BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (GPI)-- It’s a hot morning in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. A man in his 50s walks between giant bags of trash in a large storehouse. Sunlight filters through the windows overhead.
As he walks, the man greets his co-workers with a raise of his hand as he passes by. They glance at him in acknowledgement while continuing to feed plastic and cardboard into machines that compress them.
The man, Alberto Santiago, and his 12 colleagues work for Cooperativa 30 de Noviembre, an organization of workers that process and sell discarded plastic and cardboard. They are known as urban recyclers or urban recuperators.
The cooperative operates in a humble neighborhood of Buenos Aires called Villa Soldati. Trucks arrive here full of plastic and cardboard discarded by hospitals, hotels and businesses, as part of an arangement with the city government. The cooperative flattens and separates the materials, then loads them into other trucks to sell to large industries that then recycle them.
“We have two machines that compress the cardboard and another that compresses the plastic,” Santiago says.
Santiago doesn’t talk much, but when he does, he speaks with a smile. His robust back disappears down a corridor in the storehouse lined with bags of garbage. To the right is cardboard, and to the left is plastic.
At the end of the corridor is a kitchen. Without saying much more, Santiago prepares some maté, an infusion of yerba leaves and hot water commonly drunk in Argentina. It’s the ritual that he needs to little by little begin to tell his story.
Santiago says that he didn’t always work with trash. Like many of his co-workers, he ended up in the business after the country’s 2001 economic crisis.
Santiago worked as an electrician in a factory for more than 25 years, from when he was 19 until he was 45. He lived in Campana, a city located 90 minutes from the capital.
But when the economic crisis hit, the factory downsized its staff and paid severances to its oldest employees in order to cut costs. Santiago was among those laid off.
“With the crisis, the money ran out for me quickly,” he says, “and at my age, it was difficult to find another job. Sometimes, I used to go to the capital with a bicycle, and I’d bring home some things that I found in the street. That’s how I decided. And one day, I went out with the bicycle exclusively to see what I’d find to be able to sell and to earn money.”
He began to go out every day, searching especially for white paper, which he’d sell on the weekends. With this money, he bought a cart and little by little found his new job: as a “cartonero,” or a person who collects cardboard.
“I had to eat,” he says. “I had to make money.”
He soon realized that in order to make enough money to support his family – eight children, a wife, an ex-wife and eight grandchildren – he’d have to stay in the city from Monday to Friday. This gave him more time to gather anything he could sell.
He sold cardboard, plastic, paper and newspapers to intermediaries, people who in turn sold them to large recycling companies. Anything else that seemed useful, like washing machines or beds, he sold to people who needed them.
But he didn’t have anywhere in the city to stay. So he started living in the streets.
“I slept in a train station,” he says. “There, I made a precarious house with plastic and cardboard. I stayed there all week. On the weekends, I sold what I gathered and returned home in order to see my family.”