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Recycling boom
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For entire families, scavenging for glass, paper and metal is a means of survival.

Amid a recession that has lasted nearly five years, more and more Argentines are being forced to scavenge for items that can be sold to recyclers — or do the recycling themselves — in order to survive.

Carts drawn by aging horses roam the Buenos Aires metropolitan area at all hours, collecting anything that can be recycled — bottles, cardboard, tin cans, old furniture, rags and newspapers. In Buenos Aires alone, about 100,000 adults spend their time scavenging, often accompanied by at least one child, who is responsible for gathering up the discarded items.

Recently, more and more women have been driving the carts, accompanied by babies or small children sitting in the back while older children pick through trash on the streets. Collecting recyclable material has become an important subsistence activity, but authorities have done little to protect these children.

San Martín, in greater Buenos Aires, is one municipality that has taken steps to help the families, setting up a child-care center that is open from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., the hours when most of the cartoneros, as the scavengers are called, are at work.

Because horse-drawn carts are prohibited within the Buenos Aires city limits, cartoneros and their families there use handcarts or wagons pulled by bicycles.

So many people travel into the capital every afternoon from poorer outlying districts that a railroad company runs a special train to carry them and their carts to and from the city. Most head for the major commercial areas. Within hours of the stores’ closing time, the scavengers have collected anything that can be sold for recycling.

Unemployment in Argentina has risen to 25 percent, and 53 percent of the population, about 19 million people, now live in poverty. Of these, 9 million are considered indigent, living on less than US$1 per day (LP, May 20, 2002).

As a result, recycling has taken on new importance and the cartoneros are becoming better organized.

The Alicia Moreau de Justo Women for Dignity Cooperative, named after an Argentine socialist leader, has enabled a group of mothers of students at a primary school to help support their families, as well as invest some of their income in school improvements.

Several factories in the area began giving discarded material to the cooperative. The women also pick through trash left on streets. With some of their earnings, the women built a clay oven at the school, where they bake bread for their families and the school lunch program.

The women receive support from a Credicoop Bank program that aids cooperatives. They can also receive training in running a cooperative and take free courses offered in their neighborhood by the local government.

Some recycling efforts get support from public universities. Two businesses that belong to the Global Barter Network (LP, May 21, 2001) receive support from the University of Buenos Aires’ School of Architecture, Design and Urban Development. One of the companies recycles polypropylene from car bumpers and plastic bags and mixes it with wood fiber to make construction panels that are more resistant to blows, damp and fire than those usually used.

The other company recycles plastic bottles, mixing the plastic with sand and cement to make blocks for walls, roofs and pavement.

The workers gather the recyclable materials at local schools or places where barter clubs meet. They take their pay in barter vouchers and also swap their products through the clubs, which draw thousands of people a day in an "economy of solidarity" that has become one way of dealing with one of the worst economic crises the country has ever faced.

—From Buenos Aires, Dafne Sabanes Plou



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