Fernanda Mayrink brings light and safety into the lives of many
by Alex Elliott
Fernanda Mayrink, who championed and launched the ‘Light Recicla' scheme tells Alex Elliott how it is revolutionising lives in Santa Marta and beyond.
I have a dream that one day all the communities in Rio will have an eco point like this
In 2011, Brazilian energy company, Light, set up a scheme to clean up the streets of Rio's newly pacified Santa Marta favela. The once notorious slum, which had been powered by illegal and dangerous tapping of electricity cables, was fitted with new power cables, and energy efficient light bulbs. Then, ‘Light Recicla' was launched, allowing residents to exchange recyclable goods for money off their electricity bill.
What made you set up the Light Recicla programme?
Until a few years ago there were many gangs with arms and drugs in Santa Marta - we couldn't do our work. Then, after the police pacification in 2008, we could see that the place was changing: you didn't see any arms and guns, but there was a lot of waste in the streets. When it rains heavily the water collects plastic: there were rivers of rubbish flowing through the favela. How can you talk about changing people's lives if they are in the middle of all this waste? So we went to see a waste management project in Sierra called Ecoelce where recycling posts had been introduced in supermarkets and elsewhere. We have done a similar thing, but, for us, the focus is on the communities that have been pacified.
How exactly does the scheme work? And how successful has it been?
The residents bring their recycling to be weighed and we have software that calculates the value of this; the discount and the energy saved. The customer gets a receipt showing how much money he or she will have off her next bill. Another company Doe Seu Lixo, buys the materials, breaks them into tiny pieces for re-use and credits Light with their value. We co-ordinate the whole thing.
Between June 2011 and May 2013, we have had 4,672 people bringing 1,343 tonnes of paper and other recycled materials. I have people that haven't paid a bill in months, and people that only get a small discount: it depends on their habits as a household and if they pick up materials in other places or if they only bring their own materials.
Light Recicla has had huge impact in cleaning up the streets of Santa Marta: what are the other benefits for the community?
With pacification came a new formality: families suddenly faced new bills that they had to pay with the same amount of money that they have always had each month. For some families it is worse now because they had one son who was working for the traffickers and has now lost his job.
As part of the programme we changed light bulbs and fridges in people's homes to make them more efficient, and showed them how to save energy. So we are creating the conditions for people to be able pay their bills: they can either use energy more efficiently so it stays at a level that they can afford, or they get money off their bill by recycling, or both.
Also we have schools and businesses based in richer areas that give all the credit from their recycled plastic, paper and glass to schools in the favela. It's a way to help people by using something that you don't want any more. Some individuals do this too: in the recycling centre there is a list of organisations that you can donate your credit to.
What are the benefits for Light as a company?
Before pacification there were 1,597 houses [in Santa Marta], but only 73 had bills, and only 24 of those paid their bills. When we came in after pacification, a lot of people said: "I don't need to pay for energy or for water, these are two things that God gave me". We had to educate them, and we made a deal: your debt with us is suspended provided that you pay your bills from now on. I am giving you a chance, a chance for you and me to have a new relationship. They are all our clients now. So there is an economic benefit.
But, although this is good business, at the moment the cost of investing in all this means we are not making a lot of money from it. To do that, we would need people to bring a lot more stuff, but I expect to see more people every day. In the meantime, we are contributing to preserving the environment, and there is a media return, it is an investment.
How easy was it to set up the scheme?
At the start, I had to sell the idea to my company. My boss said: ‘you have a lot of work, don't come with another thing to do, it is enough'. But I was so persistent that eventually he said, "ok, let's go". Now he is one of the most enthusiastic supporters. After I had his buy-in, I had to talk with a lot of people: the government, people in the favelas, I had to sell the idea to them too. This is something you can only do if you really believe in it, you have to pass on credibility to the people. If you don't look them in the eye, they don't trust you.
You are currently expanding into other communities: how far do you think this concept could ultimately go?
We recently inaugurated points in Rocinha and Cruzada São Sebastião. And we plan to expand into six other communities this year. We have also begun a partnership with two other companies SuperGasBras, who sell gas to people in the favelas, and Hortifruti who sell fruit and vegetables and we are setting up these eco points together.
I have a dream that one day all the communities in Rio will have an eco point like this. It's a way to help with managing waste, which is a big problem that Rio and the whole planet has to think about. This project is here to stay, and to grow: imagine, you could pay your phone credit, your water, you can pay anything with this...
What has the response of the community been? Are there any individuals who have stood out for you?
The leader here, José Mario Hilario, is our partner. Every three years they have an election in the favela, and José was chosen as their leader, like the president. Without him nothing can happen because he talks on his radio and calls people here to participate. He can see an enormous difference since the scheme began. He says: "It's for the environment, and it helps us with our family budgets. In the beginning people had doubts because they didn't have all the information. But when they saw what it meant, it worked. It's part of our lives now: when I walk along and I see something, I pick it up because it's money now."
I have one client, Severiano, whose nickname is ‘Bill' because he hasn't paid a bill for 16 months. He has saved R$1,256 and he's putting it into an account for his son.
You have made this project happen yourself and are now facilitating its expansion. Why are you so passionate about the work that you are doing?
I've always worked in the area of social change. We can't say that we are not in a good place if we don't try to change the place that we're in. I'm trying to do my part not just because I have to pay my bills but because it is something I really believe in.
These people were abandoned for 40, 50 years, so you can't change this in one year, it's a long process. But this is a particular moment: the World Cup, the Olympics and the pacification are giving our city the opportunity to change but peace is only a door that has opened. We have to catch this train now because if not ‘ciao'. To really see change, I have to do my part like a citizen, all the private companies have to do their part, the government has to do its part. You need a convergence of action to see a real transformation. I think I won't be alive to see it but maybe my daughter or my granddaughter will.
Alex Elliott is a freelance writer and editor based in London. He writes about sustainability, culture and community.
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