Buenos Aires embraces “cartoneros” in push for zero waste

Sergio Sánchez heads the largest of Argentina's cooperatives of waste-pickers, known as "cartoneros." After years of criminalizing informal trash sorting, Buenos Aires now is working with the cooperatives to achieve its recycling goals. (Patricio Murphy)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — When businesses start to close down here and the city begins to wind down for the evening, a whole section of society comes to life.

As regular office workers go home, the work of some 10,000 people is just beginning. Workers known as cartoneros descend into streets and back alleys to begin the task of sorting through the trash. They put aside plastic, glass, cardboard, paper, metal and wood — anything that can be sold to recycling companies — before waste contractors haul what’s left off to landfills in the morning.

The cartoneros (literally, “people of cardboard”) have been a highly visible if discomforting presence in Buenos Aires ever since Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis put hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The economy has improved since then but the working conditions for the cartoneros has not — until recently.

Over the past decade, the cartoneros have been organizing themselves into cooperatives, in an effort to fetch better prices for recyclables and to gain recognition for essentially providing the only recycling program Buenos Aires has ever known. In 2012, a landfill crisis pushed the city to ramp up its recycling efforts and formally bring the 12 cooperatives into the city’s waste management structure.


Buenos Aires embraces “cartoneros” in push for zero waste

Inside the city’s recycling “green centers”

The 5,000 cartoneros who are members of a cooperative now pay taxes in exchange for a living wage, health and pension benefits. The city has built five warehouses called “green centers,” where the cartoneros can sort trash in clean, lighted and dry conditions rather than out in the streets. The city also now provides the cartoneros with transportation, uniforms and gloves, and helps to negotiate better prices for the materials with the recycling companies.

At one of the green centers, a woman who gave her name only as Mickey, 47, says work conditions have improved enormously since she became part of the formal system. She’s been a cartonero for 15 years and member of the El Amanecer cooperative for the past eight. Now, she knows that she will take home a set amount of money each month, which puts her mind at ease.

“I hope other informal workers are able to join the official system soon,” she says.

A marginalized activity

The role the cartoneros play is not new. People have been making a living this way ever since Buenos Aires’ first municipal dump was opened in 1871. By the second half of the 20th century, thousands of people were living off the collection and sale of other people’s trash, mostly sorting through the open-air landfills located outside of the city limits.

However, in 1976 the rules changed dramatically after a coup brought a military junta into power in Argentina. The de-facto government criminalized informal trash collection and declared waste to be the property of official collection companies — taking anything out of the trash was considered theft. Those companies were paid by the ton for the waste they buried, leaving little incentive to see any of it recycled.

Since Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis, the sight of cartoneros digging through trash in the evening has been a common sight in Buenos Aires.  (Vyacheslav Bondaruk/flickr/cc)

Even still, the cartoneros did not go away entirely. In fact, their numbers grew as unemployment rose under the junta’s economic policies, and they continued to work outside the law even after democracy returned in 1983. But it was in 2001, when Argentina experienced an economic meltdown, that the informal trade in trash really boomed.

As the number of cartoneros grew, they began organizing into cooperatives. Sergio Sánchez was on the front lines of this fight to improve working conditions. He’s the head of El Amanecer, the cooperative Mickey belongs to, and with 2,000 members, the city’s largest. Sánchez also leads a federation of 20 cooperatives across Argentina. A burly man with a gravelly voice and a big heart, Sánchez says with a laugh, “We were ecologists before most people had even heard of the term!”

Sánchez’ cooperative has grown into an entire social inclusion project, with a soup kitchen which feeds a hundred people lunch and dinner on a daily basis. El Amanecer also has a nursery, a safe space to leave young children while their parents get on with their work. Educational programs, from computing to art workshops, teach the older children how to use the materials their parents have recuperated to make toys, which they then sell in local markets and fairs.

All of the project coordinators are former cartoneros, Sánchez explains proudly. “If you haven’t been a cartonero, you can’t come and work in the soup kitchen. We work in our own way that we understand, having all come from the streets.”

Today, some 10,000 cartoneros collect around 1,000 tons of recyclables a day, about one-sixth of the city’s total daily output of trash.

Lack of landfill space

To understand the cartoneros’ most recent advances, however, you need to know a little about the geopolitics of the Buenos Aires region.

The city of Buenos Aires is home to around 3 million people. That number doubles on weekdays, as many people commute into the city from the surrounding province of Buenos Aires. So the city’s trash responsibilities are a good bit larger than its population would suggest.

The city buries its trash in landfills located in the province. What’s more, the two jurisdictions are controlled by politicians of rival political parties. Fights over trash have grown louder as the amount of trash sent to landfills keeps growing.

In 2006, the city adopted a so-called “Zero Waste” law. According to a timeline established under the law, the city was to decrease the proportion of solid waste sent to landfills by 30 percent as of 2010; by 50 percent as of 2012; and by 75 percent as of 2017.  The ultimate goal was to ensure that 100 percent of recyclable waste was in fact recycled, and kept out of the landfills, by the year 2020.

The city, led by Mayor Mauricio Macri of the opposition PRO party, dragged its feet on implementation. The city continued to send an unprecedented amount of waste to landfills, missing the 2010 reduction target.

As part of a new effort to divert waste from landfills, the city has constructed five “green centers” where the cartoneros can sort trash in better working conditions. (Patricio Murphy)

A crisis point came in 2012, when it became clear the city would miss its second target. The trash issue became even more prominent because workers for the main waste haulers went on strike, allowing trash to pile up on the streets of Buenos Aires. The provincial governor, Daniel Scioli of the governing FPV party, declared that by the end of 2014 the province would no longer accept trash from the city.

The inter-jurisdictional spat was the catalyst the city needed to move ahead with the implementation of the Zero Waste law. In December 2012, Macri and Scioli signed an agreement, putting new waste reduction targets in place, which thus far have been met.

As a result of the new agreement, the government began a recycling education campaign to encourage the city’s residents to separate their trash. In addition to the large black trash bins shared by all residents of a street and collected nightly, the city introduced large green bins for recyclables.

More importantly, the city inaugurated a new treatment plant for “arid” waste materials such as construction debris, which allows the city to sell or reuse the rubble from building projects. This alone has reduced waste sent to landfill by around 2,000 tons a day.

The city claims to have reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills by 44 percent in just one year — although it’s likely that at least part of that reduction is simply the result of people producing less trash during a recent economic slowdown here. Last month, the city’s recycling efforts won a City Climate Leadership Award in a global competition sponsored by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Siemens.

New worker protections

For Buenos Aires, embracing the cartoneros was a key part of this more concerted push for recycling. The Zero Waste law helped by finally decriminalizing the work they do separating trash. But the big changes didn’t come until last year.

That’s when the city began opening the “green centers” at different points around the city. The centers come alive at around midnight when the green bins collected from the city streets arrive and the task of separating begins. Cartoneros separate plastics, glass, cardboard and metal into large bags and containers to be weighed by the recycling companies. Trash that can’t be recycled gets tossed in a bin to be hauled off to landfill.

The cartoneros’ financial situation is also much better. The city has thrown its weight behind negotiating better prices for recyclables. The organized cartoneros who belong to cooperatives are now part of the formal city system, and receive an average monthly salary of $4,500 pesos (around $500 U. S.), slightly more than the national minimum wage. The city plans to incorporate another 2,000 workers into the cooperatives in the coming years.

Workers at the green centers register the weight of recyclables to be sold. The city now negotiates rates that allow cartoneros who are part of cooperatives to earn a living wage. (Patricio Murphy)

Those who don’t yet belong to the cooperatives work in a more informal way. Some receive a government incentive of $2,000 pesos (around $240 U. S.) per month, as well as transport and access to the green centers for separation. They work Monday through Friday, and although they work as individuals, they sell collectively to a wholesaler and divide the money up based on the amount each person has collected. Others continue to work independently, hitting the streets with their own carts, separating trash by hand and selling to middlemen, setting their own prices.

This is how the majority of cartoneros started out, before they began organizing. Sánchez says that these informal workers get the worst deal, receiving the lowest price per kilogram of materials, as they are at the bottom of a chain and don’t have the power the cooperatives do when it comes to negotiating prices. They also don’t get the health or pension benefits. “Just today I bumped into our first pensioner, which was for us a massive achievement,” he says. “That person could retire after working as a cartonero!”

Despite the recent progress, Sánchez says recycling still has a long way to go in Buenos Aires. Despite public education encouraging residents to separate recyclables from their trash, many citizens are still loathe to do it. Or they don’t know they’re supposed to put recyclables in the green bins.

As such, the cartoneros often still have to go through both bins and separate by hand, which has many health and safety implications. There are plans to install equipment in the green centers to help speed up the sorting process, but currently the workers trawl through piles of garbage on the floor of the centers in a very rudimentary way, often without gloves.

However, Sánchez recognizes how much has been achieved over the past 15 years. The federation now counts some 20 cooperatives around Argentina, and continues to grow.

Cartoneros exist all over the country, and they exist out of need — hunger, unemployment — not because of some environmental ideal about recycling,” he says. He points out that it was them, not the municipal governments, who began the recycling push that led to the climate leadership award for Buenos Aires.

“We feel the prize is a recognition of the work that we do — the work we have been doing for decades, before we had the government’s support,” says Sánchez. “The city government committed to working with the cooperatives, and the prize is a recognition of that good decision.”


Photos: Inside Buenos Aires’ recycling “green centers” 

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Kristie Robinson is the founder of The Argentina Independent, an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires.  Full bio


  • ​About half of the city’s 10,000 waste-pickers, known as cartoneros, have organized into cooperatives.
  • The city is tapping the cooperatives to formalize recycling and has set up “green center” warehouses for sorting waste.
  • Cartoneros who are members of cooperatives now pay taxes in exchange for a living wage, health and pension benefits.

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