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ARGENTINA: Transforming Garbage into Decent Jobs

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 16 2006 (IPS) - The Argentine capital opened its first municipal plant for classifying solid waste – plastic, glass, paper, metal, cardboard and other materials – for recycling, as part of a project aimed at providing decent jobs for informal garbage collectors and reducing the amount of trash dumped into landfills.

The people sorting, classifying and processing rubbish in the City Plant for the Classification and Conditioning of Recyclable Material were until recently “cartoneros”, the name given in Buenos Aires to those who make a meagre living picking through garbage.

The number of cartoneros skyrocketed during the severe economic crisis of late-2001 and 2002, but has shrunk somewhat as the economy recovered, to perhaps 10,000 today.

The cartoneros compete at a disadvantage with the garbage companies hired by the Buenos Aires city government, which collect 4,500 to 5,000 tons of rubbish every day and transport it to dumps on the outskirts of the city.

The cartoneros, meanwhile, with their hand- or horse-drawn carts, collect between 450 and 900 tons of garbage a day, depending on the weather. They sell the glass, paper, cardboard and other products to warehouses that pay them per kilo and the intermediaries sell the material to the recycling companies.

A new law on “Integral Management of Solid Urban Waste”, which the international environmental group Greenpeace helped draft, went into effect in late 2005.

The law, better known as the “Zero Garbage Law”, foments “rational consumption” and recycling and is designed to gradually bring about decent working conditions for the cartoneros.

“The idea is to reduce as much as possible the garbage that goes to the landfills or is incinerated, to curb pollution of the soil, air and water,” Greenpeace activist Juan Carlos Villalonga told IPS.

The law stipulates that the amount of garbage in landfills is to be reduced by 50 percent by 2012 and 75 percent by 2017, from 2003 levels.

To reach that goal, the Buenos Aires city government has sponsored the organisation of cooperatives of garbage scavengers and provided space for the first warehouse, located on the west side of the city and inaugurated on May 1, International Labour Day.

It has also launched a pilot garbage separation programme in buildings more than 20 stories high, public offices, five-star hotels, and housing, businesses and offices in the exclusive Buenos Aires district of Puerto Madero, on the Río de la Plata coast.

In these areas, people and businesses separate their dry waste products from the organic waste, and the former is taken by garbage collection companies to the new plant. The law also states that the companies must build five new recycling centres, to be run by cooperatives of cartoneros.

“For now, we are practicing with small quantities to learn how to classify, but we will later have to learn to handle larger volumes and how to register purchases, sales and payments,” Francisco Monzón, president of the Bajo Flores Ecological Cooperative of Recyclers, which is running the city’s new plant, told IPS.

Monzón, who worked in the construction industry, has been unemployed for a decade, and turned to scavenging to scrape by. He used to gather cardboard which he stored in his backyard and sold on his own. In 2002, he set up a cooperative with 30 other cartoneros, in order to obtain better prices for the recyclable material.

Monzón’s cooperative was the first to benefit from the “Zero Garbage” project. The Buenos Aires city government built the plant, bought the machinery, and loaned the installations for five years to the members of the cooperative, who hope to boost their incomes and who are working in a safer, dignified environment.

For now, 30 cartoneros are working in the plant, processing 10 tons of waste a day. But the goal is to eventually expand to 90 workers, who would handle 120 tons a day.

The workers wear gloves, masks and uniforms, to protect them from the health risks, and they are also safe from the dangers they used to face in the streets, hauling their carts along busy roads.

The warehouses that purchase recyclable waste from the cartoneros charge 15 percent more when they sell it to the recycling companies, which in turn add a similar percentage to the cost when they sell it, transformed into material that can be used by industry.

The law states that the overall amount of garbage in the dumps must be reduced, and that the proportion that goes to the garbage separation and classification warehouses must steadily increase.

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