Where does the recyclable waste end up?

Country/area: Brazil

Organisation: Metrópoles

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 13/06/2021

Credit: Lucas Marchesini, Lilian Tahan, Priscilla Borges, Otto Valle, Olívia Meireles, Gui Prímola, Marcos Garcia, Gabriel Foster, Daniel Ferreira, Michael Melo, Igo Estrela, Rafaela Felicciano, Allan Rabelo, Daniel Mendes, Italo Ridney, Saulo Marques


Lucas Marchesini is a data journalist at Metrópoles, one of Brazil’s most-read news websites. Prior to joining Metrópoles, he worked for Valor Econômico. He majored in journalism at the University of Brasília and has a master’s in computation and data Journalism from Cardiff University.

Project description:

At the beginning of 2020, a waste collector company was surprised dumping the recyclable trash in an irregular dumpsite. According to the company, it was a one-time misbehavior, but was it telling the truth? Was it an occasional problem or is it a systemic issue? To discover the truth about recycling in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, this project tracked the recyclable waste. To do that, more than 60 GPS devices were thrown in the trash. We followed them for one month, and found out a panoply of problems.

Impact reached:

The project uneathed serious problems in the recycling process in Brasília, the capital of Brasília. Following the investigation, several organizations contacted Metrópoles to understand how the investigations was done and how they could improve upon the findings. Among them were recycling companies and the Unops office in Brasília, which is in the process of adopting a zero waste policy.

Furthermore, lawmakers in Brasília used the investigation to require explanations fro mthe recycling companiers. This is still ongoing.

Tha investigation also gathered a lot of attention for the subject. Because of its repercussion, the author was invited to talk in the Zero Waste Internacional Conference. The event is a global event discussing good and bad experiences involving recyclable waste.

Techniques/technologies used:

The investigation used a mix of techniques. The core of the project was using GPS trackers to find out where the recyclable waste ends up in Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

To track it, we used a specilized software integrated with the devices and developded by Tkstar.  The device was the Tkstar 905, which has a battery that lasts more than one month and is waterproof.

Each one of the devices requires a cellphone chip. We used M2M (Machine too machine) chips because they have a better coverage in Brazil and are less succeptible to be blocked due to spam messages. This is important because individual commands to the devices are send through standard text messages and they can be seen as spam by the network.

Additionaly, we exported all the data in kml format so we could do our own analysis (using Python, specially geopandas, but also google maps) and also build our maps, using javascript.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part was to select which tracker to use. There are several models in the market, but only a few are in the market in Brazil. Some of them were too expensive. Others had battery problems.

To find out which one would have the best cost/benefit relation to my project, I first talked with friends that had used trackers for various reasons. After that, I settled for 3 different possibilities and bought one of each to test it on the ground. I took it with me during my vacations and after it, threw them in the trash to track it.

This allowed me to define the best tracker for the project. This was the fundamental pillar of the project. If I had made a bad decision, i would have thrown more than US$ 5000 lityerally in the trash with no usable result.

What can others learn from this project?

The project has a range of learning possibilities. The first one is to not accept that some investigations cannot be done because the data is not available somewhere. With technological advancements, it is more possible by the day for journalists to create their own datasets. As the project shows, it is true for any subject.

Another outcome is that the project is replicable anywhere in the world. We did it with a lot of trackers (thanks to the Pulitzer Center, which provided a lot of the fundind) but this can be done also with a handful of trackers and a couple hundred dollars.

Garbage collection is a major problem all around the world and what we did in Brasília can be done anywhere.

Furthermore, the project shows how tracker can be used to do traditional investigation journalism, adding another tool to journalists worldwide.

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