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Story Publication logo August 5, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Cartonero



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

Marissa Aguilera, 28, a cartonero in Buenos Aires stands outside her home as her youngest child, Thiago, 3, plays among the bags and carts with which she collects the recyclables from the city's trash. Image by Hadas Gold. Argentina, 2011.

A heap of some 30 cardboard boxes, paper, plastic bottles and other recyclables almost blocks my view of 28-year-old Marissa Aguilera, a cartonero in Buenos Aires. Next to her are two huge empty burlap bags on a cart, but it still doesn't seem possible that this mound of recyclable trash will fit into anything close to these bags. When I ask again how it will all fit, Marissa just chuckles and takes another drag from her ever present cigarette, like a lighthouse emitting a glow every few seconds.

"You'll see. It will all fit," she assured me.

It was around 9 o'clock on a frigid evening and we were standing on the side of Avenida Santa Fe, one of the busiest streets in Buenos Aires, lined with every kind of store and restaurant. As Marissa switched between breaking down boxes and digging through bags of trash for recyclables, a steady stream of people passed by, the contrast between their evening and hers ever more apparent.

We started the day a few hours earlier at Marissa's home in the poor town of Fiorrito, just outside Buenos Aires proper. Her house is but one room where she, her three children and her 66-year-old mother sleep in two beds. They have lived here for 31 years. There is a large front yard where Marissa keeps her precious bags of recyclables. She brings her loads here after each night's work to sort her haul, which she then sells. Before the financial crisis in 2001 this was just another poor town, but at least most people had jobs. After the crisis, when nearly everyone lost his job, one of the only ways left to make money was to come into the city and trash pick.

For Marissa, life has improved significantly since those early days, mostly because of the formation of worker cooperatives. Marissa is part of Movimiento de los Trabajadores Excluidos--the movement of excluded workers--the largest and most organized cooperative.

"We get more respect now. For me it is much better," Marissa said.

Around 5 p.m., six days a week, an old, falling apart city bus driven by a fellow cartonero comes around to pick up the group of cartoneros from "route 1." The bus takes them into the capital to work while a truck with their carts follows behind. On the bus, which is missing stairs and many seats, the cartoneros share biscuits and cookies, sing along to the radio and partake in the common ritual of drinking maté (a traditional Argentine tea). It feels like we're on the way to summer camp.

MTE operates 26 routes, each with its own truck and bus that goes to a certain zone in the city where each cartonero has designated blocks to work. After the cartoneros finish collecting they return on these buses and trucks. It is a spectacle of communication and organization.

The government's involvement goes so far as giving the cartoneros old city buses and trucks to use for their work and having a government employee check on the routes every night to take attendance of the cartoneros and ensure that they are sticking to their routes and keeping the streets clean after they dig through the trash.

On the street the cartoneros go their own way searching for their treasure. Often well-established cartoneros like Marissa can rely on store owners to give them their recyclables. Most of the time, though, the cartonero's job involves tearing open the bags of trash residents leave out on the sidewalk to be picked up.

Marissa rips open a big black bag of trash and starts picking through banana peels and old meat—without gloves but with a near sixth sense as to where to reach for what is valuable.

"Sometimes the trash bothers me but, well, that's what it is," Marissa said. "You will do whatever is necessary for your kids when you're a mother."

Marissa works quickly and precisely, breaking down boxes and digging through the trash, using skills and a system she has spent nearly half her life developing. Soon nothing but the un-recyclables (styrofoam and dirtied cardboard) are left for the garbage trucks. Marissa's two giant burlap bags are completely stuffed and—with what seems like super human strength—Marissa hoists one bag on top of the other onto her cart and starts heading back to her route's meeting point—walking in the street and carefully avoiding the chaotic Buenos Aires traffic. The bags tower at least three feet higher than her head.

Marissa may make 70 pesos (around $17), a decent sum, from the two bags she collected. She will earn a little less than $600 this month for her family of five in addition to the "salary" she receives from the government. But with inflation rates at some points reported to be as high as 25 percent (depending on whether you look at government or independent statistics), living expenses can be high.

Although it is sometimes a hard life, Marissa says she is happy. "I'm very proud of my work. I have food everyday for my family."

Marissa does not know of anyone who has been able to leave the life of a cartonero. Still she hopes one day to be a police officer because she likes to take care of people. For the moment, though, she will continue to pick through other people's trash for her own treasure.

"For my future, I want to find something better but right now I can't. There are not many jobs. For now this is my job," Marissa said. "I go day by day like this."


teal halftone illustration of a construction worker holding a helmet under their arm


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