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Local Heroes


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.

"Buen día," the neighbors greet Navarro on a fresh spring morning, giving her pecks on the cheek and filling her towering cart with cardboard, bottles, and cans. "I feel like the neighbors support me and my work," she says, walking down Thames Street and throwing greetings back. "They understand that it's a good thing to work with us by separating their recyclables and caring for the environment."

With just an  elementary-school education, Navarro, 59, is studying for her high-school diploma. She lives only a few blocks from El Ceibo's offices with her niece's 15-year-old son, Pablo, who was abandoned by his mother when he was a baby. Navarro treats the boy, now in middle school, as her son and says he was him the catalyst for her return to school: "He wanted help with his homework, but I couldn't help him. So I decided to go back to school so I could help him."

"Everyone here at El Ceibo has a story," says Jackeline Flores, 40, as she stands among six-foot-high piles of crushed plastic and cardboard. She's been working with El Ceibo for 13 years. Flores, an attractive woman with chocolate-colored eyes and straight brown hair pulled back in a girlish ponytail, lives with her four children, who range in age from 11 to 20.

She grins as she explains that she's close to her children and talks to them frequently about life. Florencia, 20, attends the University of Buenos Aires, and Romina, 18, studies journalism in high school. "They are on the right road," she says confidently, "and they know how to discern between what's good and what's bad."

Flores becomes emotional when she admits that she's living in an abandoned house, but she plans to move into her own home by the end of the month. "This job brought a change in my home," she says, tears filling her eyes. "It's very gratifying to know that I can earn my own living…I enjoy my work because it supports the interest of everyone."

For Cristina Lescano, transformation goes beyond the lives of those who work with her and the city where she lives. Her four children no longer live on the streets, and one of her daughters is in college. Lescano has gone from a woman without a home to a candidate for congress in last June's elections. She didn't win, but her fight continues. Reluctant to talk about matters unrelated to El Ceibo, Lescano quickly returns to that topic, which she calls "her life."

"They told me that I couldn't do it," she says. "Sí se puede."

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