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The new generation of Buenos Aires trash pickers reenergizing recycling in the capital

The cartoneros of Buenos Aires are finally cashing in on the city’s newfound love of recycling. But the Argentinian capital still has a long way to go

Cecilia works a five-block strip along Calle Paraguay in Palermo, a hip district in downtown Buenos Aires. Opening a flap door at the bottom of a lime-green bin the size of an industrial fridge, her gloved hands reach in to fish out the contents inside. Plastic bottles, discarded cardboard, newspapers, a discarded cheque book and a set of bookends: all the items disappear into a large, heavy plastic sack that she ties up and leaves by the roadside.

“After we’ve finished, a truck from the cooperative comes and picks up the sacks and takes them back to the plant for sorting,” says the 34-year-old, who has been in the job for three years after a long stint of unemployment.

Dressed in a uniform of grey T-shirt and dark slacks with a reflective ribbon, she’s one of an emerging number of urban litter pickers being drawn into the formal labor system in the Argentine capital over recent years.

Under the city government’s Ciudad Verde (Green City) plan, over 5,000 people now collect a base salary from the state for emptying the bell-shaped recycling bins that began appearing on the street about 18 months ago. The plan is an attempt to ease a landfill crisis that reached its peak in 2012, when provinces around Buenos Aires began rejecting the city’s trash.

“People are recycling a lot more now, although we still find all sorts of stuff in the bins. I had a friend who found a tablet computer once. But, at the same time, some folks chuck in food and diapers too,” says Cecilia.

As she’s speaking, the janitor from a nearby apartment building hands her a bag of recyclable trash. “They know our routine, so they put the recycling aside for us most days now,” she says.

From litter pickers to recyclers

The transformation is remarkable. A decade ago, downtown Buenos Aires teemed with thousands of litter pickers (known locally as cartoneros), their numbers swelled by Argentina’s catastrophic economic collapse at the end of 2001.

Men, women and children would flock in from the poor suburbs of this city of some 13 million people, rifling through the garbage on street corners and doorsteps, before heading back to the suburbs with carts loaded with recyclables to sell to dealers at rock-bottom prices. The Tren Blanco, a former passenger train used by the waste pickers, became emblematic of the country’s straightened circumstances.

One of the principal protagonists in the fight to improve the rights of the city’scartoneros is Sergio Sánchez, president of the Argentine Federation of Litter Pickers and Recyclers, which represents the dozen or so recycling cooperatives that operate in central Buenos Aires. The federation is linked to the left wing Movement of Excluded Workers.“The first big change came in 2002 when Buenos Aires withdrew a long-standing law that made litter picking illegal,” says Santiago Sorroche, an anthropologist at the University of Buenos Aires. “The second came with the Zero Garbage law [in 2005], which aims to gradually reduce the solid waste going to landfill.”

A political mover and shaker, Sánchez is known as the “cartonero friend of the Pope”. Above his desk hangs a recent photograph of him in Rome with the Argentine-born pontiff, shortly after the latter baptized Sánchez’s infant son.

As part of a deal that Sánchez helped strike with the city government, registered litter pickers like Cecilia now collect a set salary of 5,200 pesos ($383) per month to empty the downtown recycling bins once a day. With the arrangement comes a minimal social security package and a small pension.

“The big difference today is that we’re treated as workers providing a public service for the city,” says Sánchez. “Before, people would look down on us and say we created a mess, plus the police would always hassle us.”

The entrenched prejudice towards litter pickers is well illustrated by a Buenos Aires judge, who once threw out a damages case brought by a cartonero who had been hit by a car. Worse, the judge proceeded to penalize the victim for breaking the city’s transport norms. He stood charged with pulling his cart on the road without lights.

Growing pains

Recent efforts to formalize their trade is broadly welcomed by cartoneros, but it remains far from perfect. For one, the new lime-green recycling bins are predominantly limited to the city’s richer neighborhoods. Even then, they are far outnumbered by similarly-sized bins for non-recyclable trash.

Residents’ attitudes are changing far too slowly as well. Although most of the recycling cooperatives run educational outreach initiatives, awareness of why and how to recycle remains minimal. “If the non-recycled garbage bins are full, people will just chuck their trash in the recycle bins,” says Sánchez.

The other main shortfall is state support. By attempting to recognize the litter pickers, the city government is essentially recognizing that the cartoneros are providing a public service. Yet the recycling cooperatives say they only receive a fraction of the funds provided to private operators contracted to manage the city’s domestic and commercial waste.

Cristina Lescano, head of the El Ceibo Cooperative to which Cecilia belongs, cites the example of the government’s new plastics recycling plant, which it inaugurated in December and whose management is outsourced to a private contractor. “We have to send our plastic to them, and then they send it back to us to sell as high quality pellets. Why don’t they just give us the machinery to do it ourselves?”

By the same token, Lescano argues that the city government should pay the recycling cooperatives a market rate for their work rather than the current subsidy. El Ceibo, which has 345 members and operates a sorting plant immediately behind a smart downtown shopping centre, has only 10 collection trucks. “With 10 more we could double the recyclable material we collect, but the government would prefer to invest in private companies – not a social business like ours,” she says.

Environmental activist group Greenpeace also argues that investment in recycling infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. It took seven years after the Zero Garbage law was passed for recycling bins to begin appearing in the city, according to campaign director Soledad Sede, and the government is reluctant to invest any more money.

Few hold out hope that Argentina’s new pro-business president Mauricio Macri, until recently mayor of Buenos Aires City, will push to extend the employment of litter pickers beyond the swanky downtown districts. Even if he wished to, responsibility for waste management is devolved to municipal governments, where public funding is tighter and litter picking less lucrative.

The biggest losers

Without doubt, those outside the formalization process occupy are in the worst shape. At a conservative estimate, cartonero groups calculate that at least 15,000 people in Buenos Aires depend on litter picking for their livelihood. Only about one third of those collect a subsidy, of whom only around half receive the full 5,200 pesos ($284). The other half receive 2,700 pesos ($199) per month. To make up the shortfall, they sell their pickings privately rather than have it collected by a cooperative.

In La Cárcova, a slum in the San Martín municipality of Greater Buenos Aires, the impact of the recent changes is being felt. Bordering one of the city’s main dumps, La Cárcova is home to generations of litter pickers. According to the slum’s residents, however, collection rates have dropped considerably for those outside the formal system. Not only do registered collectors have first dibs on the recycling bins, but the new street bins for unsorted garbage are often sealed.

“There’s less for us to recycle now because Macri and his coops have it all wrapped up,” says 35-year-old La Cárcova resident Silvina, a single mother of four. “The rubbish trucks pass all the time so there’s less and less for us to take.

Her neighbour Emilze, also a mother of four, is one of the lucky ones. She recently got a job at the privately-run recycling plant at the city dump, where she gets paid 200 pesos ($14.75) per day. Her mother, aged 62, who has worked as a litter picker all her life, now receives the 2,700-peso subsidy ($199) and is bused into the centre of the city every day in government-funded transport.

Asked if any of her children will become cartoneros, she shakes her head. They are all going to complete school, she insists. It’s true that for those in the system, litter picking is better than it was, she says.

“But at the end of the day, it’s still a dirty job.”

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