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Used oil is turned into biodiesel

More than 1,250 waste pickers in the greater Recife area earn an income from the recovery of improperly discharged waste. Many of them live on the streets in precarious conditions. In cooperation with the local partner organisation, Caritas Switzerland supports five cooperatives of waste pickers in the recycling of used cooking oil by converting it into biodiesel and marketing the product. This enables the waste pickers to generate an additional income, and at the same time contributes to climate and environmental protection.


Country / Region / Place
Brazil, State of Pernambuco, Recife

Target group
600 marginalised people (122 families) working as waste pickers, from five cooperatives in the greater Recife area

Funding requirement
CHF 210,000

Project duration
01.03.2016 to 31.12.2018

Project number

Project objective
By recycling used cooking oil into biodiesel, the project makes a contribution to climate and environmental protection and improves the living conditions of marginalised groups.

Project coordinator
Esther Belliger, Tel: 041 419 24 41;

Africa / Latin America


Background information

The classification of Brazil as an emerging economy, based on the mean values of macroeconomic indicators, often fails to take the enormous regional disparities within the country into account. Parts of Brazil in the southeast and south could be included in the European regional development index, but large parts of the north and northeast regions continue to exhibit characteristics that are typical of poverty-stricken areas in developing countries. The proportion of people living in absolute poverty in the northeast is almost twice as high as in the rest of the country.

Recife, the capital of Pernambuco State and the region’s economic and trade centre, is the second-largest city in Brazil’s northeast, with 1.5 million inhabitants; the metropolitan area is home to four million people. Compared to 1950, the city’s population is more than six times higher today. As in the rest of the country, this rapid process of urbanisation has serious social, economic and environmental impacts. The greater Recife area has the fifth-largest concentration of favelas in Brazil, and 97 per cent of the 1 075 slums of the State of Pernambuco.

In Recife, 2,300 tons of waste are produced every day, roughly 40 per cent of which is not properly disposed of and only 4% is recycled. A large proportion of the waste is collected, sorted and partly recycled by waste pickers, the so-called catadores. Their average monthly income is well below the national minimum wage. More than a third are illiterate, and just 20 per cent have completed their schooling. Often, the children help their parents with the waste picking activities. The lack of schooling and the lack of professional qualifications make integration in the formal labour market almost impossible. There are around 1,250 waste pickers in the project area. Many of them live on the streets in precarious circumstances.

In the context of global warming and the growing scarcity of resources, the topic of biodiesel is once again at the centre of global debates. Due to a law which specifies a minimum proportion of biodiesel in the fuel mix, Brazil has become one of the largest producers of biofuel. Innovative projects in various parts of the world have shown that used cooking oil is suitable as a raw material for biodiesel. In the metropolitan area of Recife, 50 million litres of used cooking oil are not properly disposed of each year, with devastating consequences for the environment – in particular for water resources.


What are we doing?

By converting used cooking oil into other products, this project contributes both to climatic and environmental protection and to improving the living conditions of a marginalised group.

In cooperation with our local partner organisation, the regional Caritas, we support five cooperatives of waste pickers in processing used cooking oil into biodiesel, and in selling this product. Local partner enterprises of the cooperatives as well as restaurants, hotels, canteens and fast-food outlets provide their used cooking oil, which is then being collected by the waste pickers and treated in a processing facility. By blending the used cooking oil with additives, biodiesel is produced, as well as the by-product glycerine. In a simple process, glycerine can be recycled into soap and sold. The cooperatives have purchase agreements for the biodiesel with various partner enterprises, which guarantee the sale of these waste-oil-derived products and thereby an additional regular income for the waste pickers.

122 waste picker families generate an additional monthly income of around CHF 35.00 (110 reais) or an extra 16% from converting the waste oil and selling the resulting products. It helps them to cover the costs of their basic needs, such as better housing conditions, or schooling for their children. Part of the profit goes into a solidarity fund, which is primarily used to cover the operating and maintenance costs of the processing facility. The remaining cash of the fund serves to support families in emergency situations (for example in case of illness). Decisions of who receives which amount are taken in a participatory and transparent process.

Besides income generation, the project's aim is also to boost the waste pickers' self-esteem and enable them to assert their rights as citizens. To this end, various workshops are organised. Moreover, the responsibility for operating the plant and administering the solidarity fund is gradually passed to the waste pickers.

At the same time, the project makes an important contribution to climate and environmental protection. Converting used vegetable oil into biodiesel leads to a reduction in resource consumption and CO2 emissions. Moreover, the low aromatics and sulphur content of biodiesel lower the emission of sulphur dioxide, and also leads to a reduction in the emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and fine dust. Glycerine, which is a by-product of processing the used cooking oil, is processed into soap, so that no harmful waste products result during production. The collection of used cooking oil contributes to groundwater protection, as less oil ends up in the wastewater. Awareness-raising of the population and lobbying the political authorities on environmental issues are further important aspects of the project. Information materials are produced and restaurants, hotels and fast-food outlets providing used oil are labelled as environmentally-friendly enterprises.



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