According to some estimates, there are now 30,000 cartoneros in Buenos Aires.
While Argentina shows signs of economic recovery, entire families are looking for garbage on the streets in order to translate their findings into cash, in a job that pays less than $10 per week.
In a country where almost half of the population lives in poverty, this has become the only way to bring food into their homes.
“Everything I pick up – cardboard, nylon – I separate it here and I take it home to sell”
Jose Luis Caseres, cartonero
One cartonero, Jose Luis Caseres, who used to work for a construction company but became unemployed following the economic crisis said: “Everything I pick up – cardboard, nylon – I separate it here and I take it home to sell.”
Every evening, Caseres rides the ‘White Train’ – a special service provided by the government to transport the cartoneros from the industrial belts and slums to the wealthier districts of Buenos Aires.
Since the train leaves at dawn, most Argentines don’t see the cartoneros embark on their work. For this reason, many cartoneros have taken to calling the train El Tren del Fantasma, or the “Ghost Train”.
The train is a stripped-down wreck, without seats, heat during the winter months, and air-conditioning for the summer.
Born from necessity
Lidia Nain, Argentina‘s social development secretary, said the cartoneros were born out of necessity.
“The railway company didn’t want them on the train. But they got on the trains anyway, and with the choice of breaking everything or acting orderly, they chose order.”
One Argentine cartonera, Verónica López, belongs to the same generation of poor Argentineans who make their living by picking up garbage on the streets.
“Three years ago I started using the carts,” she said. “I bring one and my boyfriend brings another one. Working alone I won’t get enough money.”
|The White Train has no seats,
no heating and no air-conditioning
With a small subsidy from the government, Veronica and several other mothers started a tutoring program for the children of recyclers. A school was built inside one of Buenos Aires slums, where many cartoneros live.
Most cartoneros try to find another job, but they have found it almost impossible since the economic crisis. Many believe the government and society have abandoned them.
“If I don’t work nobody will help me,” Caseres said.
“As a cartonera, I can buy a laundry machine or a TV. A lot of people help us with money.”
Some cartoneros have found a way to organize themselves to earn more money. A model cooperative is El Ceibo, named after a local tree, which gives 40 people assistance through organised recycling in an upper class district in Buenos Aires.
Maria Cristina Lescano, the founder of El Ceibo, knows the job of the cartoneros well because she worked as one for years.
“I remember what it was like to be on the streets. Because I did it … It’s very demoralising.
“And don’t let them tell you how happy they are with their job because you don’t know what they find in the trash bags.”
El Ceibo is a small success story in a country where unemployment and poverty continue to be a serious problem every year.
The streets are not the best option, the cartoneros say, but being a cartonera at least provides a family with enough to survive.