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Project July 12, 2011

Trash as Another Man’s Treasure: Changing the Cardboard People


The cartoneros may become part of Buenos Aires' current waste disposal system. Image by Dandeluca photostream, Flickr.

They are like the ghosts of the city. On any given road you can see them rolling along with their homemade carts, collecting their treasure from others' trash.

Many countries across the globe have their own version of these trash pickers. In Buenos Aires, they are known as cartoneros, which literally means "cardboard people." They pick through the city trash with speed and precision, knowingly precisely which piece will fetch them the most amount of money at the recycling plant.

Cartoneros are an accepted piece of the underground system that helps Buenos Aires run. They provide the missing link between separating trash and recyclables and bringing it to the recycling plants. But their way of life may soon change dramatically. The government wants to officially incorporate these cartoneros into the Buenos Aires' waste disposal system as part of the new Zero Waste Law, which aims to reduce the amount of trash in the city.

On the surface this looks like a great step forward for these people. But there are many underlying issues to address. How will the transition work? Will it really benefit the cartoneros? Only those cartoneros in neighborhood cooperatives can participate in the government program, so what will happen to those who are left out?

Along with this law comes a government's attempt to reform the habits of its citizenry to begin recycling and separating their trash. How will Argentines react to this change in their society's way of life?

This report will attempt to answer these questions while putting a human face to these city street ghosts.

Hadas Gold is a Pulitzer Center student fellow through the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs