Arriving in San Telmo, BA after a very tiring and annoying journey complete with delays and lost luggage, we opened the doors to our new apartment full of character, shuttered windows, and the charm of new discoveries. The neighborhood, with its cobbled streets, market places, cafes and restaurants, was just what we had hoped for. After dark we went on a search for some food and there, right in front of our apartment, were a group of cartoneros – a woman stacking a cart with cardboard, a young boy ripping open bin-liners full of mixed and rotten waste to locate any morsel of paper or plastic. Why were we shocked to see this? That’s what we had come for, wasn’t it? But somehow we weren’t ready. Some part of us wanted to hold onto that feeling of the tired, annoyed traveler wanting sustenance, warmth and comfort. The shock of our ridiculous, late (not even fully lost) luggage, one-meal-a-little-late hungry problems embarrassed us.

We are more than aware that many foreigners think they can come and ‘fix’ problems in contexts other than their own. We do not wish to repeat the errors of others and hope for advice and partners who might help us with this project. The questions we thought about before we came keep reasserting themselves: Who should we look to partner with? What is the government’s role in waste management and collection? Could our project possibly perpetuate a system of inequities? How will the proceeds from the materials and products the groups collect/make get distributed? Are we helping to launch an economic model that we ultimately do not support? How do we avoid profiteering from outside agencies as soon as there is a profit to be made? Who supports us? What affiliations do we have and how do they influence our values and our commitments? Is any of this our business anyway? Should we just stay at home?

Then there are the questions of the photographs and the website. What right do we have to upload photos of people whose life circumstances and choices we know little about? What is the purpose of our website anyway? To give ourselves a pat on the back that we are actually doing a project and progressing – even if progress is measured by images and chat? The cartoneros have a very public life as it is. They are on view every evening as we see them collecting their source of income. Furthermore, this is not just a Buenos Aires issue. Living off waste is a universal phenomena, complicated by governments who clean up only the nice parts of town and who recycle when it suits the economy. Before we left we saw a scene that almost exactly replicated the scattered waste seen in San Telmo, traumatizing the pavements of our Bronx home.
bronx wastesan telmo waste

In a 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Ken Bain asks what is great about great teaching. The gist of his answer, the result of fifteen years’ research, is that teachers who focus on learning processes through questioning and problem-posing are the ones who will have a lasting impact on their students’ moral and intellectual development. Our own experiences as teachers and learners bare this out, and in a sense Waste-for-Life is our newest teacher because it constantly lobs so many vexing questions and problems our way. We will be vigilant and public in trying to address them and others that arise as we work on this project, and we will use this space to reflect on those questions and problems, and describe what we are learning in the process. We also hope that Waste-for-Life engages you, and that you’ll find your own ways to participate.