learned how to turn waste into gorgeous recycled art. It was a practical lesson in sustainability that our team has urged ASMARE to bring to schools.

Creating and selling recycled art can be an important new revenue stream for ASMARE and its members. Part of our recommended strategy is to have catadores show their work and the impact it makes for our daily lives and the planet we live on.  As they are seen as people living on the margins of society, conducting workshops will improve their image while boosting their self-esteem.

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ASMARE founder Dona Geralda

Eradicating poverty is often described as a Sísyphos task. ASMARE’s founder Dona Geralda said, “You can never get rid of poverty. All you can offer are opportunities.”

Social enterprise organizations such as ASMARE are improving people’s lives, one discarded plastic bottle at a time.

Follow Evan Welsh on Twitter. Learn more about SAP’s sustainability efforts via Twitter as well.

About The Author

Evan Welsh

Evan Welsh is Director, Global Media Relations, at SAP. He has more than 15 years of experience positioning multinational companies as well as not-for-profit institutions in the U.S. and Europe. He was in the first cohort of SAP employees to participate in the company’s new Social Sabbatical program. He tweets under @evwelsh.