|Photo by Chet Scorpio|
Strolling back to our bed and breakfast through dark streets of Buenos Aires,the container lid suddenly moves. Food scraps, cardboard, and plastic soar through the air and land with a thud at the paws of an eagerly waiting, well-nourished, black "designer dog" a.k.a. mutt. The head of a young man appears over the edge of the six-yard metal dumpster, then disappears again, back into the debris. More garbage is catapulted into the street, and soon the young man surfaces and leaps out in one fluid movement. He places his collected treasures in a wooden cart, styled like an old oxcart, which he pulls behind him to the next dumpster where the process is repeated. Left behind is nothing short of a disaster.
The next morning, the streets are spotless. I am baffled.
Our hostess, Brenda, explains: There is no separation of garbage at the source in her barrio, or neighborhood. The producer, be it a household or a sizable restaurant, places any and all refuse, including but far from limited to: cardboard, food remnants, bathroom trash, glass containers, and plastic bottles in bags, or not, and then in six-yard containers in the street.
The container lids are weighted down and open with a hinged steel bar running along the base of the container, preventing birds and animals from foraging through the contents. This privilege is reserved for the "cartoneros". Nick-named after the Spanish word for cardboard: cartón, this informal group of young, uneducated, and poor people is the self-appointed backbone of the city's recycling program.
No joke. The website http://www.treehugger.com/ reports that the government, having tried and failed twice to implement a working program for trash separation and recycling, decided to essentially adopt the informal system already in place: los cartoneros had learned the ins and outs of recycling during the Argentine economic crisis in 2001, and were already keeping tons of recyclable and reusable material out of landfills whilst making a living, their activity legalized in 2002. Robert Felicetti, former city environment minister, is quoted in the December 2006 issue of The Argentina Independent, a publication aiming to increase awareness of the cultural, political and environmental sides of Argentine life, whilst promoting tourism: “We want to develop a productive way of working for these people – many of whom are women and young people who have never had a formal job in their lives. They are doing a great service to the city – we have no recycling policies and environmentally that is disastrous. We need cartoneros, on the most basic level.”