On a rainy Thursday, October 11, I accompanied Caroline and Eric to the cooperative Reciclando Sueños located in La Matanza, the largest zone of the Province of Buenos Aires with about two million inhabitants. The cooperative, which has collected recyclable waste in the nearby middle class neighbourhood of Aldo Bonce since 2004, stood out in a big way from others that we have had contact with.
The cooperative is the epitome of do-it-yourselfism. It was very evident that the members of the cooperative had an extensive knowledge of the types of materials that they were working with, but this is knowledge attained through trail and error and collectivizing the knowledge learned from successes and failures. They’ve managed to build a few major and complicated machines to process – cut into small bits, wash, and dry – the recycled plastic that they collect. This is important because the more capacity the cooperatives have to process recycled materials, the less they are at the mercy of intermediaries and the more value they can extract from the material. Apart from the impressive machines made from scratch and salvage to cut, wash, and dry plastics, they’ve also developed an injector machine that melts and molds a certain kind of plastic and produces the base and handle for a painting tool, which they will be selling in the hardware stores of the neighborhood where they collect recyclables. This is an important development from many angles. Economically it serves the cooperative because they can get a much better price selling a finished product to retail stores than selling the raw material to industry. They also spoke about producing these tools as being important symbolically in the development of their relationship with the residents of Aldo Bonce, because they can show not only that they are providing an environmental service by ensuring that recyclable materials do not end up in the landfill, but they are using the materials collected from the residents to produce something useful that returns to the residents. The injector machine is essentially the same idea as Caroline and Eric’s hot press in terms of the function it serves for the cooperative; it’s just that it produces a different tool.
This cooperative stands out especially for me because of its position in relation with the government (the municipal government is the relevant organ) and its vision of the work that they are doing. Reciclando Sueños defines their work as a public service that the government has failed to provide. They see no sense in the current arrangement of the government paying large companies to collect waste. The service they provide is one that serves the environment and the neighborhood, especially with the return of useful products made from what they collect. They have refused up to now to accept (or rather apply for) any form of government welfare checks or work plans, insisting that their work is legitimate and they should be paid by the municipal government for the services they provide. This distinction is important and it seems to me important that the money be paid to the cooperative, where they can decide democratically how to manage it – maintaining control over decisions of investment, wages, etc – instead of what seems to happen elsewhere, that the government gives money to individuals, funneled through the cooperative. Reciclando Sueños approaches their relations with the residents from whom they collect materials from along the same logic, seeing their work as a service and residents’ participation as that of a party receiving a service that duly corresponds to them instead of as an act of charity.
We had the incredible and unique opportunity to sit in on their weekly “workshop” where they discussed and resolved issues of the cooperative with some facilitation by the anthropologists Sebastian Carenzo and María Inés Fernández Álvarez. Far from being preachy or manipulative as I, ever the cynic might expect from middle class academics, it was an hour of mutual respect and cooperativism in practice. They kept their facilitation to a minimum, mostly directing any input towards ensuring that the more soft-spoken cooperative members were listened to and clarifying, mainly through repetition and little to no content shifting, proposals and arguments of the members.