Refuse pickers give new life to Carnival trash

Discarded props, costumes collected, repurposed, sold



RIO DE JANEIRO — Elaine da Silva Moraes clambers up mounds of abandoned fabric, foam and feathers that minutes earlier were the essence of Rio de Janeiro’s glitzy, multimillion-dollar Carnival parades.

The creative costumes on display at the all-night Sambadrome parades that ended early Tuesday have made Rio’s Carnival celebration the most famous in the world. But the handmade confections often have a short shelf life.

As the tens of thousands of revelers stream out of the Sambadrome, a surprising number of them immediately abandon their costumes, leaving them strewn on the ground amid a sea of empty beer cans, crushed water bottles and other ordinary trash.

Enter Moraes, a “catadora,” or trash picker, and hundreds of others like her, for whom Carnival represents an annual boon. Dressed in a patchwork of costume parts rescued from the detritus, Moraes filled plastic garbage bags with her treasures — feathers, props, headgear and costly fabrics that she re-sells or transforms into new costumes or clothing.

The catadores, who include even small children, work swiftly to keep ahead of the crews of garbage men in orange jumpsuits who pitch the piles of costumes and props into trash-compacting trucks.

“I think they’re crazy,” said Moraes, brandishing a plastic sword at the throngs of sweaty revelers as they poured out of the Sambadrome and stripped out of their oversize costumes. “They’re literally throwing money away. I wouldn’t dream of throwing money away the way they do.”

Each of the 12 top-tier Samba schools pours at least $3 million annually into over-the-top floats and costumes. The schools receive funding from the state and city governments, from television rights and ticket sales, as well as private sponsors. The O Dia newspaper recently estimated the top schools invested a total of about $42 million in this year’s parade.

The schools often provide free costumes for members who hail from the city’s slums, but tourists can buy the right to participate in the parades by purchasing a costume, which start at several hundred dollars each, a way for the schools to raise even more cash.

During Carnival, Moraes and two of her four children sleep outside the Sambadrome, collecting dozens of trash bags full of rescued items that she pays a trucker $50 to haul back to her home in the impoverished suburb of Duque de Caxias. She spends much of the rest of the year selling her finds to small samba schools from throughout Brazil and repurposing the often bulky, sometimes surreal-looking Carnival costumes into more conventional disguises for parties and other Brazilian holidays.

Jose Luiz de Jesus, on the other hand, hunts for treasures for himself.

The 42-year-old is a trapeze artist who performs on the streets of Salvador, a colonial city some 750 miles northeast of Rio. He’s been making the more-than-daylong bus journey to Rio every Carnival for the past five years to collect extravagant looks for his act.

“I have a whole closet full of the amazing costumes I find here,” said Jesus, adding that the costumes have turned him into a minor celebrity in his native city.

His favorite finds this trip included a monkey suit in deep-pile polyester shag, a patriotic spandex leotard with stripes in the green and yellow hues of the Brazilian flag, and a lobster suit complete with oversized foam pincers and wiry antennae.