After the sun goes down in the city of Buenos Aires the streets begin to fill with the cartoneros. In response to Argentina's current economic crisis many people take up the arduous task of collecting garbage they separate by hand in the street, in search of recyclable items to sell to paper, glass, aluminum, and plastic companies for a small refund. They have been named the 'cartoneros' in reference to the cartons they recycle. As the crisis deepens unemployment has risen to 25% and in some areas up to 70%.
Graciela, 49 year-old woman and cartonera, says, "I have separated trash in the street for 6 years, before I worked for a state owned electricity company. When Menem was elected the company was privatized, they laid off a lot of workers, including me. Separating trash to recycle was my last resort. I have four kids and my ex-husband has AIDS. Collecting cardboard is how I support my family. I usually collect around 100 kilos of paper, plastic and aluminum per night and make about 30 pesos, which is barely enough to buy bread."
Cartoneros have always existed in Argentina, since the economy collapsed the number of people separating and collecting trash for income has multiplied. Before December last year, the number of cartoneros was estimated at 15,000, today the number has grown to over 40,000.
Due to the economic crisis, the Argentine population is experiencing a restructuring of classes; much of the middle class has fallen into the lower middle class or the low class. One of the systemic results of market fundamentalism is the erosion of the middle class. This minor detail is important because, traditionally, the middle class have been the ones to fight for health care, education, and social security.
The phenomenon of the cartoneros is a mirror of failed economic policies traced back to excessively rapid trade and finance liberalization implemented in the early 90's by President Carlos Menem and Economy Minister Domingo Cavalo, with the support of the IMF, WB and U.S. Treasury Department. Neo-liberal policies systematically exclude large sectors of the population from employment; this explains why the informal sector has grown so rapidly in Latin America and why garbage scavenging has grown in Argentina.
Many cartoneros in Buenos Aires are laid off workers from the city or displaced farmers from the provinces who fled the countryside because their products were no longer competitive on the international market after the peso was pegged to the dollar in 1991. Like other developing countries, Argentina is very urbanized, 64% of the population live in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Sante Fe. Also, 82% of industrial production and 92% of total agricultural output are centralized in these three provinces, remnants of colonial infrastructure. With the IMF and World Bank's 'controlled underdevelopment' colonial order is perpetuated.
The environmental repercussions of economic policies which force excessive migration into the cities, mostly to find work in the informal economy, are horrendous. The combination of overcrowded cities, centralized industry and massive consumerism all point to an environmental catastrophe. Increasingly problematic are the questions of solid waste management, space for landfills, pollution, and health related problems. Buenos Aires alone amasses over 18 million tons of waste annually and there does not seem to be any action made by the city managers or government officials to reduce, reuse, or recycle the waste. Garbage firms dump the city's trash in landfills outside of the city, in areas where poor people live. Villa Dominicana, one of the poorest neighborhoods in greater Buenos Aires, has the highest recorded cases of cancer caused by pollution in Argentina.
The economic crisis has rapidly advanced informal systems of recycling. After the peso was devalued by 70% one year ago, the number of imports has dropped drastically and recycling has sky rocketed. For two reasons, first because it is much cheaper for Argentine industries to recycle in their own plants than to import materials, second because people are desperate enough for income that they are willing to scavenge for recyclables. By circumstance, the cartoneros have an important socio-economic role as a source of import substitution.
Currently, Buenos Aires's formal and informal garbage collection systems are competing against each other. Four private garbage firms have legal property rights to all of the city's garbage. These firms are paid by the government for garbage collection per kilo. The more garbage these firms collect, the more money they make. Cartoneros collect, recycle and reuse five percent of the 5,000 tons of daily garbage consumption. Their work saves tax payers money and is indisputably good for the environment, yet still they are persecuted by the authorities. Candidate for mayor and businessman Mauricio Macri believes, "cartoneros are thieves and should be prosecuted". What is happening is the poor are robbing the city's trash from privatized garbage firms in order to recycle, the incentive however, is not a heightened environmental consciousness but is a desperate effort to stave off starvation.
In the informal system of garbage collection there are three actors -- cartoneros, intermediaries, and industries. Most cartoneros work independently. Currently there are only six organized cartonero cooperatives formed. The majority of cartoneros live in villas, occupied land on the outskirts of the city, in hap-hazard houses made out of salvaged materials such as metal sheets, tarps, and wood. Very few people in villas have running water and those that have electricity have appropriated it from electricity polls on the highway that run parallel to the villa.
Every evening cartoneros make a trip into the city either by train, truck or bus to their own established zone, which consists of approximately 15 blocks. Generally, police charge a fee (even though the activity of collecting trash is illegal) for the use of each zone. The cartoneros separate and collect paper, plastic, and aluminum to take to deposits. In the informal system some actors are profiting more than others. Intermediaries are particularly exploitative to independent cartoneros. Intermediaries are all of the middle people profiting off of the informal system, they include; truck and cart rental businesses used by cartoneros to fill up with recyclables, also the deposits where recyclables are taken before sold to industries is the work of intermediaries. Industries are the final destination points which recycle in their own plants. It is cheaper now for Argentine industries to recycle products within the country than for them to import.
In an informal style the cartoneros have taken the power away from privatized companies and have created a job out of recycling. Cartoneros are part of a grass roots initiative to construct viable alternatives to what the government has been unable to do-provide a solution to a deepening crisis. Argentines need jobs and the current economic model is not offering employment to a large sector of the population. Collecting trash in the street is not a long term alternative to unemployment, for most it is a humiliating, dangerous job without dignity. However, cartonero cooperatives wish to formalize the occupation of recycling to make the work safer, organized, and environmentally sound. In April, the city of Buenos Aires will review their garbage disposal contract, El Ceibo, a cartonero cooperative organized in 1984, has drafted a proposal that includes a plan for garbage to be separated inside the house and made ready for door to door pick up. Cartoneros are attempting to push recycling into the agenda of the future of Argentina but what they are up against is a system which values wealth accumulation at all costs, regardless of the consequences of environmental destruction, increased poverty and the possibility of a health epidemic.
"The majority of people separating trash in the street have been pricked by syringes. The work is dangerous but we simply have no other alternatives. My daughter was cut deep on the palm of her hand by a piece of glass, I tried to take her to the hospital but they wouldn't let us into the emergency room." (Daniel 42 yrs old, cartonero) The government has not responded to the grave health concerns faced by the cartoneros, instead local neighborhood assemblies have organized vaccinations for cartoneros, which is one example of collaborative efforts between different groups within the social movement.
Since the popular rebellion of last December which ousted President De la Rua and Economy Minister Cavalo, changes in formal politics have not occurred. The government can be characterized as unresponsive to the urgency of the crisis. Current President, Duhalde is still trying to secure a new loan with the IMF and the IMF is still pushing for contractionary fiscal policy; slashing more government spending, raising interest rates, more privatization and further trade liberalization. This translates into fewer jobs, the firing of more public employees and factory workers, less funding for schools and hospitals, and a wider opening of markets to exploitation by foreign investors. Argentines are surely not holding their breath for a loan package with policies attached which many believe led them into the crisis in the first place and can only exacerbate the situation.
More promising than formal politics is the human agency in the grassroots organizing that has flourished since the popular rebellion of December 2001. Cartoneros are part of the broader picture of the social movement in Argentina constructing new social orders, through organizing, bringing the power back to the people to directly represent themselves. Citizens have organized community assemblies in more than 200 neighborhoods, over 150 factories have been taken over by the workers, and thousands of unemployed workers have organized into four large unemployed workers movements (known as Piquetero's). Many cartoneros are also part of unemployed worker movements.
Danny, an unemployed factory worker now piquetero of Polo Obrero (Trotskyist piquetero organization) and cartonero, comments, "Here in Argentina the politicians rob their own people, and who ever comes next will do it all over again, there is no candidate that can be trusted to represent the people's interests. The unemployed workers movement is demanding a government made up of workers to construct an economic system with the capacity to serve all 36 million inhabitants of Argentina. We want jobs, reasonable living conditions, health care, and education. Argentina is a country rich in natural resources with a capable work force, if the state in league with the IMF, World Bank, and the United States is standing in the way of us utilizing our resources for the good of the people, then QUE SE VAYAN TODOS! (Out with them all!). We will create a new Argentina without them and hopefully keep recycling too."