In this video, Roberval Prates Reis, a representative of the National Movement of Waste Pickers in Brazil (MNCR) talks at the First Conference of the Environment in the Osasco region (São Paulo) about the struggle of the “biffins” of Paris to defend their livelihood. “It’s interesting when you start looking at waste management experiences around the world and you start to realize that the issue of livelihood is a universal one,” he said. In France and across Europe, where the economic crisis has hit workers hard, waste picking has become a viable option for many unemployed people.
Reis spoke about the reality of the “biffins” in France based on conversations they exchanged during the visit. In Paris, the waste pickers collect discarded items and resell them at flea markets. This activity has existed in France for 800 years, he said. Before waste management and planning laws were implemented, citizens would throw their waste and unwanted items from their windows to the street below, he said. The biffins took the salvagable physical objects and resold them. They sold the organic waste to farmers, reducing the amount of methane-producing waste accumulated in landfills.
“But in the last 200 years waste picking has been disappearing,” Reis said. Private companies took over and municipal governments prohibited the activity. Landfills have grown in size and quantity and incineration has grown in popularity, he said. Today, waste pickers are fined hundreds of Euros if they are caught collecting recyclables.
“But the biffins continue to recycle. And today waste picking is returning in a big way because of unemployment and immigration,” Reis said. He explained that the visit to Brazilian waste pickers’ visit to France was about political mobilization and spreading the message about the importance of organizing in France.