Plastic coins and courage foil parasites, pollution

By: Jack Flobeck
September 29, 2013 Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:51 am
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Not many have heard of this South American city of several millions in Parana Province, Brazil. The Curitiba Story is an epic lesson in bravery, innovation, and disease prevention. Dozens of years ago, the city was without a mayor, as the three previous office holders had either quit, left town, or lastly become a suicide. The governor of the state, puzzled over what to do, until he asked himself, 'who is the brightest person I know?' The answer immediately was, Jaime Lerner.

Against his better judgment, to serve friends and community, Jaime reluctantly agreed to become the mayor of a penniless city, with terrifying disease potential, rampant unemployment, along with mountains of trash piled in the street, so high and wide, that the garbage truck drivers had long ago abandoned trying to drive down the streets to pick up the filth. Rats, disease, feces, cholera, and E. coli lurked everywhere in the mountains of trash, waiting for rain to be able to seep and spread danger across the city.

With neither money nor motivated employees, what could Jaime do? He agonized for some time and then acted swiftly and vigorously. He prevailed upon an old friend to give him three months credit on an order for dozens of large wheeled cages to be put in the neighborhoods with the worst trash piles. He printed and posted notices everywhere, saying that anyone who filled a cage and dragged it back to the city dump, would be rewarded with a yellow plastic coin, redeemable at local food markets in fruits or vegetables; absolutely no booze or cigarettes allowed.

In just days, hundreds of young children rose to the challenge, hauled mountains of trash to the dump, redeemed it for yellow plastic coins; and to the delight of their mothers, once more, adequate food appeared in Curitiba kitchens.

The children immediately christened the coins, "Curitibas," and then the program was expanded first to pencils, paper, and school books; later to include bus tokens; enabling unemployed men to travel downtown seeking jobs. With skyrocketing usage, transit alternatives grew, creating even more jobs; while the city began to develop a reputation for transit excellence.

It wasn't long before Jamie included waste paper recycling in the program, labeling some of the cages specifically for 'waste paper.' Curitiba gained early recognition for its waste paper exploits, and in those early days it was life threatening to be standing on the street between an alert youngster and a candy wrapper blowing down the lane.

Sadly, if you Google Curitiba, most of the references are to "sustainability" or ecological awards received, overlooking the gargantuan contributions of our hero. I learned firsthand about Jaime from several complimentary currency experts, including the designer of the Euro.

The work was long and hard, but the results were immediate and spectacular; with better nutrition, improved morale, and a happy sense of citizen accomplishment. Don't inquire how Jaime succeeded in providing all the initial credit for the vegetables, but every debt in the program was repaid on time; and not long afterwards; Curitiba was named by the United Nations as "The Most Ecological City in The World;" all without new taxes, without new laws or mandates, without new debt, or any external intervention! Imagine the thrill of accomplishment, thinking out of the box, employing courage and innovation.


Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at

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