Anyone who has ever been to Buenos Aires will have noticed that as the shops start to close up and the city begins to wind down for the evening, a whole section of society comes to life.
As regular office workers go home, some 6,000 people’s job is just beginning. Cartoneros descend on the city from 6pm and begin their daily task of sorting through other people’s rubbish to separate recyclable materials from waste that can be directly dumped.
Plastic, glass, card, paper, metal, wood – all of these things are put aside and taken away. Some cartoneros take anything recyclable, whereas others specialise in just one type of material, depending on their route, the size of their carro (a special wagon on wheels most cartoneros use to collect the recyclable materials) and how many people are working in their team.
Mariano Perelman, an anthropologist who did a study on cartoneros from 2002-5 explains how the phenomenon is very much a family affair. “Parents and children going out nightly to collect the recyclable goods, and then spend the next morning classifying it and putting all the same materials together for resale,” he says.
Regardless of whether the cartoneros are coming in from the province, or working solely in the capital, the job is a tough one and the families work long hours, leaving home between 4pm and 6pm, and returning between 11pm and 2am.
Some 70% of the cartoneros come in from Buenos Aires province, and they tend to work longer hours, arriving in the city on one of the special cartonero trains, which are basically empty wagons with no seats to allow room for the carros. The trains are not free – they cost 80 cents per person, and come into the train stations of Once, Retiro and Constitución. Nor do the trains run all night – the last train leaves Constitución at 2.30am, and the most famous cartonero train, the ‘tren blanco’, departs from Retiro at just 10pm.
If the trains are missed, the cartoneros have few options but to wait until the first train in the morning, and they are not allowed to pass the time in the train stations. Daniela, a cartonera from Buenos Aires province, confirms this, saying, “I can’t count the number of nights I have spent on the streets with my children, waiting for the morning train to leave.” She adds this often happens when it is cold or raining. She tells how the trains themselves are not fun places you would want to take you family on – each wagon has a police guard and there are often disputes.
Cartoneros who live within the capital have an entirely different experience, although equally arduous.
In Villa Soldati, in the south of the city, is a neighbourhood where 80% of the 300 families who live there are cartoneros. This particular barrio is just 16 years old, but the higgledy-piggledy houses are full of life, and the area seems to be thriving on its chosen profession. Evidence of the labour is everywhere, from the wagons outside of the houses to the piles of recyclable material in and amongst – and occasionally on top of – the houses.
Marta and Pachango have one of these houses, and their situation is typical of the neighbourhood. Martha goes out with three of her children six nights a week – everyday except Saturday, as the government rubbish collection does not work on Saturdays, so most people do not put their garbage out. With her family in tow, she walks into Flores, some 25 blocks away, before following a set circuit every night, eventually returning home around 11pm. The route takes around five hours and is physically exhausting.
However, as the family has been following this circuit for four years, there are some bonuses. The porters of each of the apartment blocks know the family and will wait until they see them to bring the rubbish out. Some even sort the rubbish for the cartoneros, or indicate which bags have recyclable materials in them.
Marta says: “I think they do this because they see we keep the streets tidy. We don’t tear open the rubbish bags, but untie them, remove what we can use, and tie them up again.” She refers to the streets on her route as her workspace, and says because she treats it well, the porters treat her and her family well.
It is also quite a sociable job – she has a laugh and a joke with the porters, who ask after the rest of her family, and compares football notes with other cartoneros whose paths they cross, lamenting Boca’s recent performance, although, being a fanatic River supporter, not overly sincerely.
But Marta is the first to admit not all cartoneros are the same, and she bemoans some of the people who come in from the province, who don’t respect the streets of her city. “These people give us cartoneros a bad name, tearing bags open, and leaving trash everywhere.”
She is also quick to point out she would never root through the rubbish for food, and proudly says how well-fed her children are. “I fell sorry for the poor people who have to do such things. Luckily I have never had to sink so low.”
It is surprising Marta manages to keep her family above the lowest levels of poverty, as cartoneros only earn on average $200-300 per month, as an entire family. But her husband works in a soup kitchen and that, combined with the family allowance of $150, means like most cartonero families, they manage to scrape by.
A bit of history
The economic crash of five years ago led to a boom in the numbers of families hitting the streets to earn a living, but making a living off recyclable waste is not a new phenomenon, as Mariano Perelman explains. However, they have not always gone under the name of cartonero.
In 1871, Parque Patricios became the location for the first municipal fire spot where rubbish was burnt. Around the edges of the site formed the barrio of La Rana, also known as La Lata, and its 3,000 inhabitants dedicated themselves to informal collection of rubbish. At the time, most of the rubbish came from slaughterhouses, and this gave collectors the name ‘surgeons’ as they were adept at using knives to get every last bit of usable meat off the bones of the animal carcasses.
At the beginning of the last century, the official rubbish dump moved to Mataderos neighbourhood, and the previous system was replaced by incineration. Barrios formed in and around the growing number of these open-air incineration sites, especially in the neighbourhood of Flores, which over the years became one of the biggest sites in the world for rubbish dumping and incineration. By the second half of the 20th century, thousands of people were living off the collection and sale of other people’s rubbish.
However, in 1976 the rules changed dramatically. The government declared the rubbish was the property of the official collection agencies, making any removal of the rubbish theft from such agencies. This took away the means of work of the ‘surgeons’, and also made their source of income an illegal activity. The collection companies were paid by the ton for the rubbish they gathered, so they resented anyone removing anything from the trash before they got there.
This led to informal collection booming, and people began selling on what they found, although the activity was still illegal. Many of these people had lost their formal employment and were looking for any means of income they could find. This quickly became a normal way of life for them, and collecting supplemented other sources of income such as selling in the street or on trains.
After the economic crash at the end of 2001, the numbers of people living off collection boomed, peaking, according to Perelman, around 2003. He believes numbers have dropped off slightly since.
Before the crash many gatherers specialised in what they were collecting, whereas afterwards they would take on anything that was recyclable, and sell on the bits they had gathered. It was also around this time that the name cartoneros started being used, as the value of card and paper went through the roof.
There are currently around 6,000 people who come into Buenos Aires city everyday to make their living as cartoneros.
Buenos Aires government is trying to formalise the activity, and improve hygiene for the collectors. The Urban Recycling Unit (URU) of the city government Environment Ministry has started a register of cartoneros to make contacts with the people and give them gloves to work with, so they are not going through the rubbish with their bare hands.
Roberto Felicetti of the URU explains: “We want to develop a productive way of working for these people – many of whom are women and young people who have never had a formal job in their lives. They are doing a great service to the city – we have no recycling policies and environmentally that is disastrous. We need cartoneros, on the most basic level.”
Currently there is a hierarchy with each person selling up the chain: individual cartoneros sell what they have gathered on a weekly basis to small deposits, who then sell the products on to large deposits, who sell on to recycling businesses. The most exploited is therefore the cartonero, quite literally at the bottom of the chain.
However, the URU has 110 rubbish deposits in the city, and is encouraging the cartoneros to form cooperatives, working together to improve the situation of individual families.
On 1st May this year the URU also opened the first plant for separating materials in the city, in Bajo Flores, and is due to open another one in 2007. They handed control of the plant over to a cooperative from Bajo Flores, chosen by the URU for their experience in recycling and their environmental conscience.
Things will not improve for the cartoneros overnight, but the creation of more cooperatives will increase their rights as a workforce. There are also ways the public can help, like sorting their rubbish before it is put out, so the is no need to open the bags to find the useful waste. With just a few small changes in society’s behaviour and attitude, life could improve dramatically for the likes of Marta and her family.