Cardboard collectors of Buenos Aires thinking outside the box


BUENOS AIRES LETTER:Waste-picking and scavenging is no longer the preserve of the poor, writes SOPHIE PARKER

AS THE street lights blink into action and shopfronts are shuttered up for the evening, commuters surge through the capital, squeezing past labourers for whom work is just beginning.

Buenos Aires’s cartoneros, or cardboard collectors, have been eking out a living foraging through the city’s refuse in search of recyclable waste since Argentina’s economic crisis a decade ago.

While scavenging occurred in the years before the country’s debilitating recession, it exploded at the start of the millennium. Waste-picking was no longer the preserve of pockets of the traditional poor, as skilled factory workers, salespeople, office staff and employees from various sectors found themselves laid off.

With the depreciation of the peso rendering imports prohibitively expensive, the value of paper and card, among other materials, increased dramatically.

Legions of men, women and children began sifting through bin bags outside apartment blocks and office buildings after dusk, piling cardboard and anything else they could sell on to middlemen into canvas sacks and metal carts, earning themselves the name cartoneros.

Laws put in place in 1977 during Argentina’s military dictatorship made waste-picking illegal, although this did not deter the tens of thousands desperate to feed themselves and their families at the height of the crisis.

The law has now changed and the number of cartoneroshas dropped significantly since those dark days, but they are still a major part of the city’s nocturnal landscape.

In a country where landfills are bulging and recycling is in its infancy, these urban recuperators – as they are known in politically correct conversation – are having a positive impact on the city’s waste management problems.

Cardboard, paper, plastic, glass, metal and other materials are diverted from municipal dumps and converted into income for the cartoneros.

The government has made moves to formalise the activity by establishing an urban recuperators’ register, providing individuals with workwear and credentials, and encouraging the creation of co-operatives.

A tin kettle sits steaming on a camping stove. On a rickety piece of furniture stands a statue of Gauchito Gil, a popular national folk saint. A sparsely populated bookshelf contains a video cassette with the title For a More Comfortable Life.

This is the headquarters of El Ceibo, one of the city’s cartonero co-operatives. Based in the capital’s pleasant Palermo neighbourhood, the organisation provides employment for about 70 people in the collection and classification of recyclable matter.

Following the adage that there is strength in numbers, El Ceibo’s founders banded together to negotiate better rates from the recycling specialists they sold to, and to improve their working conditions.

Instead of rooting through refuse by night, they approached residents, encouraging them to separate their rubbish and donate the recyclable elements during prearranged daytime pick-ups.

In contrast to an individual urban recuperator, whose income varies depending on a week’s haul and market prices, members of the co-operative earn a fixed weekly wage, whether they work as collectors or at the organisation’s sorting warehouse.

Former factory employee Carlos lifts the kettle from the stove and prepares the first maté of the day. This infusion is a natural stimulant and will help gird him and his colleagues for the exhausting task of

pushing a heavy cart through

the neighbourhood as they make their rounds.

Behind a cluttered desk, María Julia thumbs through papers, ensuring her charges know their scheduled stops. The 59-year-old widow – who once lived under a bridge not far from the headquarters – stands up and readies her own cart.

On the back of her blue uniform is embroidered El Ceibo’s slogan: “With my work, Palermo is cleaner”.

It is the proud assertion of a group that has not only promoted recycling in the area but also social integration. There are no averted glances here: on her three-hour route, housewives greet María Julia with a kiss on the cheek, shop owners engage her in conversation and a bus driver leans out of his window to tell her she looks pretty today.

Not everything is sold directly to specialised recyclers: in recent years, the co-operative has collaborated with designers and architects to create homewares and furniture from scrap – and they’re not the only ones.

Designer Santiago Morahan pays cartonerosabove-average rates for the cardboard he uses in his Diseño Cartonero (Cartonero Design) furniture, toys and accessories. Eloísa Cartonera, an alternative publishing house, produces handmade editions of Latin American literature with cardboard covers painted by cartoneros.

Cardboard may be the common element that drew El Ceibo’s members together but, according to Cristina Lescano, co-founder and president of the organisation, it is not the co-operative’s primary concern.

“More than recovering materials,” Lescano says, “we recover people.”