The city of Buenos Aires has been working towards “zero garbage” for more than a decade. But despite the government’s efforts, it’s the cartoneros (litter-pickers) in Buenos Aires who champion urban recycling and have kickstarted it into becoming a basic part of daily life.
Cartoneros are people who roam the streets, sorting through trash to collect recyclables. Derived from the word cartón (Spanish for “cardboard”), the name alludes to those who gather cardboard and other recyclable material. The media coined this term after the 2001 economic crisis that left over 50% of Argentinians living below the poverty line and as much as 25% living as indigents. Collecting recyclables provides guaranteed income in the absence of other employment opportunities brought on by the crisis. Cartoneros bring the paper, cardboard, plastic and metals to processing plants in exchange for money.
Though the press invented the term, the cartoneros themselves reclaimed the word as a badge of self-identification. Like the sidewalk booksellers of New York City, these people live outside the system and make the most of the discarded scraps while simultaneously benefiting society – and they proudly claim their identity as such.
Cartoneros have become a crucial part of Buenos Aires’ waste-management efforts. Also known as urban recyclers, the cartoneros have now formed 12 cooperatives of more than 5,300 people who collect recyclable materials. Every day, they pick from special containers and bring the separated materials to the 15 city-sponsored processing plants. These recycling hubs offer cleaner and safer working conditions than the plants of yesteryear, and allow the cartoneros to negotiate better prices with the recycling companies.
These more organized efforts are largely thanks to the Zero Garbage law that the Argentinian government enforced in 2005, that aims to gradually reduce the waste going to landfills. In Buenos Aires, 6,760 tons of garbage are produced daily, of which as much as 66% is recycled. A system of 26,700 containers is distributed across the city, that are emptied every day by six different companies that provide garbage truck services. Garbage is managed in this way, but when it comes to recycling, the key components are separation of waste at home and the daily work of the cartoneros, Buenos Aires’ urban recycling champions.
But even though the Zero Garbage law is slowly improving waste management in the city, there’s still work left to do. For example, as some cartonero collectives point out, at least 15,000 people in Buenos Aires depend on litter-picking for their livelihood, which means that only a third of them collects a subsidy – namely, those that belong to a cooperative.
Waste-management, as it is often pointed out, has a great deal to do with education. It’s crucial that people separate recyclables at the source and put them into the special lime-green recycling bins, to assist cartoneros and the city’s waste-disposal efforts. But most of these bins are only located in the wealthiest neighborhoods, such as Palermo or Recoleta, and are often outnumbered by regular non-recycling bins.
Garbage is by no means a problem exclusive to any one place in the world. In fact, it amounts to a global crisis that is expected to worsen exponentially in the next few decades as more people move to the cities and produce more and more waste. The World Bank estimates that by 2025, the waste produced globally will be enough to fill a line of rubbish trucks 3,100 miles long every day.
Responsibility when it comes to garbage is shared by the government, the recycling cooperatives and companies, and the general population. But in the race against drowning in garbage that the whole planet is facing, awareness of why and how to recycle remains a crucial factor. This is why the daily work of the cartoneros of Buenos Aires, once frowned upon, is being recognized as a public service that pushes the city into the Zero Waste future it envisions.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.