PLAN 76: Article
The Grease Project

A Prize-Winning Proposal to Fight Poverty and Pollution

A team of MIT students led by Libby McDonald, a Fellow at the Community Innovators Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has won an award of $3K in MIT’s IDEAS Competition; their prize-winning proposal will help provide a better life for wastepickers in Brazil, not only helping save them money but also helping reduce pollution.

Wastepickers, catadores, are among the poorest people in Brazil, a population composed mostly of women, children, recent migrants, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly, in nearly all cases turning to trash picking as a last resort. It is a way of life for so many people – an estimated half million – that the Brazilian government recognizes scavenging as a professional activity and a national union of waste pickers has become a legitimate stakeholder in government decisions on waste management and recycling. In São Paulo, the local chapter supports twenty neighborhood cooperatives.

Among the things catadores collect is waste vegetable oil (WVO), a serious environmental issue for the city of São Paulo because many residents dump the oil directly into rivers where it kills fish and plant life and harms wildlife. New regulations require all new buildings to be equipped with grease traps, which are to be emptied appropriately, and the precedent set by those laws may lead to more laws that mandate proper disposal of all WVO. But while five of the twenty São Paulo cooperatives already collect WVO from restaurants and private homes – and although the new regulations will increase the available supply – the wastepicking cooperatives are still struggling to find lucrative uses for the oil.

To help address the situation, the IDEAS team partnered with MIT'S Biodiesel Club – a student-led initiative that converts waste vegetable oil from campus dining facilities into fuel for the campus shuttles – to create an easy, low-cost method of converting diesel engines to run on waste vegetable oil. In August, the team will conduct a workshop at one of São Paulo’s cooperatives to teach the catadores how to perform the conversion procedure and, by using the cooperatives’ trucks as demonstration vehicles, will nearly eliminate fuel costs for the catadores’ twenty co-ops while simultaneously reducing pollution in rivers, streams and lakes.

Then, armed with a series of how-to videos and a graphic training manual – many of the catadores are illiterate – a team of São Paulo catadores will travel to eight other cities to disseminate the process. And in November, the MIT team will present the results of their work at the ExpoCatador conference in São Paulo, an annual meeting of waste pickers and organizations that support them worldwide, with the aim of creating a global network running local pilots of the project.

Members of the MIT team are graduate students Ana Bonomi of Urban Studies and Planning; Sara Barnowski and Samantha Fox from Civil and Environmental Engineering; Hossam El-Asrag and Angela Hojnacki from Mechanical Engineering, and MIT affiliate Ana Luisa Santos. For the vehicle conversion process, they partnered with the Boston-based Green Grease Monkey to design the first workshop. For implementation and long-term sustainability, they established a relationship with a prestigious business school in São Paulo that works to improve the catadores’ lot by hosting workshops and providing business advice at no cost. And Paulo Lenhardt, another partner who runs a local conversion practice in Brazil, will be available to the catadores for troubleshooting.

The MIT’s IDEAS Competition is an annual public service contest that challenges the MIT community to develop creative ideas for projects that make a positive change in the world – locally, nationally or internationally. Since its inception, over 1300 people have participated in the competition and 58 teams have won awards, going on to leverage more than $2.2M in follow-on funding. IDEAS projects have been carried out in more than 20 countries, serving the needs of thousands of people.

Another entry from SA+P, highlighted in our last issue of PLAN, was awarded an $8K prize in this year’s competition. Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliott, graduate students in the Media Arts and Sciences Program, have developed a suite of hardware and software systems to help communities rebuild after a disaster by indexing the skills of local residents; Konbit, their free interactive platform, allows people to report their expertise by phone, text message or web so NGOs can search for specific skills in real-time and by location. In addition to aiding reconstruction, Konbit aims to encourage the hiring of indigenous people so they can get training that will be valuable once relief teams have left.