The paradox of the institutionalization of waste recovery in Buenos Aires

Marie-Noëlle Carré, January 2014

Monde pluriel

In Argentina, in order to ensure a basic income, the cartoneros go around the city to collect and resell recyclable waste. However, the institutionalization of these informal practices has gradually been imposed. This sheet proposes to take stock of this formalization as well as the debates surrounding it.

How can an informal activity, responding to the survival strategies of city dwellers, be institutionalized by local elected officials? The recycling of waste in Buenos Aires, a city of 13 million inhabitants, is a good starting point for examining this process. As in most cities in the world, whether in the north or the south, this activity is generally practiced by a fringe of the population located at the bottom of the social scale. Since the crisis of 2001 (1998-2003), the image of the Argentine metropolis has been linked to the image of the « cartoneros » who roam the streets extracting paper, cardboard and plastic from the garbage and selling them. These recuperators have been gradually institutionalized over the last ten years. We can take stock of this formalization and the debates that surround it.

The metropolis of Buenos Aires accounts for 50% of GDP and one third of the national population. During the ultra-liberal decade of the 1990s, the policies of economic openness to world markets widened the gap between the central city and its suburbs. The economic heartland concentrates FDI1 and the standard of living of its population rises, while the peri-urban municipalities face the devastating effects of these measures on unemployment and poverty. As the country sinks into recession, waste recovery takes on an unprecedented scale as large numbers of people turn to it for a basic income outside the formal economy. More than 10,000 families depend on it to survive; more than 600 tons of recyclable materials are injected into the packaging production circuit every day.

The reclaimers are innovating by moving en masse from the peripheries, where they live, to the city of Buenos Aires. The former ragpickers, or cirujas, who worked on a neighborhood scale, are being supplanted by cartoneros, who work on a metropolitan scale. The latter rely on the logic of connectivity between places, ensured by the existence of a fast and efficient transport network. In a center that was preserved from poverty, they give an ultimate portrait of misery. In the late afternoon, some of them pour into the urban stations and others arrive by the truckload to collect recyclable materials, when offices, businesses and individuals have put their garbage cans out on the sidewalk. Once collected, the kilo of plastic or cardboard collected is sold to an intermediary, the galponero, equipped with packaging facilities, and then to another, more specialized, who finally charters a vehicle with the final load to the recycling sites. Through the practices of its actors and the commercial networks that support it, recovery relies on mixed channels, which have a strong territorial base and are part of globalized flows. Waste transits through largely informal marketing channels, which continue to support a whole section of the peri-urban economy, and ends up in the processing industries. At the same time, some materials participate in the country’s integration into global trade: PET plastic (bottles) is exported to China through formal import-export structures.

The institutionalization of reclaimers, carried out at the municipal level, coincides with a return of the state to the various levels of management. In the city of Buenos Aires, the liberal urban government, in power since 2008, has made the supervision of these poor individuals in the center a major issue. After unsuccessful attempts to turn away and lock up the reclaimers in selective sorting centers, the local government changed its institutionalization strategy. He relied on the « sustainable » label that recycling could give to the city’s image. He encouraged the formation of « work cooperatives » that included reclaimers from the suburbs. It provided its participants with a monthly allowance, social security affiliation, and selection and storage facilities. However, the formalization of work comes with constraints: reclaimers are assigned perimeters and cannot be present in the city outside of night hours. Trucks and buses transport the reclaimers and their materials from their home neighborhood to the collection neighborhood and back. Social workers patrol the collection areas to ensure that the activity runs smoothly, and to monitor and discipline it.

This institutionalization of recycling is not unanimous, however. Some of the reclaimers’ cooperatives, with the help of environmental NGOs, are trying to go further. They plead for the society as a whole to take note of the professional character of the activity. To do this, the first step is to replace the name « cardboard collector » with « urban recycler » to encourage recognition of the environmental service provided to the community. Most institutions have taken note of this request. On the other hand, the legitimization of reclaimers as « urban agents », in the same way as other service operators, is still compromised. The cooperatives that are fighting for this insist on their legitimacy and freedom to roam the city, fearing that these rights will be impeded by government constraints. At the same time, they also try to highlight the extremely precarious conditions under which they provide a service to the wealthier spaces. Indeed, reclaimers remain vulnerable to the indexation of their income to the price of secondary raw materials on world markets. For example, the sharp fluctuations in the current global crisis have resulted in a doubling or tripling of the amount that reclaimers earn from the resale of materials.

The institutionalization of waste recovery is paradoxical. It is partial, because it focuses on the formalization of reclaimers rather than on the formalization of the entire reclamation chain. As for the latter, it remains both formal and informal. The case of Buenos Aires is particularly instructive because this process took place in a very short period of time. The withdrawal and then the affirmation of the public authorities favored the development of the informal sector and the formalization of the activity. This institutionalization gave new informal actors the opportunity to express themselves in formal settings on the future direction of waste management.


To access the PDF version of the issue of the magazine Tous Urbains, n°5

To go further

CARRE M-N. 2008. Buenos Aires, or the territories of recuperation-action, University of Lyon, UMR/CNRS 5600 Environnement Ville et Société/ENS de Lyon and Centre de Recherches et d’Analyse en Géopolitique /Paris VIII