Cartoneros are the city’s recycling program.
Men and sometimes children from the villas miserias (aka slums) come into the city and wheel around a cart collecting the cardboard and paper products from the trash that litters the city. You see them in every neighborhood at all hours of the day.
When I first got here, I had no clue what they were doing.
I was recently told that this is organized, and they are actually members of collectives. The cartoneros meet up where a large truck comes to gather what everyone has collected for the day and hauls it off to be recycled.
I decided to do some more research.
First, I was surprised to find an entry on this in Wikipedia. Different terms are used to describe these workers. In Latin American countries, the word cartonero is used because it comes from the Spanish word cartón, which means cardboard.
The socioeconomic conditions prevalent in Third World cities that experience rapid urbanization brought about by fast population growth, as well as high immigration rates, create an “opportunity” or “need” for this type of work.
Wikipedia even has specific information about Buenos Aires cartoneros.
Decades of poor governance, labour market reforms and structural adjustment programmes led to the 1999-2002 Argentine Economic Crisis. In 2000, amidst the financial chaos, there were an estimated 40,000 cartoneros … operating in Greater Buenos Aires. Consequently… 100,000 people were living directly off the income generated from the cartoneros. Contemporary figures cite that there are five recycling cooperatives in Buenos Aires, directly employing 110 persons. Unfortunately there is no recent data to suggest if the current population size of the cartoneros has altered significantly since 2000/02… The largest organization of cartoneros is the Excluded Workers Movement… In 2007, this organization led an epic struggle against the right wing local government for the nationalization of the recycling contracts and a general policy for cartoneros in the City of Buenos Aires, which is considered the most advanced program for wastepickers worldwide.
I also found an interesting article from Verge Magazine that includes personal stories from talking with cartoneros in Buenos Aires.
It is hard to imagine this type of existence.
Picking through people’s trash in the affluent neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to make a few dollars a day. Having to bring your children to help earn a larger sum.
I am certainly no expert on the socioeconomic conditions in this city nor do I know what other options exist. But I do wonder what else these people would do to support themselves and their families if this recycling opportunity did not exist.