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<p>Photo by Gary Collins</p>

Photo by Gary Collins

Surrounded by rubbish in the slums of Villa Fiorito

How To Recycle A Society

There is a way to create meaning, dignity and employment from piles of rubbish. A group of people from the bottom of Argentina’s economic heap show how it’s done.


Every day about 9,000 "surgeons" descend on Buenos Aires.

The cirujeo they perform is out on the city's streets, as they pick through the 6,000 tonnes of rubbish produced by its residents each day. Easily identifiable by the carritos (carts) they manoeuvre through the arteries of the capital, they are historically among the most marginalised people in the city.

Rescue, Renew and Recycle

In the wake of Argentina's devastating economic collapse in 2001, necessity spawned a boom in the industry of informal waste collection. For many people, there was simply no viable alternative source of income.

Most contemporary cirujas, like those before them, travel into the capital from poor barrios and villas (slums) in Buenos Aires province, where they return laden with rubbish to sort and sell to recycling companies.

In the early 2000s, they also came to be known as cartoneros (cardboard collectors), because so many of them concentrated on rummaging through rubbish for the paper and cardboard that then fetched higher prices than other materials.

With entire communities thrust into the garbage business — which was technically illegal until 2003 — they became organised and started to set up collectives.

The first such cooperative, El Ceibo (a reference to Argentina's national flower), had in fact been formed more than a decade earlier, during the "other" economic crisis, of 1989. "The 2001 crisis didn't affect us," the cooperative's director, Cristina Lescano, recalls. "We had been destroyed by the previous one."

Today, El Ceibo boasts a workforce of 67. They identify neither as cartonero nor as ciruja, but rather as "socio-environmental urban recyclers". No longer do they probe through society's refuse. Instead, they collaborate directly with some 8,000 households and businesses, who do the work of separating recyclable material for collection.

"I used to rummage through garbage, now I sort through which companies to sell to," Lescano says proudly, adding: "The sad reality that we had to live with, today gives us life options."

Every week El Ceibo recovers about 40 tonnes of cardboard, eight tonnes of glass, and five tonnes each of plastic and white paper. This is all sold to a handful of companies that convert it into raw materials for the production of everything from buckets to paper.

Talking to The Global Mail in the cooperative's giant factory-cum-headquarters in the barrio of Retiro, 50-year-old Lescano cuts a hardened figure. Her voice is raspy, her manner forthright, and her tone defiant. There's no doubting who the leader is here.

“The sad reality that we had to live with, today gives us life options.”

And she's had to fight for the privilege. "It's been a 20-year struggle," she says. "But we're the masters of our own destiny now."

LESCANO is one of El Ceibo's six founders, all women, drawn together by a shared destitution. "Laid off by suddenly penniless employers, mistreated by men", she says, they lived precariously in abandoned houses — or in the case of María Julia Navarro, under a bridge. They'd meet at shelters where they had to swallow their pride and ask for food.

But pride still informed their quest for trabajo digno (respectable work).

"People don't know what it is like to spend your days looking through garbage," Lescano says. "You feel ashamed.

"But we never wanted handouts, so we decided to try to normalise our activity.

<p>Photo by Diego Quiroga</p>

Photo by Diego Quiroga

El Ceibo's factory in Retiro

"It was really tough to start with because we were marginalised; for society we didn't exist. Residents were scared of us because of our appearance and there was a law that prohibited searching through garbage, so they'd imprison us and take our carts."

By the time the economy imploded in 2001, their lot had improved. They were surviving hand to mouth, but they enjoyed a degree of security. Navarro, for example, managed to end her 10-year spell living under the bridge and was able to put a roof over the heads of her five children.

The group had also started to gain some traction through agitating — with the help of the Catholic Church and some academics — for the regularisation of their work. In December 2002, the Buenos Aires city legislature passed Law 992, which modified the 1977 ordinance that had outlawed sorting through rubbish, to formally recognise urban recyclers as legitimate workers.

Now El Ceibo had all the legitimacy it needed to back up its pitch to residents and businesses — "We are legitimate workers and together we can help the environment by recycling your rubbish."

TEN BLOCKS from the overpass that for a decade doubled as her roof, Navarro, 56, peers across the desk of El Ceibo's Palermo office. It's a functional, if run-down, old building that was once abandoned. For years before it became an El Ceibo office, it was Lescano's home.

“The most important thing is that work gives you dignity.”

Navarro is thumbing through the day's schedule. She's in charge of one chunk of the barrio and is dividing up collection territories among herself and the two teenage workers who've just arrived. It's 8am and all the material has to be back here by midday in time for the El Ceibo truck, which will move it down to the Retiro facility for processing.

I tell her that in 2009 I visited some cartonero families in Villa Fiorito, a slum in Buenos Aires province (better known as Diego Maradona's birthplace). The families quite literally lived among the rubbish they collected, I say.

"Oh, yes, that's how it is for many people," Navarro nods, "It was like that for me too in the past, but thanks to El Ceibo I can now afford to rent here in Palermo.

"I'm no longer a cartonera, I've moved up a category. They call us VIP recyclers."

Doing her rounds, Navarro seems to be on friendly terms with everyone she passes. She stops for a spot of small talk with the residents who bring out their recyclable material, before continuing along her planned route.

<p>Photo by Gary Collins</p>

Photo by Gary Collins

Recyclers at work

This, according to Lescano, is what El Ceibo is all about.

"Sure, we recover materials, but the most important thing for us is to recover people, people who are marginalised like we were before.

"We're a social company — we reincorporate people into society. Today we are included in society."

IN 2012, Lescano is every bit the empowered woman she aspired to be in 1989. But far from rejecting her past, she embraces it, carrying her story as inspiration for others. Indeed, the workers are open in their admiration for her. As we pass a piece of baling machinery, the operator looks over and shares a Lescano line — "el trabajo dignifica" ("work dignifies").

"Everyone here comes from a background of marginalisation, but look around, we're proud to be here," Lescano says [see accompanying video].

“Sure, we recover materials, but the most important thing for us is to recover people, people who are marginalised like we were before.”

While the lives of the thousands of other urban recyclers in Buenos Aires has improved since the city government began to formalise their work, El Ceibo stands out as the great cartonero success story. Still, its relationship with the Mayor Mauricio Macri's government is uneasy at best. "We attend all sorts of meetings and there is a lot of talk, but there is no great will evident [on the part of the government to formalise the work]," Lescano says.

"We could include so many more people and reach so many more households, but the government would prefer to bury the rubbish," she explains.

On this second point, the Governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, agrees. This month he appealed to the city government — which operates as an autonomous district — to find "genuine alternatives"  to burying rubbish in the province. In 2006, the city government committed to a gradual reduction in urban landfill, but it has not been meeting its targets.

According to Lescano, the problem could be partially alleviated by better equipping urban recyclers to "return materials to the productive cycle". She says El Ceibo cannot increase its workforce without getting more trucks first.

The city government told The Global Mail that its department of environment and public space "works daily with formalised urban recyclers", and that this month 11 trucks were delivered to cooperatives including El Ceibo.

“It's been a 20-year struggle. But we’re the masters of our own destiny now.”

Juan Martin Carpenco, an activist with the largest cartoneros cooperative, MTE, concedes the government has significantly improved the working conditions of its 2,500 members.

"They provide uniforms, identification credentials, 26 trucks and 26 buses," he says.

"Now there is childcare too, so children don't have to travel into the city with their parents. And there'll also be a monthly 1,100-peso (AUD240) financial incentive for each cartonero from this September."

Lescano agrees these are great advances from "the bad old days" when she worked as a ciruja, rifling through trash in the streets. "But unfortunately, while you're not working with the residents [as El Ceibo does], you're still marginalised," she says of the ordinary cartoneros who sort through the rubbish. Lescano would love to include more people in El Ceibo and thinks there is room for more, similar businesses. But that would require more resources that the cooperative can't afford, as it makes no profit after paying salaries.

"My life's mission is to rescue marginalised people," Lescano says. "Because if I can do it and all the people here can do it, then everyone can do it."

5 comments on this story
by Dan

Great story

June 27, 2012 @ 4:52pm
by Jennifer

It's encouraging and inspiring to hear stories like these. Although it is also somewhat frustrating in terms of how the city is limiting their options. It would be great with a story like this to hear what (if anything) readers could do to help.

June 28, 2012 @ 1:07pm
Show previous 2 comments
by Christine

Such an inspiring story. Thank you.

June 28, 2012 @ 4:05pm
by Richard

On a similar theme, Kevin McCloud's documentary "Slumming It" looking at the slums in Mumbai and the way the society / community works is an interesting comparison. Such a pity it requires abject poverty to drive it.

I still get a great feeling of satisfaction and contribution from collecting aluminium cans for their embodied energy!

June 28, 2012 @ 10:23pm
by Guada

Very interesting article, those people should be an example for others! They're promoting the work ethic and organised work, which is very very important these days.
“ Sure, we recover materials, but the most important thing for us is to recover people, people who are marginalised like we were before.” This is the best part, very courageous woman.

Just a little thing that isn't important at all: when you said "surgeons" it means "cirujanos" in spanish (medical context). Those persons whose are you refering on the article are called "cirujas", not "cirujanos", so term "surgeons" is wrong.
Si está viviendo en Argentina y alguien le escucha decir "cirujanos" queriendo referirse a los "cirujas", seguro se van a reír un poco de usted ;)

PS: sorry for my English

June 29, 2012 @ 12:22pm
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