March 26, 2013

A word about garbage - and cartoneros

Garbage is a problem for urban areas around the world. City governments burn the stuff or haul it many kilometres away (it's always better in someone else's backyard). Many cities encourage composting and recycling and Canadian cities are often seen as star players in that field. In BA, they tried recycling a few years ago. It didn't work.

In some areas of this city there exists wealthy neighbourhoods where garbage is not a factor. By that I mean that there is some level of discreet removal of garbage from the neighbourhood.

Throughout most of this wonderful city however garbage collects on the streets. Usually at intersections, but not always. In front of cafes, restaurants, apartments, churches and businesses; it doesn't matter. Some areas have large dumpsters which eliminates some of the unsightliness of the whole thing, except for the dumpster itself of course.

In other areas, like our neighbourhood for example, and ours is not a poor barrio by any means, refuse is usually left at corners, or along the street. Portenos are not unruly or messy with their garbage; most often it is deposited neatly kerbside in plastic bags.

Garbage trucks seem to roam the city at all hours of the day and night, picking up garbage left by individuals and businesses alike. But for much of the day, and this goes on nearly every day, the garbage collects.

As the sun sets thousands of cartoneros (literally: cardboard persons) descend on the city, from poorer barrios in the Province, and sift through the garbage. These cartoneros are displaced from the economic life of the nation. In some instances they were middle class and educated people, perhaps former teachers, factory workers or business people, who have fallen into a desperate poverty. Cartoneros look for anything of value. They open the garbage bags and sift through them, sorting the garbage into categories: plastic drink boxes for example, glass and cardboard for another. They work at night, quietly and efficiently, filtering the garbage, taking what they can use or sell, and, for the most part, neatly leaving the rest in the original plastic bags for the official garbage trucks.

The large canvas bags are used by cartoneros to haul their stuff to various middlemen or depots to be sold. The canvas bags are placed on carros (wagons on wheels).

Cartoneros exist around the world and are known by different names. In Canada we have binners, dumpster divers and bottle collectors (which seems a gentler and less offensive term, though the work is the same).

Here in Buenos Aires, their numbers have been estimated to be as high as 40,000. Recent estimates suggest a number nearer 10,000 but no one knows for certain. In BA cartoneros usually work in family groups, including young children, which is a serious concern for the government. Efforts have been made by Federal and City governments to formalize the process and improve conditions for the collectors, but progress has been slow. Some now work in a cooperative and that has improved situations remarkably. No one doubts the value cartoneros provide the city through their recycling efforts, and residents in my neighbourhood certainly seem respectful, but this is dangerous and difficult work, and it is disturbing to witness. No one should have to sift through my garbage.

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