We left North America two weeks ago with a handful of contacts in Buenos Aires, a sample 3inch x 3inch composite tile fabricated in Caroline’s Queens U. lab, years of experience as educational developers, scientific knowledge about waste plastics and natural fiber composites, and a desire to share what we know with self-managed groups interested in developing poverty-reducing solutions to a specific ecological problem in BA. We presumed that our project would revolve around one or more of the cartonero collectives because they had access to the composite raw materials – the waste plastic bags and cardboard which are the material centerpiece of Waste-for-Life Buenos Aires – and because they are visible, often well-organized, but an at-risk population.
To the world outside of Argentina, El Ceibo, which is made up of 50+ families, is the most recognizable cartonero collective. It has been studied by university researchers and featured in the popular press, probably because of its tantalizing collaboration with residents of the up-scale Palermo neighborhood in BA. Cristina Lescano it’s founder, has more than 20 years experience as a successful community organizer, and we had been in touch with her through her ‘secretary’ Jim McAsey, a New York community organizer who had taken a year off to come live in Buenos Aires, inspired by the city’s various self-managed collectives and, in particular, the ‘recuperated’ factory movement.
The waste plastic bags that the cartoneros collect have no value to them because they cannot be sold to recyclers. They end up in landfills or dumped in riverbeds on the outskirts of BA. Christine zeroed in on the commercial possibilities of ‘upgrading’ the plastic with cardboard fiber to create some sort of marketable building material. Of course this would dramatically change the nature of El Ceibo’s work from collectors and re-sellers of waste to manufacturers and distributors of finished goods. Such a focus shift raises all sorts of questions for El Ceibo and ourselves that we will be addressing in later posts.