“If corrupted politicians were recyclable, they would be worth less than cardboard.” Flickr / Milton Jung

An important step toward visibility for some of Brazil’s most important—but unappreciated—workers.

Brazil is home to about a million freelance professional waste pickers, or catadores. These workers are not necessarily highly respected, notes the graffiti artist Thiago Mundano. Still, the pickers are almost entirely responsible for the one-third of trash that does get recycled in Brazil, collecting almost 50,000 tons of waste per day. These people have stepped up waste collection when the government has been loathe to—but some local officials still won’t cooperate with the waste pickers, whom they view as “scavengers.”

This is “heavy, honest, and essential work that benefits the entire population,” Mundano said in a recent TED Talk. That’s why he started his popular “Pimp My Carroça” project in 2007. (The name comes from the mid-2000s MTV show that souped up sad-looking cars.)

With the help of more than 300 street artists, Mundano’s project transforms waste pickers’ plain-looking carts, or carroças. “By adding art and humor to the cause, [waste picking] became more appealing,” Mundano said to the TED audience. The result is “improved self esteem,” since the catadores are “famous now on the street, in mass media, and social [media].”

The project, however, doesn’t stop at “pimping out” the carroças. The cart-decorating events also include social services, the kinds that can be hard to come by for the country’s most disenfranchised. At past “Pimp My Carroça” events, volunteer doctors have provided eye exams and psychological evaluations, while volunteer massage therapists sat catadores down for some much-needed TLC. Mundano’s group also provides waste pickers with safety products, including raincoats, glasses, and brightly-colored vests.

A “Pimp My Carroça” event in 2012. (Flickr / Circuito Fora do Eix)

“When the carroças are new and colorful, with funny messages, people started to interact," Mundano told NPR in January. "One day they are completely invisible and the next day people are like, 'Whoa! Nice cart, can I take a picture?'"

H/t Springwise

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