The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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February 15, 2012

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Argentina – 15 Feb 2012 –

The economic crisis that began in 2008 caused the unemployment rate of many countries around the world to skyrocket. Jobs have disappeared, and the least fortunate of the world’s population has turned to the informal sector for employment. Many have been forced to take desperate measures to simply feed themselves and their families.

But in Argentina, the economic crisis came earlier. The problems that began in 2001 continue today, pushing the very poorest of the citizens to the streets.

Each night, thousands travel by train from small villages outside the city’s limits to scrounge through the garbage cans of Buenos Aires, searching for plastic, glass, and cardboard materials that can be sold for cash. They are called cartoneros, meaning “cardboard seller” or waste picker” in English. For most, rummaging for recyclables is the only source of income they can find.

Valeria Gracia is the founder and president of Voluntario Global, an organization that brings together local volunteer initiatives in Latin America. Gracia says that her organization is active within villages outside Buenos Aires where many of the residents work as cartoneros. She says that the collecting jobs have become more organized since 2001-the beginning of the economic crisis in Argentina.

“Cartoneros today are like an institution,” Gracia said. “We know what they are doing. The same cartoneros go to the same places every day.”

Problems with Picking

Gracia says that the bigger problem comes when children are involved in the waste picking. Working by night causes them to perform poorly in school, or drop out of school altogether. In some areas, childcare services are provided through the night, because their work as trash collectors is often the only thing that parents can do to support their families.

“Today there are less, but 30 percent of the parents that go around are with children.”

Buenos Aires residents say that the waste pickers are largely a welcome presence in the neighborhoods.

“I think it’s generally accepted that they’re not shady characters,” said Simon Kofoed, a resident of Buenos Aires. “They’re in a tough economic situation but they’re choosing the honest work.”

Kofoed says he has seen residents of the Buenos Aires neighborhoods try to help the waste pickers as much as they can. Often, Kofoed says, he says shopkeepers and storeowners divide and set out their cardboard and plastic materials during the day, and welcome cartoneros into their establishments to take the recyclables early.

Maria Lucia Martin is a resident of Cordoba, Argentina, where she says she also sees a large population of waste pickers, often looking for very specific materials.

“They ask everywhere they can for cardboard,” Martin said. “Nowadays cardboard workers know where to go to find more…in shops and factories.”

Although most of Argentina’s cartoneros continue to collect their wares while the rest of the city sleeps, one organization is helping to take the work of the cartoneros out of the darkness.

Cooperativa El Ceibo (which shares its name with the national flower of the country) is an organization that unites the “waste pickers” and emphasizes the importance of working to collect the materials during the day. A kind of union for the cartoneros of Buenos Aires, members of El Ceibo must abide by rules for behavior and assist members of the households with sorting the materials, making it easier to collect more recyclables quicker and gain a better profit for the group.

When citizens who work as cartoneros sign on to work with El Ceibo, they work alone or in groups of families. But they agree to collectively turn over the trash, recyclables and other goods that they collect for the entire group. At the end of a shift, that material is sold, and the money yielded is divided among all.

Edacalina Ojedi works for Cooperativa El Ceibo and says that the organization helps more than just the workers.

“It’s social work, it’s economic, it helps with the environment,” Ojedi said. “We make a better life for workers and for everybody because we are taking care of the environment.”

Ojedi says that working during the day with the homeowners who put out the trash not only ensures that the recycling is separated properly. It also creates a better rapport between cartonero and resident.

“It’s better, so you can see their face, you can come to them,” Ojedi said. “People don’t like [cartoneros] to come to their house at night, someone they don’t know.”

Ojedi says that this practice is generally unique to El Ceibo; many organizations that unify cartoneros offer collective selling services, but mostly only at night. She says she believes their organization is growing, in spite of the slowly decreasing numbers of cartoneros nationwide. Ojedi says this is because many cartoneros recongnize the economic benefits of collecting in groups.

The cartoneros work night and day- work without benefits, set wages or regulated hours. At one time, a law was introduced to help them obtain formal employment.

According to Lorena Bujo, the Coordinator of the Waste Campaign for Greenpeace Argentina, the Zero Waste Law was implemented in 2005 to better manage Argentina’s recycling and waste management. Confronted by landfills that were nearly at capacity, Buenos Aires adopted policies that would mandate more efficient recycling and composting–and give the cartoneros formal jobs in the “recovery facilities” or “green centers”.

“The idea was that this is a real job and working in good conditions, not in the street, with the garbage all mixed,” Bujo said. “In the recycling centers, they would only deal with plastic…they wouldn’t have to deal with mixed waste.”

However, the law came at a large price. Once implemented, the city would have to build the recycling facilities to employ the waste pickers. Buenos Aires Chief of Government Mauricio Macri revoked the Zero Waste Law not long afterwards.

Now, Bujo says, the amount of waste sent to landfills has skyrocketed, reaching two million tons last year.

“Today [the cartoneros] are the only ones who are recycling,” Bujo said. “The percentage of recycling in Buenos Aires is very low, around ten percent.

Kofoed says that mandated recycling could be a negative change for the cartoneros, taking away vital financial possibilities.

“They depend so much on it, it is their income,” Kofoed said. “By introducing official recycling, it would put a lot of people out of work.” Read original article