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Recycling Paper, Plastics and People

In Argentina, women leave homelessness and find hope while helping the environment

En español | Morning finds El Ceibo, a sprawling facility to sort recycled material, bustling with activity. "Our work is not to recycle material, it's to recycle people," says Cristina Lescano, founder of Buenos Aires's oldest cooperative of urban recyclers, known as cartoneros.

More than a dozen workers are abuzz, sorting and packaging discarded soda bottles, milk cartons, and newspapers at El Ceibo's main workplace, nestled near the city's ever-busy port. Named after Argentina's national flower (cockspur coral in English), El Ceibo sprang to life during the country's burgeoning economic crisis.

In 1989, as inflation climbed, factories shuttered, and jobs evaporated, seven women living in abandoned homes came together for survival. After eight years of picking through garbage, Lescano recalls, "We asked, 'Why do we have to continue doing this? Why don't we think of doing something else [related] to this?'"

Today, El Ceibo's 60 workers collect a ton and half of recyclables a week from 2,400 families in a 100-block territory in the posh neighborhood of Palermo. While doing so, they have educated residents on how to separate the plastics, cardboard, paper, and glass, and in 2004 El Ceibo joined forces with Greenpeace Argentina.

Because no organized recycling—public or private—had previously existed in Buenos Aires, the cartoneros filled a void. Their work expanded after 2005 when Buenos Aires passed the Zero Trash Law (Ley de basura cero) to become the first major city in the world committed to reducing the amount of garbage it sent to landfills. By 2010, the city is required to cut waste by 30 percent from the million and a half tons it generated in 2004; by 2020, it must recycle 100 percent.

Cartoneros - Recicladores

— Nestor H. Barbitta

Since El Ceibo's inception, nine other recycling cooperatives have been established. But, says Maria Eugenia Testa of Greenpeace, "the way El Ceibo works is the way we originally thought the Zero Trash Law would work." El Ceibo, she says, is unique among the cooperatives because of its community education component.

Juan Pablo Piccardo, the city's minister of environment and public space, says Buenos Aires now has 6,000 registered recyclers. "The cartoneros program," he says, "means a better quality of life for the cartoneros and an improved recycling system."

Working with the government further professionalized El Ceibo's work, says Lescano: "We went from being outside society to being inside society, from illegal to legal. We are recognized as a socially responsible business."

Recycling Lives
Social responsibility doesn't come just from cleaning the city; it comes from changing the lives of the people who work for El Ceibo.
Julia Navarro, a stout woman with glistening brown eyes and weather-beaten skin the color of toffee, has been working with El Ceibo for ten years. Dressed in a uniform of midnight blue with bright-orange reflectors, she fearlessly pushes a cart that dwarfs her short frame as just inches away buses barrel down the narrow, leafy streets.

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