Why you might feel guilty using Ecuador's recycle bins

Manuel, who works as a 'recycler,' says his income dropped in half after recycle bins were introduced across Ecuador's capital. Officials say improved work regulations are the bigger reason for reduced wages.

Irene Caselli
“The whole city has been invaded by recycling bins,” says Manuel, who works in a waste-sorting facility 8-10 hours per night, five or six days a week. He says he earned up to $100 a week before recycling bins were introduced to Ecuador's capital. Since then, his income has dropped in half.

I've always had a thing for recycling, although I recently realized that some Ecuadoreans feel slighted – and pinched in the purse – by my eco-minded ways.

Coming from Naples, the southern Italian city periodically invaded by trash, recycling was more time-consuming than in other parts of Europe. When I was a child, I took it on as a duty to recycle properly; because Naples long-lacked proper disposal facilities for batteries, I would collect them all winter to take to Germany during our summer holidays in order to recycle them.

But here in Ecuador, for the first time in my life, I've felt guilty about recycling.

While I was working on a report on the eradication of child labor in the country's landfills, I came across Manuel, a man who has spent all of his life sorting waste.

“The whole city has been invaded by recycling bins,” he told me during a visit to the modest shack where he lives, across the street from one of Quito's largest landfills. “Hardly anything valuable arrives here these days. We don't get that much good material anymore.”

Manuel is a “recycler.” He works in a waste-sorting facility 8-10 hours per night, five or six days a week. He told me that, until recently, he used to earn between $75 and $100 a week, depending on how much material he managed to collect. (Plastic is the most valuable, followed by cardboard and metal.) His income dropped in half, he says, once recycling bins were introduced across the city of Quito little over a year ago.

His words came as a blow. When I first moved to Quito last year to work as a journalist, recycling was one of the first challenges I came across. The week I spoke to Manuel, I was feeling particularly smug about myself because I had found recycling bins just 10 minutes away from my apartment. I had stuffed my backpack full with piles of old newspapers and bottles that I had been collecting for months and, after four round trips, my kitchen was clear again, and so was my conscience.

But after talking to Manuel, I blamed my “green” attitude for his poor living conditions. I forced myself to throw plastic bottles and glass jars in the regular bin, thinking that it might earn him a few extra cents to spend on his three children.

That changed radically when I went to visit the place where he works. The facility is much better than the dumps that exist in other parts of the country, especially on the coast, but the environment is still tough. Trucks come in regularly to deposit garbage under one large shed, where workers open up plastic bags and go through the waste, picking out what can be recycled. The smell, especially on sunny days, is revolting. And the chemicals sprayed to make the place stink less – during just a brief visit – made my eyes watery and my throat and skin itchy.

While I was there, I talked to one of the managers of the facility, who pointed out that workers are blaming recycling for their lesser earnings, but that is a myth. She said recyclers like Manuel used to earn more when working conditions were worse. That is because there were no safety regulations. They could live in a landfill, if they wanted, work all day, and get their children to help. Also, they could sell what they sorted directly to the buyers.

But now, children cannot work with them anymore, and their shifts are well-regulated. They sell their recycling in bulk through a cooperative and therefore earn less as single individuals. As the move toward better working conditions and the council's efforts to recycle came around the same time, workers tend to blame the latter.

I realized that recycling was not as bad as Manuel made it out to be. But I also understood why better working conditions are not Manuel's priority, if he is struggling to buy food for his family. As the city council focuses more on recycling, he is worried that facilities like the one he works in will employ less and less people, and he will remain jobless.

I am finally re-appeased with my recycling habit, and the pile of old papers is quickly growing in a corner of my kitchen, waiting to be recycled. But the question remains as to how to give Manuel and his colleagues a better pay and better working conditions, while looking after the environment too.

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