Buenos Aires, Argentina — When the lights go down in this city’s commercial district, an army of workers descends upon the emptied streets. Pushing homemade carts, these cartoneros, or cardboard collectors, scavenge the trash of wealthy neighborhoods for recyclables.
“I was hit by bad luck. I had to go and live under a bridge because I was evicted,” said Maria Julia Navarro. “To be able to feed my children, I had to go out onto the streets gathering cardboard and paper.”
The phenomenon is a legacy of Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, when large groups traveled from the city's mushrooming slums hoping to scavenge enough to survive. For the last decade, city officials did what they could to keep them off the streets. But now the city hopes cartoneros will become a crucial tool to reduce waste.
“It’s been ten years since we’ve been rising up and struggling against the bureaucracy of the government,” said Christina Lescano is the director of el Ceibo, one one of the city’s best-known cartonero cooperatives.
“The approach of the government has not matched ours,” she said. “We have been doing things in a hidden way.”
Now, spurred by overflowing landfills and public pressure, the Buenos Aires municipal government is launching a recycling scheme that embraces the city’s 15 to 30-thousand cartoneros. Lescano’s cooperative is a model for the new program.
“With this project we show our face in the neighborhood and we don’t have to hide,” she said. “The other difference is that the residents are really committed to the environment because they have to separate their materials and deliver them to us by hand.”
Cartoneros are now being tasked with reducing the 5,000 tons of solid waste that daily goes into landfills across the city. This also means a host of changes to their working conditions and rights. Collectors will work on during the day, and follow logistical plans formalized by the government.
The bags of recyclables will be brought to so-called green centers. The first fully functional waste sorting facilities should open in the next few weeks.
The first stage of the Government plan only includes cartoneros that are part of a cooperative. Those who are not will be encouraged to join one, or to work at one of five newly planned green centers across the city. The city will equip them and provide benefits.
And in exchange, they will have to adhere to workplace regulations, said Fabian Simon, the Project Coordinator with the Buenos Aires Ministry of Environment and Public Spaces.
“We will not allow the activity to be carried out by minors,” Simon said. “We won’t allow the sorting to be done in the street, and they will be required to work wearing uniforms.”
They will be called environmental wardens rather than cartoneros.
“This has really something we have been working towards for a long time—that as a
cooperative we have been trying to build,” said Maria Julia Navarro.
“What do I feel? Something very special.”