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ARGENTINA: Industrial Design + Garbage = Jobs

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 25 2006 (IPS) - With the support of three industrial designers and an architect, a group of informal garbage collectors in the Argentine capital has come together in a project to design and produce furniture and other objects out of waste materials.

The undertaking has given them the chance to have a decent job and pick up a skill, while keeping them off the streets.

“A really nice group has emerged,” said Cristina Lescano, coordinator of the group of garbage pickers and one of the driving forces behind the initiative. “Now we are human beings. We come to work, we each have our tasks and responsibilities. It’s a real job,” she told IPS.

The idea of turning rubbish into crafts or industrial products is nothing new. Another group of garbage scavengers, for example, in conjunction with academics and professionals, set up a company that publishes hand-made books using recycled cardboard.

Lescano, a high school graduate, worked as an administrative employee for the Buenos Aires city government until she was laid off in 1997. With three children to support and no other options available to her, she became a “ciruja” or “cartonero”, the local slang terms for those who make a meagre living “picking through bags of garbage,” as she herself described.

The project, “Producción Ciruja”, involves 10 informal garbage collectors who belong to the El Ceibo Cooperative of garbage pickers, which was created 12 years ago and has an officially recognised programme for the separation and classification of waste products.

In “Producción Ciruja”, training and forging connections with the market are in the hands of industrial designers Ángeles Estrada, Victoria Díaz and Natalia Hojean, and architect Mercedes Frassia.

The group manufactures small tables and stools using corrugated cardboard, colourful placemates using plastic siphon bottle valves, and glasses, out of bottles.

The products decorate one of the rooms in the “El Apile” bar-restaurant, which belongs to Frassia, in the historic district of San Telmo, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods.

“The aim is to add value to the recuperated object, improve living conditions for people who depend on garbage picking for a livelihood, while creating objects of beauty, which make the activity therapeutic and allow people to spend less time on the streets,” Frassia explained to IPS.

The architect said that scavenged glass bottles, which fetch 10 cents of a peso each when sold as recyclable material, can be transformed into glasses that sell for one peso (30 cents of a dollar) – 10 times more.

But besides earning them money, the workshop also allows the participants to gain a new skill.

“This is essential for the ‘old cirujas’ – those who are over 45 and are in poor health because of all the time they have spent on the streets pushing a cart in the rain or in the cold of winter and heat of summer. These people can no longer ‘cirujear’ (collect garbage), but they can work in the cooperative,” added Frassia.

The programme began in April, and the first products were launched in June. The next stage is to obtain financing for six more months. The aim is for the project to become self-sustaining, and for it to no longer depend on the constant support of Frassia and the industrial designers who are currently involved.

The plan is to hook up the workshop with places where such products are sold, like fairs organised in the Metropolitan Centre of Design and the Museum of Latin American Art.

“This is a constantly evolving project. More people could join the workshop, other professionals interested in contributing their own ideas, and we could even incorporate design classes at the public university. But in the meantime, we need to guarantee a minimum flow of funds, in order to continue operating,” said Frassia.

While they receive training, the garbage pickers need an income of 15 pesos a day (five dollars), which is roughly what they would be earning if they were spending all day (or night) on the street sorting through trash. To that is added the cost of the production materials (other than the recovered waste products).

“We know it’ll be hard, but this is our life now, and we are going to stick with it,” said Lescano.

“With or without money, we all agree that the project has to continue, and that it has to continue creating new jobs for people,” Frassia said confidently.

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