In Mexico they call them pepenadores. In Argentina they are known as cartoneros. Brazilians refer to them as catadores (pickers), Peruvians as moscas.
Every country in Latin America and the Caribbean has its own word for garbage scavengers, or people who make a living by extracting valuable or reusable materials from other people’s waste.
Though reliable numbers are hard to come by, experts estimate that there are several hundred thousand garbage scavengers throughout the region, and in some countries their numbers are increasing.
They can be seen sorting through bags of trash on city sidewalks, public parks, or outside supermarkets and apartment buildings.
Some push carts that they gradually fill with plastic bottles or aluminum cans. Many work atop huge mounds of refuse at municipal dumps. Men, women and children are involved.
In some countries, entire families of garbage scavengers live in shacks adjacent to or on top of landfills that provide their sole source of income.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a new phenomenon. Martín Medina, a professor at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, who has published numerous studies on waste and recycling in developing countries, argues that various forms of waste recovery have been taking place for centuries.
What has changed in recent years is the magnitude and the visibility of these activities, thanks to several converging factors. One is the relentless growth of the region’s cities, most of which do not have adequate means to collect, process and dispose of garbage.
Another is the expanding use of paper, plastic and glass packaging in food and other consumer products, and the parallel growth of industries that recycle these materials.
Finally, unemployment caused by recent economic crises has led thousands of people to take up garbage picking full or part-time.
Not All Informal
It can be dangerous to generalize about garbage scavengers, because their behavior is dynamic and occurs within both formal and informal sectors of the economy.
Destitute people pick through garbage in search of food or clothing for their own consumption, for example. But others look for specific recyclable materials such as paper, cardboard, aluminum and glass that they subsequently sell to middlemen.
These middlemen in turn supply formal companies that either process these materials into other products domestically or export them in bulk to other countries.
In the region’s more industrialized countries, the recycling business has grown rapidly in recent years.
Along Mexico’s border with the United States, for example, several companies have contracts to collect, process and sell the huge variety of waste materials generated by maquiladora factories.
In Brazil, local companies recycled 87 percent of all the aluminum cans consumed in that country during 2002, according to the Brazilian Aluminum Association (known as ABAL).
The association reported that this amounted to 121,100 tons of aluminum cans recycled, or approximately 9 billion units.
ABAL estimated that some 150,000 Brazilians earned their living in 2002 by collecting aluminum cans. It is impossible to determine how many of those people had formal jobs with recycling companies, but it is safe to assume that a majority did not.
The norm, in most countries, is for garbage scavengers to work for cash, without contracts, and without medical or insurance benefits.
Indeed, garbage picking is among the most dangerous and socially marginal occupations. Through constant exposure to hazardous materials and toxic fumes at landfills, garbage scavengers face a high risk of injury and disease. They often work at night in dangerous areas with little police protection.
Because of their association with trash, they tend to be ostracized. Many garbage scavengers are illegal immigrants or recent migrants from rural areas, so they lack the knowledge or willingness to seek help from public authorities.
In some cities, garbage scavengers must also deal with criminal Mafias that control access to recycling middlemen and determine who can work around municipal dumps and other favored collection points.
These Mafias hold down the prices paid to scavengers, and they sometimes use violence or intimidation to enforce control of their territories.
A Sustainable Activity
The outlook for garbage scavengers is not entirely grim, however. According to Medina, scavengers in many parts of Latin America have begun to organize themselves in order to improve their working conditions and end their status as second-class citizens.
In many cities they have formed cooperative organizations that allow them to coordinate their activities with municipal sanitation officials and negotiate better rates with middlemen.
“In several countries there is a broader social movement that aims to dignify the work of informal recyclers, and to educate society about the social benefits of their work,” says Medina.
These benefits are substantial and measurable, according to Medina. First, informal recycling generates real incomes for hundreds of thousands of people and thus helps to reduce poverty.
Second, it provides a surprisingly efficient means of reusing valuable resources, reducing costs for domestic industries and improving economic competitiveness.
Third, it reduces the amount of trash being dumped, thereby cutting back on pollution and benefiting the environment.
“For all these reasons, informal recycling has the potential to be a form of sustainable development,” says Medina.
“What is needed is a commitment from governments to support garbage scavengers by ensuring that they are not exploited or ostracized, and by providing them with essential social services.”
Edging Into Formality
Several countries have already taken steps in that direction. In Argentina, the Buenos Aires city legislature passed a law in 2003 that required cartoneros to register with municipal authorities in order to receive an official scavenging license.
Since garbage scavenging is illegal in Argentina, the law was intended to legitimize the cartoneros (who prefer to be called recuperadores) and incorporate them into the formal sanitation system, thereby undercutting the influence of abusive garbage mafias. It also sought to ensure that registered scavengers would have access to the government’s basic health plan.
The law’s effectiveness has been limited by the fact that many scavengers in Buenos Aires are illegal immigrants who are reluctant to deal with authorities.
Nevertheless, by early 2004 some 9,000 scavengers had registered with the city and more than 12,000 vaccinations had been given to registrants and their children, according to municipal officials.
In Paraguay, the IDB’s Social Entrepreneurship Program recently agreed to provide a soft loan and a grant totaling US$ 538,000 for a project to raise the incomes and improve the living standards of families who recycle garbage at a municipal dump in the capital city of Asunción.
The funds will help to finance a project proposed by Alter Vida, a Paraguayan nonprofit organization that supports sustainable development by promoting citizen participation in environmental management and conservation.
The beneficiaries will be the gancheros, people who recover paper, plastic and other recyclable materials from the Cateura solid waste dump.
The IDB loan will help finance the construction and equipment of a trash collection and sorting facility at Cateura, giving recyclers a healthier and safer place to work.
The municipal government will donate the site for the building, while the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the Pan-American Health Organization will donate garbage collection trucks.
Paul Constance writes for Adital (Agência de Informação Frei Tito para a América Latina—Friar Tito Information Agency for Latin America) where this article appeared originally. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.