Cartoneros in the City

An intimate look at the city's underground sustainable system.
Take a stroll down any street in Buenos Aires and you will surely pass many beautiful buildings, locals enjoying themselves at sidewalk cafes, and vendors selling fresh flowers and the daily newspaper. But every now and then you will see people jumping out of garbage bins, stacking piles of cardboard as high as three meters onto crudely made carts. Across the street there might be some young boys pulling three shopping carts at a time, while weaving in and out of the busy traffic. On another corner, you see a family of four, with small children, separating trash from various garbage bags. No, these people are not scavenging for food and valuables in these grubby conditions; in fact they are the city’s unique recycling system. They call themselves cartoneros, and they have a very interesting history here  in  Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Every night thousands of cartoneros come from the outskirts of town into the heart of the city to collect plastic, metal, cardboard and other recyclable materials. They work tirelessly throughout the night and into the early morning. They use homemade rolling carts, shopping trolleys, and buggy trailers for transport. Some of them lost their jobs during the economic crisis, others are struggling families or undocumented migrants. For each kilogram of cardboard collected they earn about 2 cents, and on a good night they can make the equivalent of US$15.
About 20 years ago this practice was illegal, but since the recession of 2001 the government has allowed them to operate in peace. Starting out from their desolate shantytowns they end up in the upscale neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, sifting through tons of garbage. Their efforts are not only essential for their own survival, but they also greatly contribute to the sustainability of the city. Currently there is no formal recycling system in place for such materials, and cartoneros are the only people willing to separate trash from recyclables. This struggle is played out every day on the streets of Buenos Aires - tourists flash their cameras and locals are busy with their daily routines, all unaware of the cartoneros around them and the great service they provide for the city.