Monday, August 22, 2011

Greening Rio’s green coconut industry

Nothing says Rio de Janeiro like coconut juice. Cariocas are among the world’s biggest consumers of green coconut juice, which that is sold from street corners and plazas to famed beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema. 

It’s a lot healthier than the beer, soda and fake tea beverages that are sold alongside it. What’s not to like? Ask Philippe Mayer, who drinks two liters of the stuff a day, and he’ll tell you – the trash. One serving of 250 milliliters, or around 9 ounces, produces more than 2.2 pounds of garbage in the form of a heavy green coconut shell.

“Brazil is the world’s biggest producer of green coconut, and Rio has the highest per capita consumption of it anywhere in the world,” says Mayer, an entrepreneur and advocate for sustainable waste management who is working to recycle the shells. “And there’s no product in the world that makes this much trash,”

The shells are usually tossed by the side of the road or dumped into nearby trash bins, boosting the cost of trash collection, increasing the city’s use of fossil fuels that power garbage trucks and swelling landfills. Mayer, an animated and opinionated exercise buff who alternates between a stern scowl and a bright smile depending on what he’s talking about, thinks there’s a better way to handle this. The Coco Verde Reciclado (site in Portuguese) factory on the north end of Rio is a showcase for products that could be made from all those discarded coconut shells –planter boxes, garden ornaments, and lampshades made out of the coconut fibers.

The powder that’s separated out in the process can be used as a form of mulch. He hopes down the road to make acoustic tiles for music halls. The municipal government of Rio de Janeiro is now looking into using dried coconut fibers in containment walls to prevent erosion. There's no shortage of usage for the stuff. But right now the recycling project is on hold for what might seem like an unlikely reason – a lack of coconut shells.

“Nobody wants to recycle, people all talk about it, everyone wants to be part of the green wave, but nobody actually wants to do anything about it,” says Mayer, whose no-nonsense prognosis of reality at times borders on cynicism, in stark contrast to his indomitable idealism. Nobody wants to separate out the shells, collect them, and pay for them to be transported to a recycling facility. But Rio is collectively willing to pay five or ten times this amount to dump coconuts in a landfill, where they generate maintenance costs as the facilities fill up.

His quandary is the foundation of most environment and sustainability problems today – the cost of consuming a product and treating its waste of is not borne by those who consume it. Coal fired electricity pollutes air, destroys mountaintops, contaminates rivers with mercury – none of which are paid for power consumers like you and me. The environmental and social costs of using gasoline and diesel as transport fuels are not reflected in the cost at the pump. These problems are of much greater concern to society than stray vegetable matter the coconut shells – but the underlying problem is the same. And this issue, being so close to the hearts and minds of cariocas, seems a like a logical one to get people to start thinking about the issue of solid waste – especially since the phenomenal documentary Wasteland has gotten the ball rolling on this.

Rio’s network of beachside kiosks frequented by tourists and locals alike sell hundreds of green coconuts each day, whacking the tops off the shells and serving them up with straws ready to drink – and then dumping them into the trash to be hauled away as if it were residential garbage.

“This is corruption – it’s CO-RRUP-TION,” Mayer says, waving his hands for emphasis. “Those trucks out there spend an entire day selling coconuts, then add 3,000 reais ($1,950) in waste collection costs for the city. They could pay me a fraction of that cost, and we can use the raw materials to make jobs. But nobody listens.”

The factory now buys dried coconut fiber from factories in the state of Bahia that process dried coconut to be used in cakes or cookies.

One pilot project has received World Bank funding in the northeastern state of Ceara for a similar recycling project in conjunction with Brazil’s prestigious agrarian research group Embrapa.

Mayer, born to French parents in Algeria (which at the time was France) and raised in the south of Brazil, originally got into the business because he was a distributor of coconut juice. He began doing reverse logistics so he could recycle the same shells he sold. In the company’s compound in Jardim America on the north side of Rio, machines shredded the coconuts, squeezed out the water (which is 85 percent of the mass), and separated the powder from the fiber. The fibers are laid out in a yard in the sun until they’re dry enough to be made into an assortment of items. The powder is used as mulch in the hallway outside Mayer’s office, which houses a veritable jungle of tropical plants growing in a bed of what was once a mass of green coconut. 

But his distribution system got put out of business by a torrent of coconut sellers who didn’t pay taxes, didn’t have health permits and – most notably -- didn’t pay to pick up their own trash. At the same time, the products he made from coconut fiber started to face competition from similar products made from an forest fern known in Brazil as xaxim (pronounced sha-sheem), which is still facing extinction due to rampant and illegal timber activity. Mayer spent the following four years fighting timber mafias and pressuring authorities in the state of Santa Catarina to crack down on the illegal logging of the fern.

“I received a lot of death threats, going after timber mafias is serious business,” he said, asking for that reason that his picture not be taken.

The illegal extraction of xaxim decreased considerably, but the problem remained the same – Mayer still had no ready supply of coconuts. “I’m within 20 kilometers of the production of nearly all of the coconut waste, I can save huge amounts of money for the municipality, and create jobs at the same time,” he says. “But the economics has to make sense. The green coconut fiber has to be cheap enough to compete with the dried fiber.” One upscale Rio hotel frequented by the likes of Madonna has agreed to pay him to pick up coconuts. Another well-known hotel laughed at the idea they would pay for a service that’s “free.” The mayor’s office pays all sorts of lip service to sustainability, but when push comes to shove doesn’t want to pay for it.

Even fighting the uphill battle to turn trash into useful products, Coco Verde Reciclado has taken obvious steps toward limiting the environmental impact and boosting its social responsibility that go far beyond the usual sustainability hype. His employees live within walking or biking distance of the factory. Residents of the poor Jardim America neighborhood, they escape the fate of most of their relatives who sit for an hour and a half in traffic on congested arteries to get to jobs in the center of Rio. The company invests in employee education, and hires people with limited work-place experience and little education. Some are former convicts or have had substance abuse problems.

Luciana Nascimento, 26, got a biology degree while packing products into (reused) boxes, and has now been with the company seven years. “At first I wasn’t sure this was actually going to work, I thought, who really wants to buy all these garden products?” she says, on the floor of the factory where workers push dried coconut fibers into molds, run them through ovens, and then polish them to a shine.

“But the demand is enormous, you get contractors, landscapers, construction companies. And a lot of companies these days are interested in products that are made from sustainable materials.”

She’s heard of jobs that might pay a bit more in the center of the city, but she’s not interested. “I can walk to my house in five minutes, at 5:30 I’m at home with my daughter,” she said. “I’d rather be here.”

I can only root for Mayer. Green coconut is as good a way as any into a carioca’s heart. People in Rio sitting up and taking notice of this idea wouldn’t just create jobs, reduce waste and lower fossil fuels consumption – it could lead people to start thinking differently about the waste they produce and what to do about it.


  1. Um copo de água de “Coco Verde” de 250 ml gera mais de “1 Kg de lixo”.

    1. Hi Philippe I had some questions about the application of the so-called Bio-matts made out of coconut fiber, would you be the right person to talk about this? Eu também falo Português. Please advise, obrigado.

  2. Great article. I've gross posted to the urban ag/sustainability community at