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Waste pickers in Argentina transform survival into livelihoods

By Lucila Sigal  /  Reuters, JOSE LEON SUAREZ, Argentina

Waste pickers in Jose Leon Suarez, Argentina, sort rubbish at CEAMSE, the state entity that handles waste management in Buenos Aires, on Monday last week.

Photo: Reuters

Lorena Pastoriza, 45, is one of hundreds of informal waste pickers sifting thousands of tons of trash per day in the poor neighborhood of Jose Leon Suarez in Argentina, making ends meet by organizing the rubbish left behind by others.

She works at the giant Reciparque plant on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where rubbish collectors bring containers of glass, cardboard, metal and other waste collected from the inner city, which is then dug through and sorted.

Around the giant waste heap, a community of unofficial recyclers has emerged, in part driven by the need to pull people out of hardship, a long-running issue in the recession-hit South American nation where one-third of people live below the poverty line.

“We always say that we were hungry. Then, because we were hungry, we needed to organize ourselves to survive in a territory, to eat from it and to raise our kids,” said Pastoriza, who leads the local Bella Flor waste picker cooperative.

The cooperative operates within and alongside the state entity that deals with waste management for the city and province of Buenos Aires, CEAMSE.

Beyond helping arrange work, Bella Flor organizes theater workshops, provides education and food, and attends to health problems linked to living at the garbage dump, as well as domestic violence and addiction, a scourge that afflicts many of the local youth.

The cooperatives emerged during the economic and social crisis of 2001, when thousands of people climbed the mountain of garbage in search of food and clothing just to survive.

“These plants offer decent, concrete, real work, which is beneficial wherever you look,” said Ulises de la Orden, whose new documentary Nueva Mente follows the work done by Bella Flor.

“There is a social solution, an environmental solution and an economic solution,” De la Orden added.

“Here people get ‘recycled’ too and these people live in the garbage, work with the garbage and find in the garbage a possible, better future — better than that offered by any other emerging neighborhood,” he said.

Argentina is not alone. In Chile, one poor community on the outskirts of Santiago is leading a recycling drive in a neighborhood plagued by crime.

Experts have said that the Argentine government lacked a coordinated policy on recycling and limited awareness, meaning that most garbage arrived mixed together and workers had to sort through bags of waste to separate what could be recycled, compacted and sold.

“The wealthiest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires just send their waste to the peripheries and it’s received by these people who live at the edges of the city,” said Francisco Suarez, an anthropologist specializing in environmental issues.

The workers, who earn about 12,500 pesos (US$289) per month, are pushing for better waste segregation, more recognition from the state and investment to give them technology to help improve their work as recyclers of others’ waste.

“If we had technology and investment, we could recycle almost half [of collected material]. However, we are at just 17 to 19 percent,” said Ernesto Paret, another of the founders of Bella Flor.

Paret had started working as a ciruja — meaning he used garbage for everything from clothing to food — but today helps run a program that focuses on social issues at the University of San Martin in the city.

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