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Zero Waste: Including Grassroots Recyclers in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sorting materials in cooperative El Alamo Green Center. (Photo: Ciudad de Buenos Aires)

Zero Waste: Including Grassroots Recyclers in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Sorting materials in cooperative El Alamo Green Center. (Photo: Ciudad de Buenos Aires)

“Environmental Possibilities: Zero Waste” features new ways of thinking, acting, and shaping government policy that are circling the globe. Each week, we highlight a success story in the zero waste movement, excerpted from the report On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and Lessons from Around the World by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). GAIA is a powerful worldwide alliance of more than 650 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. Their collective goal is a just, toxic-free world without incineration. Other Worlds is excited to promote the work of GAIA and the organized communities it works with, and hopes that the stories inspire you and others to begin moving your home, town or city, nation, and planet toward zero waste.

The story of waste management in Buenos Aires illustrates how cartoneros, or grassroots recyclers, have won legal and financial support from the city government. As recently as 2001, waste picking was illegal. Since then, cartonero cooperatives have organized themselves, educated residents on the environmental benefits of recycling, and lobbied the city government for a cleaner approach to waste management with allied environmental and social organizations. The result: an about-face in the city’s approach to waste, including separating at source and giving waste pickers exclusive access to the city’s recyclables.

The Implementation of a Legal Framework

Traditionally, the city of Buenos Aires relied on landfilling to deal with its waste, and cartoneros operated without public recognition or legal sanction. In 2001, Argentina’s serious socioeconomic crisis led to a dramatic increase in unemployment, and many people in the city resorted to collecting and selling recyclable materials from the streets in order to survive. In fact, it is estimated that 100,000 cartoneros were working in the metropolitan region of Buenos Aires in 2001.

In 2002, zero waste legislation created the Urban Recyclers Program and annulled the decree that had banned waste picking in the city. Furtherobjectives included prioritizing separation of waste and setting targets for reducing waste taken to landfills.

However, in practice the law was barely implemented. Consequently, between 2005 and 2011, new resolutions were passed that required each collection company to design and construct a resource recovery facility, or “Green Center,” in the area it serviced, as well as provide the equipment, machines, and other elements necessary for it to operate. The activities of sorting, baling, and storing of materials for sale were to be managed by the cooperative of waste pickers assigned to each Green Center.

The Cooperatives

The informal recyclers´ registry managed by the Recycling Department of the government listed 7,479 people as of August 2011. However, the government estimates the number of cartoneros in Buenos Aires to be 5,500 – 2,500 of whom are organized and 3,000 of whom work on their own. Some of the 12 cooperatives are larger than others, some are older, and they provide different services and run different programs.

The El Ceibo cooperative was formed in 1997 by a group of 10 women who had been working together on housing and women’s rights issues since 1989. As explained by the cooperative’s president, they wanted to find a way to “do a nicer job without going through the trash.” By training families on source separation of waste—paper, glass, plastics—El Ceibo changed the perception and the process of recovering recyclables. As a result, the informal collectors were knownno longer as “cartoneros,” but as “environmental promoters,” working under more formal conditions—regular schedules, uniforms—and ringing the doorbells of the Palermo neighborhood residents to recover materials. The El Ceibo Cooperative has 67 members who earn a monthly salary of US $511 or more.

Formed in 2005, the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE) is the group with the most members (2,500). The city government provides the cooperative with buses and trucks to transport workers and the recyclable materials, plus a monthly incentive of US $209 for each member, on top of what is earned through the sale of products. Workers also receive health insurance, risk insurance, and uniforms. MTE has a child care center as part of their fight against child labor, financed both by the cooperative and the government.

Cooperative Recuperadores Urbanos del Oeste officially became a cooperative in 2008, but its core group of cartoneros has been working since 2002. It has 500 members (490 on the streets and 10 more working at the Green Center). The members working on the streets receive the government incentive of US $209 and a percentage from the sale of materials; the ones working at the plant receive US $465 to $581 per month.

Cooperative Del Oeste has been working since 2002 and has 30 workers. Members of the cooperative receive an incentive of US $186 per month, at least until December 2011. Currently the cooperative is struggling to purchase its own trucks so they do not have to rely on the government.

Operating since 2003, Cooperative El Álamo has six trucks and 49 workers. For the last three years, the cooperative has had an agreement with the social welfare agency of the city government, through which it receives food. In addition, it trains citizens in recycling at the Agronomy School of Buenos Aires University.

Over the past decade almost half of the cartoneros have organized in cooperatives, and have not only gained recognition from the residents but from the government. Among their major victories are the official recognition and inclusion of cartoneros in the waste management legislation, the creation of an agency within the government dedicated to cartoneros, the extension of alliances with local and international organizations and companies, and a dramatic increase in the budget allocated to cartoneros. According to a local source, in 2007 the city government allocated US $300,000 to grassroots recyclers; by 2008 it reached US $30 million.

However, the multiplicity of actors in municipal solid waste collection (i.e., independent cartoneros, cooperatives, private companies) creates tension and competition for territory. The government’s policy of treating the cooperatives inconsistently furthers feelings of distrust among them. As a result, they do not coordinate demands on the government or develop joint projects.

In 2010, the city government began offering two separate waste collection contracts, one for dry materials and another for wet. The novelty was that the contract for dry waste was exclusive to recyclers’ cooperatives, meaning that—for the first time—they would have access to the dry waste without having to compete with private companies.

The zero waste law and resolutions in Buenos Aires have been at the vanguard of waste management approaches in the region. On the other hand, in order to effectively minimize waste in Buenos Aires, it will be necessary to treat organics separately. Moreover, the shadow of waste incineration continues to loom large, as various city and national bodies lobby for construction of waste-to-energy plants, a move that would seriously jeopardize recycling in the city as well as the livelihoods of grassroots recyclers.

By implementing its own legislation and investing in an earnest campaign to promote source separation of discards—including organics—Buenos Aires has the ability to position itself as a true leader in zero waste. Such an advance, if done properly, would capitalize on the expertise of the cartoneros, expand their already important contributions to the city, and showcase them as allies in waste management, so that recyclables recovery is never again associated with poverty in the city. The wealth of this local experience is an asset the city cannot afford to waste.

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