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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Law Report: Argentina

Waste Pickers in Argentina


Neo-liberal policies had a huge impact on Argentina’s waste management system. Prior to the policies ushering in privatization, the municipalities employed workers to handle waste, while a parallel system of independent waste pickers thrived. Privatisation introduced contracting out of waste collection and cleaning of streets to large waste multinationals companies such as Suez and Veolia. The 2001 economic crisis contributed further to changes in waste management. It resulted in the increase in the number of people depending on waste for their livelihood, while the multinational companies wound up their activities as the crisis made investment in the country unprofitable.

Size and Significance

In Buenos Aires alone, the number of cartoneros are an estimated 25,000 and the number of people dependent on these activities are nearly 100,000. Following the 2001 crisis, import of raw materials became prohibitive and the local industry started to depend on the recyclables for their production, giving an overall boost to the waste industry.

Working Conditions

A large number of them work during the night looking for waste on the streets. At times, they are accompanied by children who after a long night of work are unable to attend school the next day. Many of the workers are illegal immigrants. Those working on landfills work in insanitary conditions contracting conjunctivitis, respiratory and other gastrointestinal diseases. Workers are regularly harassed by the municipal authorities and the police. Shunned by society, despite the valuable service they render, they are viewed with suspicion by residents and shop owners. The situation is gradually improving as the workers are now being recognized by the authorities and a large number of worker cooperatives are striving to improve their working conditions.


The waste pickers earn an average of 220 to 300 USD a month.

Law and Policy

In 2005, the city council of Buenos Aires introduced a new law, a zero waste law called “Integral Management of Solid Urban Waste,” on recycling which formally recognised the cartoneros as key parts of the recycling system. Following this, the cartoneros were given protective gear and the city council encouraged the formation of workers cooperatives. The cartoneros are now a formal part of the solid waste management system and have even received support from the municipal workers unions. The 2005 law also provides for Extended Producer Responsibility, which requires producers and importers to modify the way their products are packaged or designed, and to implement take back programs.

Organisation and Voice

A key strategy in implementing the Zero Waste law was to operate Resource Recovery Centres manned by worker cooperatives of the waste pickers. “El Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos” or The Movement of Excluded Workers, is one of the largest cooperative of cartoneros with nearly 2,500 members, striving to improve the work situation of the waste pickers in the country and state thus: “We fight to legitimize and formalize our work, so that there is no difference between ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ workers. So that all cartoneros have the same inalienable rights, so that we can carry out our work conditionally with possibilities of retirement, bonuses, social work, occupational health and safety, and access to technologies that allow us to increase the volume of recyclable materials in order to advance as a more socially and ecologically sustainable country.”