The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rubbish in Buenos Aires: One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure.

Photo by Chet Scorpio

Strolling back to our bed and breakfast through dark streets of Buenos Aires, the lid of the dumpster 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  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.”

An estimated seven thousand cartoneros decend on the city each evening, bar Saturdays due to the city's schedule for trash collection.  They travel from surrounding barrios with their homemade carts, sometimes drawn by a horse, but more typically the cart is a refurnished dolly with a woven plastic bag, or a shopping cart; if there is a horse in front of the cart, it is equipped with steel shoes to protect the hoofs from the hard surface. The cartoneros are crafty and industrious, hustling through the night, often working in groups. Their collected recyclables are sold to stockpilers: other goods are reused, repaired, or sold within the community. 

Working together, cartoneros formed cooperatives to act as liaisons with the neighborhoods and government agencies, assist with childcare, and negotiate better prices for the recycled goods. The first cooperative, El Ceibo was formed in 1989 by nine women who went door to door, educating clients in the benefits of recycling efforts, asking them to do their share by sorting the trash at the source. Today there are approximately ten cooperatives in and around Buenos Aires. Jill Greenberg reports in her 2010 article "Recycling Paper, Plastics, and People" that El Ciebo joined forced with Greenpeace Argentina in 2004.

"Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success. "
~ Henry Ford

The Zero Waste law, adopted by Argentina in 2005, stipulates that all recyclable and compostable material is to be kept out of landfills by 2020. A lofty goal according to some, but as already demonstrated by the cartoneros: teamwork divides the work and multiplies success.

spacer gif


  1. Hi guys,
    This post is very useful and very interesting to read. Really, this post is providing nice information.
    Keep it up!!!!!
    bed and breakfast in buenos aires

  2. One man's trash is always another man's treasure! If what your intending is to go dumpster diving, I agree that it is a swell act and very beneficial, rather then it is dirty. But if not, and we are simply talking of recyclables and how to stay clean, than that as well.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.
    Rubbish Removal NYC