We arrived in Buenos Aires almost 3 months ago (it’s now the project’s midpoint) with some fairly ambitious but, nevertheless, straightforward goals:

  • share knowledge of the processes of combining waste plastic with natural fibers to produce affordable composite building materials and domestic products
  • use this knowledge to create opportunities for generating autonomous and sustainable revenue streams for some of Buenos Aires’ most at-risk populations
  • help reduce the damaging environmental impact of non-recycled plastic waste products
  • create a ‘how to’ pictorial handbook (mass-produced and distributed royalty-free worldwide) that describes the methods, materials and manufacturing processes needed to combine locally collected waste with the fibers of naturally grown materials and transform them into useful building and domestic products

We do have another, unstated goal, or perhaps it’s just a question or a test or a self-indulgent exercise: do two people, or three people, or whatever, have any chance of accomplishing ‘development’ (I use many quotes around this word) outcomes without the benefit of any pre-arranged alliances or financial or institutional support? We can’t answer this yet, but we’ve certainly passed through some hopeful and less hopeful days.

If you’ve followed our blog posts, you probably have an idea why we chose Buenos Aires for this project: the political framework of the 2005 Zero Garbage Law; Argentina’s long history of workers’ collectives and more recent history of self-management, and a 6,000,000 people strong multi-reciprocal exchange economy that thrived for a few years; BA’s large informal work force of cartoneros who earn very little money but have access to the plastic and cardboard needed to make the composite materials.

Before we left for Argentina, our close friend, Jackie, acted as an intermediary to give us the message, ‘be careful, the Mafia controls garbage in Buenos Aires.’ We have heard some anecdotal information that this is true, but it hasn’t affected our work, though sometimes we spend a little downtime speculating on what this sentence actually means. We have, though, been very quickly sucked into the politics and economics of waste, and it’s awfully difficult to get a manageable picture of what’s really going on here. This is what we think we know, though we’re sure the reality is much messier.

  • The Zero Garbage Law went into effect in late 2005 with the intention of ‘reducing as much as possible the garbage that goes to the landfills or is incinerated, to curb pollution of the soil, air and water,’ said Greenpeace activist, Juan Carlos Villalonga. The law stipulates that the amount of garbage in landfills is to be reduced by 50 percent by 2012 and 75 percent by 2017 from 2003 levels. One of its ancillary benefits is that recyclable materials will no longer end up in landfills.
  • Garbage collection in Buenos Aires is almost entirely privatized: the city government contracts 5 different trucking companies, each of which is assigned a specific district, and they are responsible for cleaning the streets of waste and hauling that waste to transit points or directly to the CEAMSE landfill. The single government-owned ‘company’ hauls waste from Buenos Aires’ poorest district in the southwest of the city.
  • Buenos Aires does not yet have a visible and/or official systematic recycling program. We’ve recently seen brightly colored CEAMSE plastic and glass recycling receptacles in non-residential areas of the city and have heard that there is a plan to put one of them on every city block. Residents would be responsible for dumping their recyclables into the containers, which would then be picked up by CEAMSE and….brought where, sold to whom?
  • Buenos Aires generates about 4500 tons of garbage everyday. 11% of that garbage is disposed of by the 4000-20,000 cartoneros (we’ve heard both figures and many others in between), the city’s informal garbage pickers; 97% of the city’s recycling is done by those same cartoneros who make 80-300 dollars/month by selling the recyclables per kilo to intermediaries who then sell the material onto recycling companies.
  • There are several recycling cooperatives (usually made up of former cartoneros) which buy, process and sell some of the recyclables, though the economics of these cooperatives is very, very fragile.
  • [QUICKTIME https://www.wasteforlife.org/movies/la_toma.mov 320 196]

  • The municipal government does have plans to build 6 sorting centers or ‘green points’ scattered around the city. One is currently active. Each center will be run by a different cooperative and receive waste hauled to it by one or more of the trucking companies. They can also receive recyclables brought to them by cartoneros in trucks (only). The sorted waste is sold somewhere up the recycling food chain. Bajo Flores is one of these centers, and is run by a 50-member cooperative. 6 centers will probably not be able to support more than 300-400 cartoneros by giving them the opportunity to turn their informal work into formal work.
  • CEAMSE (Coordinación Ecológica Area Metropolitana Sociedad del Estado) has been in business for 30 years and is the biggest player in this whole story. It is a municipal and regional government amalgam with private affiliations, which manages the landfills that receive the waste of the 13,000,000 people of the greater metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. No one we’ve spoken to has been able to unravel either the structure or operations of CEAMSE, and opinions vary widely about whether or not it is the devil incarnate. CEAMSE has only one landfill that is in operation, Norte III, a little over an hour’s drive from the city center. (The others are either being turned into ‘eco-parks’ or have collapsed.) We have described our visit there in an earlier post: https://www.wasteforlife.org/?p=31

CEAMSE Social Plant
We are quite insignificant compared to the major players here, which works to our benefit, and sometimes we lose focus trying to figure out what the ‘big’ story is. But we have met some small collectives who are collecting and selling plastic or washing plastic or processing it, and who make a meager living from waste but are eager to step up to small manufacturing. With the help of our young intern, Nils, who is beginning a cost-benefit analysis, and with Victor and Tomas who have taken on the challenge of building 2 hot presses, and the folks at INTI who will allow Caroline to experiment using some of their equipment and, hopefully, The Working World, who can help put this whole package together for us, and Carlos Levinton and his group who will keep this thing going when we’ve left, our pieces are coming together and our story is sounding quite good today.