Trash pickers give Rio Carnival costumes new life


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 garbagemen in orange jumpsuits who pitch the piles of costumes and props into trash-compacting trucks.

“I think they’re crazy,” said Moraes, brandishing a limp 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, television rights and ticket sales, as well as private sponsors. The O Dia newspaper recently estimated the schools invested a total of about $42 million in this year’s parade.

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 costumes into more conventional disguises for parties and other Brazilian holidays.

Looking over her shoulder for security guards or police, 70-year-old Efigenia Beta Silva pulled a pair of scissors out of a pouch dangling from her neck and went to work snipping feathers off a gargantuan headdress that looked like something the Mad Hatter would have worn with gusto.

“They don’t allow scissors here because they can be used as a knife,” the retired day care assistant said as she stuffed her contraband tool back into its pouch and the wispy feathers into an oversized plastic bag. “But really, we’re doing the world a favor by coming here and rescuing all these beautiful things from the garbage.”