This is an incredibly vibrant city –one that gives me the same feeling as I had in (yes) Las Vegas in the mid’90s of being a “happening place” with unlimited potential for smart growth and urban solutions. San Paulo is an incredible mass of humanity concrete and brick, but its people are upbeat and realize that, far from being bit players, they are in the process of assuming a key role on a world stage. Unlike most cities I visit these days, there is an undercurrent of optimism and excitement here, and, perhaps most importantly, an awareness of the environment that feels totally unique.
As I write this, I am sitting on the patio of a beautiful restaurant after having been given a tour of the city by my guide Luciano. Unlike most conventional tours, however, this one included a stop at the municipal waste station and recycling location for 13 million people. It also included interviews with several of the “street pickers” whose occupation is redeeming aluminum cans and other recyclable materials, from which many make a comfortable living. This method of recycling, in fact, has become a regular industry here in a country that has no formal reclamation system to speak of, but it has proven so successful that Brazil is now considered the world leader in redemption of aluminum containers, with a 96.5 collection rate.
That, however is far from the case where plastic is concerned. According to estimates I was given by the locals, in fact, the recycling rate of plastic packaging and containers here may be no higher than three percent – something I saw evidence of in the streets, where plastic is often discarded while the collectors’ carts are filled to capacity with aluminum and cardboard. (And Sao Paulo, don’t forget, is only a few miles from the sea, where plastic pollution remains a major threat to marine life.)
Right now, I still have four more days of meetings scheduled here. But my initial impression is, if we want to make the world a more sustainable place, this is one of the strategic locales we’d better be focusing our sights on – a solution-oriented place, to be sure, but one where the business of tackling urban problems has been left largely to the people themselves.