Brazil's 'silent army' sorts the World Cup's trash, five tons at a time
England supporters throw liquids onto the pitch during the Group D World Cup match between Costa Rica and England at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte on June 24, 2014 [AFP]

World Cup tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, but Alex Pereira is paid to go to matches -- and he doesn't mind that he spends the game sorting through other people's garbage.

Pereira is one of hundreds of "catadores," or , recruited to go through the five tons of rubbish generated by every game, separating out anything that can be reused or recycled.

Hundreds of thousands of people scrape out a living picking through garbage in Brazil, which has few public recycling programs.

In a first for the World Cup, 850 of them have been recruited and trained to work in Brazil's 12 host stadiums, sending the materials they collect to 300 trash pickers' cooperatives for sorting.

"The sensation of being in the stadium for the World Cup is fantastic," Pereira, 38, told AFP.

"We don't get to see the games because we're working, but for us it's huge to be hired to work at a major event like this."

FIFA sponsor Coca-Cola is paying the catadores 80 reals ($35) a day, plus a meal allowance of 25 reals ($11).

Outside the stadiums, many trash-pickers work freelance, with no contract or regular income.

On a recent game day, Edilson Alves de Souza wove his shopping cart through the crowd of 68,000 fans leaving Brasilia's Mane Garrincha National Stadium, looking for empty bottles and cans.

"The World Cup is good business," he said with a grin.

Teresinha de Jesus Silva, who was crushing empty cans with a stone nearby, was less upbeat.

The job is "not enough to survive on," said the 68-year-old, her eyes cloudy with cataracts.

- Silent army -

Cans are the main recyclable item left by fans.

Brazil leads the world in can recycling, saving 98 percent of all cans from the landfill -- far above the European average of 67 percent, according to the Brazilian Can Manufacturers' Association.

That is mainly thanks to the silent army that picks through the nation's garbage.

"According to the government there are 600,000 catadores in Brazil. We believe there are actually more than a million. There are more and more cooperatives, which improve labor conditions, but the majority still work freelance at dumps," said Ronei Alves, coordinator of the National Catadores Movement.

Marlene Rafael, a 25-year-old who says she dreams of going back to school, spends her days at Cidade Estrutural, a sprawling open-air dump outside Brasilia, where hundreds of catadores climb over foul-smelling piles of waste, working without contracts or health insurance.

They pick through mountains of garbage that extend for kilometers (miles) and grow constantly as hundreds of trucks arrive with new loads.

Brazil passed a law in 2010 to promote recycling and clean up its festering dumps, but progress has been slow on the ground.

Brasilia has had a formal selective public recycling program for just three months, and it has had only limited impact.

"They didn't create the necessary infrastructure, and the trash keeps going to the dump," says Alves.

In terms of waste management, Brazil is trailing countries such as Japan, whose fans have stunned locals by bringing their own trash bags to matches and cleaning up after themselves.

"We're still far behind. In Curitiba, where we've advanced the most, 20 percent of waste is recycled. In Sao Paulo, it's 1.8 percent," said Ariovaldo Caodaglio, president of the Sao Paulo sanitation workers' union.

"The private sector wants and needs these materials, and that's what is pushing recycling the most."

Catadores are increasingly organizing to improve their working conditions.

"When we started 10 years ago, we were below the poverty line. Now we're right at it," said Sonia Maria da Silva, an energetic 62-year-old who set up a trash-pickers' cooperative.

"Our work conditions and quality of life have improved because we organized ourselves and got machinery," she told AFP, separating rubbish with large gloves on her hands.

"Now we have a real chance to make a living wage."

[Image via Agence France-Presse]