Trash piles up in Buenos Aires: What's the plan?

Almost eight years after Buenos Aires laid out mandatory trash reduction goals, the government is finally starting a recycling program.

Trash is piling up in Buenos Aires. Every day, the city sends 4,000 tons of garbage to landfills in the greater metropolitan area—landfills that are already full or overflowing.

Last year, the governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, put his foot down and said he would not continue to receive the city of Buenos Aires’ waste unless the city (which, like Washington, DC, is independent from the surrounding states) drastically reduced how much trash it produced.

So, almost eight years after the city of Buenos Aires passed a Zero Garbage Law, which laid out mandatory trash reduction goals, the government is finally implementing a recycling program.

First, the city has started to sell or reuse the rubble from construction projects, a step that reduced trash from 6,000 tons a day at the end of 2012 to 4,000 currently. And, now, the city is starting to roll out a program to organize and formalize its cartoneros, which translates to “people of cardboard” and is used to describe informal trash collectors.

Formalizing 'Cartoneros'

When Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis left almost half the population unemployed or underemployed, thousands of cartoneros began to walk the streets at night, sorting through people’s trash and pulling out recyclable materials. They scraped together a living by selling their findings to private recycling plants.

Eventually, many cartoneros organized themselves into cooperatives. Together, they collected, sorted, and sold recycling, and they formed relationships with companies and doormen. As time went by, some cooperatives were able to buy trucks and thus left behind their traditional carts and opened Green Centers for sorting recycling.

Now, the city government has assigned each cartoneros’ cooperative to a specific part of the city and has given each a set route to cover. In return, the cartoneros will, for the first time, receive a salary: 4,000 pesos (about $700) a month, with the possibility of productivity bonuses.

The city hopes to incorporate any cartoneros not already in cooperatives into the program.

Next, the government plans to install garbage and recycling dumpsters on every city block and to launch a public awareness campaign about how to separate trash and recycling.

The salaries, dumpsters, and campaign will cost about $8.5 million dollars in 2014, says city spokesperson Gonzalo Girolami.

Consuelo Bilbao of Greenpeace Argentina, says she’s not convinced the program will be completely effective, though she says Buenos Aires has taken steps in the right direction.

“There are many parts of the city that don’t have cooperatives,” Ms. Bilbao says. “So we don’t have the guaranteed, formal [recycling collection] service we should have.”

Mr. Girolami disagrees: By the end of 2014, he says, there will be a cooperative picking up recycling from every city block.

That said, Girolami adds, “This is a cultural change: It means changing habits. … These processes don’t happen overnight, … but all the parts of the system are functioning so the change will take place.”

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