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.