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Story Publication logo August 15, 2011

A Cartonero's Choice: Independent vs. Cooperative



The trash pickers of Buenos Aires are an unsanctioned but accepted part of city life. Now the...

Media file: juan.jpg
Juan Arsa is an independent cartonero in Buenos Aires. He said he is not part of a cooperative because he earns more working on his own. Image by Hadas Gold. Argentina, 2011.

Juan Arsa and about five other cartoneros were taking apart boxes in the busy warehouse neighborhood of Once. They had no uniforms, no gloves. They are not part of a cooperative. Just a few guys taking apart boxes and loading them onto carts.

"(A cooperative) doesn't serve us. At least here we earn a little more," Arsa said.

That little more is about 30 pesos, or a little more than $7 a day. Arsa and his group of independent cartoneros—the local name for trash scavengers—are as common a sight as uniformed cartoneros. While there are no official statistics on the number of independent cartoneros, they are another layer in the story of Buenos' Aires' cartoneros. The more than 8,000 cartoneros in the city share the same name, because yes, they all pick through trash for recyclables, but they each have a different story and a different battle. This makes for a complicated relationship with the government.

Currently the relationship is semi-formal. According to Mercedes Casado, from the city's Office of Recycling, all cartoneros must be registered. Some cooperatives, such as the Movement of Excluded Workers, MTE, have agreements with the government and are given old city buses and trucks to use as well as a small monthly salary for each cartonero in exchange for certain promises, such as to not use any child labor. There are 13 official cooperatives that do not often work together and there is not yet any sort of umbrella association of city cartoneros. They each concentrate on their own neighborhoods and work with the cartoneros there.

"Each (cooperative) is fighting its own fight with the government," Casado said.

Over the last several years there have been some bills passed in the city government that recognize the cartonero's existence and their important position in the waste management of the city. Most recently a law was passed that divided the city into 13 zones. The law has yet to fully take effect, but the idea is that a cartonero who works within a zone must be registered with whichever cooperative is in charge of that zone.

"Those who are in the system, it is also a formalization of their work. It is to recognize that they are an important actor within the system…[and that] they can talk with the government and ask for certain other things," Casado said.

The ultimate goal for many cartoneros is to become salaried employees or contractors of the city government. This, say several cartoneros, will give them stability in their jobs and important benefits, such as sick days and insurance.

Dr. Enrique Ferrar Lavalle, a now retired professor from Austral University in Buenos Aires, has worked extensively with cartoneros and said that the system today, including the new zoning program, is doing nothing to fundamentally change the way the cartoneros work.

"This semi-formalization that the government has done is like only putting a bandage on an infected wound. It does not resolve the situation," Lavalle said. Referring to cooperatives and other organizations that give cartoneros transportation and uniforms, Lavalle said, "when a lady in the neighborhood gives a cartonero some gloves or a hat, she is doing something very humanitarian, but she is not modifying the situation of that person."

Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned that in order to fundamentally change the cartoneros, one must also look to fundamentally change the way the people of Buenos Aires handle their trash. Currently few people separate their recyclables from their trash and there is no strict organized trash collection system. Residents simply bag their trash in whichever manner and leave it on the edge of the street for the garbage trucks to collect.

Several years ago there was an effort called the "green bag campaign" where the government gave out green bags that the residents were to use for recyclables. However, that campaign quickly faded out. Casado, from the city's recycling office, said there is a dire need for environmental education. She added that it is important for the residents to understand why they need to separate their trash and where it goes before they can be required to do so.

"I cannot tell the neighbor what to do if I don't explain what the process is. if you explain everything that happens in the process then they feel a little more responsible to separate their trash at home," said Casado.

Probably the biggest hurdle standing in the way to both the cartoneros and environmental education advancement is the lack of political value attached to these two issues. This is the middle of election season and there has been little to no mention of either of these issues. There may be ways around that though. The cooperative MTE is trying to join forces with other cooperatives as well as a labor relations group to make their collective voices heard. The success or failure of this venture could determine whether and when they will meet their goal.


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