A collaboration between MIT and the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco in Brazil has shed new light on the importance and value of informal waste and recycling collectives.
Source: MIT Senseable City Lab http://senseable.mit.edu/foragetracking/images.html

"Without international collaboration, our project wouldn’t exist."

The Forage Tracking project is a collaboration between MIT’s Urban Planning department and a team in Brazil anchored by Professor Lucia Helena Xavier from Fundação Joaquim Nabuco (Fundaj). Working together, the teams from MIT and Pernambuco (Fundaj, UFPE, CEPENE, Porto Digital) are building a better understanding of how informal waste systems work and how the activities of informal collectives and cooperatives can be integrated into the formal management of a developing city.

“To do this, we examined whether GPS and smartphone technologies could support the work of informal recyclers in cities where they are both plentiful and under pressure to formalize,” explains team leader and MIT PhD candidate David Lee. “Informal recyclers have extensive local knowledge of their neighborhoods, and they know how to recover valuable materials from hard-to-reach areas of their city. We wanted to develop technologies that would tap into their unique strengths by documenting their knowledge and activities — and streamlining their handling of sensitive materials like electronic waste.”

From the start, the project has been led and managed by two students: David Lee and a fellow MIT PhD student, Dietmar Offenhuber (who has now graduated and is an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University).

MIT Professor Carlo Ratti facilitated the Forage Tracking collaboration by establishing key connections and supporting the teams’ application for funding from the MIT-Brazil Seed Fund. “Professor Ratti is a leading expert in smart city systems,” Lee says. “His involvement enables us to collaborate with researchers around the world, particularly those in developing economies where informal recycling is an important element of urban waste management.

“Without international collaboration, our project wouldn’t exist. To study and communicate with informal waste cooperatives, we must go to cities like Recife and perform extensive fieldwork. Our collaborators in Brazil are crucial for introducing us to the local context, arranging meetings, connecting us with potential partners, and sharing their experience from research in this field. They are also helping disseminate our results within Brazil and to the world community.” Lucia adds "our project is concerned with understanding these cooperatives. We have already understood the managerial problems, including the poor handling of equipment. We are now trying to encourage the recyclers to get better organized. They (cooperatives in Recife) have to improve the relationship with the Brazilian government so as to take a more strategic stance." Lucia also says “our project is based on Social Technology which means: provide low cost and high social impact technology for low income people. We are providing solutions for social questions.”

The Forage Tracking project has led to several collaborative publications for journals and conferences, an e-book for general audiences, an August 2013 workshop at MIT bringing together the project partners in Brazil and Boston-area researchers and practitioners in recycling and a panel discussion on October 2014


Fundação Joaquim Nabuco - Fundaj

Lúcia Helena Xavier – Brazilian PI, coordinator at Fundaj

Alexsandro Diniz – Researcher

Rosineide Vieira – Researcher

Adriana Martins – Researcher


MIT – Senseable City Lab

Carlo Ratti – MIT Principal Investigator

David Lee – Researcher


Northeast University

Dietmar Offenhuber – Researcher


Universidade Federal de Pernambuco - UFPE

José Fernando Thomé Juca – Researcher

João Paulo Cerquinho Cajueiro – Researcher

Rodrigo Pessoa Medeiros – Researcher


Porto Digital

Francisco Saboya - Colaborator

Joana Sampaio - Colaborator


Centro de Tecnologia do Nordeste - CETENE

André Galembeck - Colaborator

Edna Natividade Barros - Colaborator

Maria Cireno Ribeiro Silveira – Colaborator

Antonyus Pyetro do Amaral Pereira – Colaborator

  • Brazil
  • Seed Fund
  • Arch & Planning