Recycling in Buenos Aires: Cartoneros

As beautiful as this city is, everyday I’m tripping over garbage and broken sidewalks everywhere I go (not to mention dog poop).  I used to see people throwing trash out of their car windows or just casually dropping things on the side of the road in India.  On the other hand in South Korea, I hardly saw a gum wrapper on the street or even trash cans- I learned that people take their garbage home and recycle practically everything (I saw at least four separate bins for different types of recycling at a Korean home).  I don’t know what I thought it would be like here but I certainly didn’t think this “Paris of South America” and its proud inhabitants would be such litterbugs!  When I first arrived I was shocked to see so much garbage and so many porteños being so careless about keeping this gorgeous city clean.

At my first apartment I asked my landlord how I should separate my garbage for recycling.  She looked at me, shrugged, and said “no, we just throw everything out together.”  Really?  A few weeks later I asked a long-term expat what I should do and she told me to separate at least the cans or bottles that may have sharp edges or broken pieces, so that cartoneros wouldn’t get hurt.  hmmm..  cartoneros.  Every time I asked about all the trash and lack of recycling in Buenos Aires, everyone said to me “well, at least we have the cartoneros.”

There is organized garbage collection with large trucks like the ones you see in big cities (they seem to come around here more often than in NY and BA smells much better than Manhattan in the middle of summer). But there are also these cartoneros, from the Spanish word cartón (cardboard), who pick up and sort through garbage looking for salvageable items.  They started to appear during the years of economic crisis in Argentina and make a living out of selling recyclable products.  I read that in certain neighborhoods like Palermo where I live, they are organized and function as a cooperative where cartoneros share and divide their work, and split up their profits together.  After failing several attempts at garbage separation and recycling plans, the government here decided to work with the network of existing cartoneros‘ cooperatives a few years ago.  Cartoneros play an important role in the waste reduction efforts in Buenos Aires and is a part of BA’s daily life.

I usually see a guy pulling a large rickshaw and picking up cardboard boxes or paper.

The other day I saw this in front of the Palermitano Hotel in Palermo.  These guys looked like they had an arrangement with the hotel…

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3 Responses to Recycling in Buenos Aires: Cartoneros

  1. I found your comments about South Korea really interesting…where we live, in a rather small village in an industrial area, there is rubbish EVERWHERE. People dump their rubbish in bags in pile on the side of the street where it builds up for a day or two in large, smelly piles. People drop rubbish wherever they are standing. We have witnessed high school children open the door of the convenience story and literally throw their rubbish out the door onto the street. It has given us such a bad impression especially seeing as ostracised we would be for that kind of behaviour back home in New Zealand.

    There are little old ladies who trawl the streets collecting the card board and bottles though. So I guess some of that must be for recycling. Also weird when you don’t speak the language and can’t figure out the nuts and bolts of the situation!!!

    • That’s so interesting! My experience in Korea was isolated to Seoul and Jeju Island, and was so different from what you’re seeing in a small village. Do you think it’s from lack of awareness and education, and/or regulations and government enforcement not in place? It seems to be the opposite here (at least from what I’ve seen) that in the city of Buenos Aires there is trash everywhere but in the more remote areas like Patagonia there is more emphasis in recycling and proper waste management. I found Mendoza to be a lot cleaner than BA as well. I hope I get to spend more time in Korea next year and I’m sure I’ll be referencing your blog for lots of information!

      • Its hard to say – we’ve discovered that people in this area are very sensitive about environmental issues. We live next to the largest petro-chemical and industrial area in Korea so naturally pollution is pouring into the air and water constantly…but you bring that up and people are like, “what pollution? no there isn’t any, you’re just soft” – when we’re coughing our lungs up and chewing on the air. Its almost impossible to get anyone to talk about waste or anything that might make them look bad. I guess if there is no repercussion for throwing your trash out onto the street (other than a shocked and angry look from two white foreign teachers! haha) then you just continue to do it…

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