Sorting the World Cup's Trash: Page 2

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That is mainly thanks to the silent army that picks through the nation's garbage.

"According to the government there are 600,000 catadores in Brazil. We believe there are actually more than a million. There are more and more cooperatives, which improve labor conditions, but the majority still work freelance at dumps," said Ronei Alves, coordinator of the National Catadores Movement.

Marlene Rafael, a 25-year-old who says she dreams of going back to school, spends her days at Cidade Estrutural, a sprawling open-air dump outside Brasilia, where hundreds of catadores climb over foul-smelling piles of waste, working without contracts or health insurance.

VIDEO: Where Does Our Garbage Go?

They pick through mountains of garbage that extend for kilometers (miles) and grow constantly as hundreds of trucks arrive with new loads.

Brazil passed a law in 2010 to promote recycling and clean up its festering dumps, but progress has been slow on the ground.

Brasilia has had a formal selective public recycling program for just three months, and it has had only limited impact.

"They didn't create the necessary infrastructure, and the trash keeps going to the dump," says Alves.

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In terms of waste management, Brazil is trailing countries such as Japan, whose fans have stunned locals by bringing their own trash bags to matches and cleaning up after themselves.

"We're still far behind. In Curitiba, where we've advanced the most, 20 percent of waste is recycled. In Sao Paulo, it's 1.8 percent," said Ariovaldo Caodaglio, president of the Sao Paulo sanitation workers' union.

"The private sector wants and needs these materials, and that's what is pushing recycling the most."

Catadores are increasingly organizing to improve their working conditions.

"When we started 10 years ago, we were below the poverty line. Now we're right at it," said Sonia Maria da Silva, an energetic 62-year-old who set up a trash-pickers' cooperative.

"Our work conditions and quality of life have improved because we organized ourselves and got machinery," she told AFP, separating rubbish with large gloves on her hands.

"Now we have a real chance to make a living wage."