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Let Me Recycle That For You. Please.

In Buenos Aires, thousands of informal workers are ready to take on the task of improving the city's trash woes, if only the government would let them.
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Call it "grassroots recycling" for the developing world: Every evening, thousands of people sift through the residential trash of Buenos Aires, filling sacks and carts with paper, bottles, and anything else that might be sold or reused. They do it because they have few other options for work, and the raw materials they find in the garbage allow them to scrape together a living. But these cartoneros, as they're called, might also be the key to managing the city's pressing waste management problem.

Despite passing an ambitious "zero waste" law in 2004, Buenos Aires has been slow to meet its targets for landfill diversion. Up until very recently, the city had been responsible for sending more than 90 percent of its 6,000 metric tons of waste per day to landfills. In April, the municipal government announced it had improved that number by 29 percent, though environmental groups have already criticized the city's methods. And local landfills are bursting at the seams as it is.

Where waste disposal experts agree is that efficient recycling could help Buenos Aires in a big way. Yet the city's informal cartonero system has yet to be taken seriously as a public works program or receive the municipal support it needs to help it achieve that efficiency.

Fifty-five-year-old Gustavo Ibañez began in the industry as most cartoneros did, in the lead-up to Argentina's 2001-2002 economic, political and social crisis, which saw national unemployment levels top 22 percent. The printing press where Ibañez worked closed that year, leaving him searching for ways to make a living. Over the past decade, these unemployed people sifting through garbage have grown into an ad-hoc city-wide movement with over 4,000 "urban recoverers" now affiliated with twelve cooperatives. Although they were initially opposed by trash collection companies and discriminated against by the residents whose trash they sorted, they have fought for, and received, increased recognition as a legitimate work-force. Today, they are the closest thing the city has to a municipal recycling system.

Ibañez is now the president of the Cooperativa Recuperadores Urbanos del Oeste, which has about 700 cartonero members who gather about 35 metric tons of recyclables per day. He watches proudly as his members bring in their loads one evening at the end of their shift. Their sacks are taken by truck to a brand new recycling center, also run by a cooperative, to be aggregated and sold. The cartoneros now wear uniforms provided by the government, receive a minimum stipend as well as limited social security benefits, and cooperatives prohibit children from working alongside their parents. Ibañez estimates that each cartonero might earn between 1,000 and 4,000 Argentine pesos (that's about $195-$770) per month, but the number fluctuates depending on what they find and prices for specific materials.

Urban policy critics here have noted that the system treats recycling more like a social relief program. In exchange for running the city’s recycling system, recoverers receive only a stipend and the meager profits from what they sell. If you factor in the savings they bring the city through landfill diversion, there's a strong case to be made that they're actually making the city money.

"This could be much improved," says Ibañez. If residents separated their recyclables, he estimates the cartonero collection rate could be quadrupled. Plus, his workers wouldn't be forced to root through trash bags, bumping into dirty diapers and broken glassware. Sidewalks would be cleaner too, as trash bag content wouldn't be sorted on sidewalks. While the city’s website ostensibly encourages concerned citizens to separate recyclables at home and take them out to their streets’ cartoneros, there is no comprehensive education effort or system for neighbors to liaise with their local cooperative. Nor are there answers for buildings with central trash collection. Recycling only really exists as activism for Buenos Aires residents.

International experience points towards the success of more comprehensive efforts, albeit on a smaller scale. The city of Londrina in Brazil has succeeded in recycling 23 percent of the 309 tons of waste it produces each day. Those 90 tons of recyclables are gathered by “catadores,” as they are called there. In addition to receiving municipal logistical support, the catadores spearheaded a door-to-door education initiative, explaining how to separate recyclables and developing a collection schedule with residents. Other cities in Brazil and Bogotá in Colombia are also experimenting with similar systems.

With Buenos Aires's main landfill expected to top off this year, and suburban mayors (and their constituents) refusing to permit new ones, the city government can no longer afford to drag its feet. If they're not already considering fully formalizing the cartoneros, they should be.

Top image: A garbage collector sorts out recyclables items to be sold in Buenos Aires' financial district (Reuters file photo).