Every Sunday night in the Bronx, before going to sleep, I take a few bags of separated garbage that have been accumulating during the week and put them down on the sidewalk in front of my apartment – plastic, glass, cardboard. These bags are picked up sometime between midnight and 7 o’clock Monday morning by city garbage trucks and …. And what? Well, frankly, I have no clue what happens to my bags of garbage and, like most people, just assume that New York City somehow takes care of it all. My responsibility ends at the separation and putting out phase, which is about the only connection I have with the disposal of what I consume, a process that is for the most part completely invisible to me. Sometimes I see people sifting through the garbage looking for ‘returnables’ that they pile into their own bags or hijacked shopping carts and take to the nearest supermarket to get 5 cents on the bottle. I have no idea what this exchange represents in terms of their monthly economy, but I can’t help but recognize that some people are interrupting my ‘orderly’ chain of consumption and disposal, bringing it to the surface, and making a few pennies off of it. If you multiply this scenario thousands upon thousands of times, you get the picture of what recycling looks like in Buenos Aires, only in that city, it is rare than anyone separates anything …. except the cartoneros.

[QUICKTIME http://wasteforlife.org/movies/laure_el_alamo.mov 320 180]

The 2001 Argentinean economic crisis created vast, overnight poverty throughout the country and an entire class of citizens who lived off of garbage, which they gathered, consumed and, when they could, sold. It is estimated that 100,000 people still live off of garbage in Buenos Aires Province, and 4000 – 20,000 of them come in to the city proper to pick through the 4500 tons of garbage that is left on its streets everyday. Prior to the passage of the ‘Zero Garbage Law’ in late 2005 it was public policy to haul ALL garbage to the several CEAMSE landfills located on the outskirts of the city. (Not surprisingly, these landfills were/are located in the poor or poorest areas surrounding BA, and it is their residents who suffer the polluted water, noise and and air that are part and parcel of the impact these landfills have on the local environments.) Nothing was formerly recycled; everything was dumped into the landfills. Not much has changed.

The purpose of the ‘Zero Garbage Law’ is to reduce the total amount of garbage going into the landfills, and since almost half of that volume is composed of paper, cardboard, plastic and glass, it is these recyclables that are really the targets of the law. On the surface this looks like a simple environmental issue that can be solved over time with some public education and a few public policies, but because so many people are actually already making a living, as meager as that living may be, from these recyclables, this purely environmental issue is really all mixed up with a very visible social issue as well. 97% of all the recycling that is done in Buenos Aires is being done, informally, by the cartoneros, and one question that was vigorously pursued at the recent 1er. Foro y Congreso Internacional de Políticas de Reciclado en Grandes Urbes was why the government was paying 5 private trucking companies to keep the streets clean and haul all of BA’s undifferentiated garbage to the landfills and not paying the cartoneros who were separating and often processing the garbage for recycling.

Central to the application and enforcement of the ‘Zero Garbage Law’ are 6 proposed sorting centers, or green points, to be built around the city by the trucking companies (5 of these are private and 1 is public), and operated by a local recycling cooperative. The only one of these that is finished is Bajo Flores, which is problematically operational, and which we have written about it in an earlier post. (Yesterday, there was a neighborhood NIMBY demonstration against the location of another of these proposed green points that the cooperative El Alamo is slated to manage.) We have met with 3 of the cooperatives that will run the sorting centers, El Ceibo, Bajo Flores Ecological Cooperative of Recyclers and El Alamo, and they are quite different from one another, a reflection, I suspect, of their histories, leadership and politics, and an example of the many layers of informal recycling that is going on in BA.

The cartoneros or urban recoverers who fan out over the city everyday often arrive by train from the outskirts (this is important because these special trains are, as I write, being shut down, effectively depriving many of the cartoneros access to the waste that is their livelihood). These are the people who actually manage BA’s recycling and, as best as I can tell, they can be divided into three groups – gathers, processors, and gathers and processors. The groups can be highly organized cooperatives, or tiny family ‘businesses’ that include parents and their children, or people working on their own, and they may have ties with the neighborhood from where they collect the recyclables, or work anonymously and have none at all. Some of the garbage is sorted and sold ‘as is’ to intermediaries and some of it is processed – either washed, or squashed or sliced and diced, and sold a little further up the food chain. But we’re talking about pittances here, and at an average of about 500 pesos per month, most cartoneros are part of the 2.4 million people or 20% of GBA (Greater Buenos Aires) who live below the poverty line, which the government has pegged at 914 pesos per month.

Our tiny intervention here could add a small, local manufacturing stage to the recycling process, which, if managed properly, would supply another source of income for the cooperatives. Our friend, Gonzalo Roque, who works for Avina, a Swiss NGO, took us to visit Reciclando Sueños, the first cooperative we’ve seen that was actually making and selling a product from the waste they were gathering. More about them in the next post.

Reciclando Suenos Truck

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