Wednesday, October 17, 2018
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New poor and old
Pablo Waisberg
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Amid crisis, more and more people resort to collecting trash for recycling.

Of the tens of thousands of people who pick through discarded items on Buenos Aires streets every day, some have spent their lives as cartoneros, rummaging for paper, metal and anything else that can be sold for recycling.

Others, however, have found that the country’s economic situation has given them little choice but to build a cart and spend their days gathering up what others have discarded.

"It’s a heterogeneous mix. There are two groups — the smallest consists of people who have been doing this for 30 years, while the other is made up of people who never had really stable jobs and little by little started collecting junk for recycling," said anthropologist Pablo Shamber of the National University of Lanús, who has done research on the informal recycling circuit.

According to the cartoneros themselves, more than 60 percent had formal work until last year. On average, there’s a new cartonero on the street every two days.

Because they are among society’s most unprotected, at the bottom rung of the poverty ladder, they are subject to all kinds of abuse and discrimination. Police hound them from the neighborhoods where they find the most valuable items, such as white paper.

The best place for white paper is the Buenos Aires business district, where thousands of offices throw out a total of 1.5 metric tons of paper a day. Every night, the streets around the banks, offices and financial institutions fill with cartoneros.

Unlike those in other parts of the city, however, these cartoneros, most of them young men, arrive in trucks belonging to the owners of large warehouses, who hire the workers for US$1 and transport them to the business district.

Each truck carries between 20 and 40 people and their carts. After four hours of work, they return to the trucks, where a warehouse employee weighs what they have collected and pays the amount to which they have agreed. A kilogram of white paper fetches about $0.13.

"The police don’t bother them — they go in, pick through the trash and leave it all scattered. But the police harass the cartoneros who work on their own," said Congressman Eduardo Valdez, a Justicialist Party (PJ) lawmaker from the city of Buenos Aires.

Valdez claimed that deals are made to let the scavengers work without harassment, and that the cartoneros are paid far less than the material is worth.

As a result, in various parts of Buenos Aires, groups of cartoneros have banded together to rent or borrow warehouses where they can store the material that they have gathered and bargain with intermediaries for the best price per kilogram of paper, cardboard, glass or metal.

"Argentina could recycle 25 percent of the trash it produces and take its place among the top recyclers worldwide," said anthropologist Francisco Suárez, who heads a research project at General Sarmiento National University. "Last year, $185 million worth of recycled paper was imported from Brazil."

One cooperative of cartoneros, Nuevo Rumbo ("New Way"), was organized by Pepe Córdoba, who began gathering material for recycling 13 years ago, when his small textile company fell victim to the country’s economic crisis. Córdoba slipped down the social ladder until he began pushing a trash-picker’s cart.

"I’ll never forget how terrible it was to see myself with that cart. No one chooses this, but some people have no alternative," said Córdoba, who now leads a cooperative in southern Buenos Aires that employs 18 people and works with 87 other cartoneros.

Nuevo Rumbo managed to rent a warehouse where the cartoneros store the material they have gathered, and they are soon to receive a loan from an Italian foundation to buy the warehouse, a truck and machinery for pressing paper. They have also reached a preliminary agreement with the municipality of Lomas de Zamora, 20 kilometers south of the capital, to collect recyclable material in a 500-block area.

In response to the growing number of cartoneros, the Buenos Aires city government announced that beginning in March, the capital’s 2.7 million residents will have to put recyclable material in a separate bag when they put out their trash. Those bags will be collected by cartoneros. The plan also calls for regulation of the cartoneros and preventive health-care measures, such as vaccinations and the use of gloves.

— From Buenos Aires, Pablo Waisberg



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