Biodiesel Catching on with Brazilian Underclass

The MIT’s IDEAS Competition challenges members of the MIT community to come up with good ideas that make a positive change in the world. One of this years’ winning teams is doing just that. The Grease Project is a proposal to change the flow of waste in Brazil – putting waste vegetable oil to use, reducing pollution, and improving the standard of living of catadores in the process.

Catadores, or “wastepickers,” are an underclass that represents some of the poorest people in Brazil. It is primarily women, children, recent migrants, the unemployed, the disabled, and the elderly, who must resort to trash picking as a last resort. The Brazilian government estimates that trash picking is a way of life for a half a million people across the country; scavenging is recognized as a “professional” activity and, believe it or not, catadores are organized through a national union that has become a stakeholder in government decisions regarding waste management and recycling.

The Grease Project grew out of a partnership between a team of students from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the MIT Biodiesel Club, a student-led initiative to convert campus shuttles to run on biodiesel made from vegetable oil collected from campus dining facilities. The Grease Project team refined easy, low-cost methods for converting vehicles to run on biodiesel, and for refining waste vegetable oil into usable fuel. The team traveled to São Paulo, Brazil last August to work with a group of local catadores, teaching them the conversion processes. Catadores already collect waste vegetable oil, which, according to new government regulations, can no longer be dumped in rivers; all new buildings are required to be equipped with grease traps. The Grease Project will help the catadores figure out how to use this oil to their advantage, fueling their pick-up vehicles.

At the São Paulo workshop, The Grease Project provided a range of training materials – how-to videos and graphic training manuals – that a team of catadores is now disseminating in 8 other cities across Brazil. The Grease Project team will return to São Paulo later this year to present their work at the ExpoCatador conference, an annual meeting of wastepickers and supporting organizations. Their aim is to create a global network of groups conducting local pilot versions of their project.