Thursday, June 23, 2011


As the evening arrives to Buenos Aires, they begin to appear. They trawl the streets of virtually every neighbourhood of the capital. They get in the rubbish and tear up all those black sacks and plastic bags of refuge emptied from the city’s apartment buildings onto the pavements; and they cause what is let’s face it, a rather ugly mess. 

They are however a hard working lot and like it or lump it, they’re providing a service.

The tens of thousands of cartoneros, perhaps best translated as cardboard people, make their living by extracting recyclable materials from the city’s rubbish.

Generally working in teams, whose members will commonly include children as young as seven or eight, they roam the streets from the early evening until the early morning, pushing carts from one corner to the next and ransacking the rubbish bags that are left for the binmen, in search of paper, plastics, metals and anything else they can flog.

Though cartoneros, also known as botelleros, existed to a lesser extent prior to 2001, it was the infamous economic and political crisis of that year which sent the numbers soaring, as the newly unemployed and impoverished class resorted to desperate measures. In 2001-2002, it was estimated that 40,000 cartoneros flooded the city each night in search of recyclables.  

The situation was at first permitted but despite the economic recovery which eventually followed the state of emergency declared by President Fernando de la Rua as the country crumbled, the authorities, like is so often the case here, did not nip the problem in the bud when they had the chance and instead went as far as to actually semi-officialise the activity so that it is now a job which even has its own union.

Anyone who has wandered the streets of Buenos Aires after dark will have seen the cartoneros at work.

Some visitors may even feel threatened by what are often topless, marijuana smoking folk in for a night’s work from the somewhat humble towns that surround the city; but it's more than likely that they needn’t worry. Cartoneros are workers, perhaps doing the only job they can, and the fact they are doing what is clearly a hard graft suggests they are not criminally minded. (Reports of them committing crimes are rare).

They can however be a nuisance. The pushing of their carts in the road often causes traffic problems, while the strewn open bags of rotten vegetables, nappies and other household garbage (later disposed of by the city’s dustmen) left lining the streets are disgustingly unsightly and an embarrassment for Buenos Aires.

Many here would like action taken to rid the city of the activity. But if the government wanted to do something about it, it would be difficult. Introducing an official and taxable system of recycling to replace cartoneros, in which every city resident is responsible for separating his or her papers and plastics before chucking out the rubbish, would mean putting the tens of thousands who rely on sifting through it all with their bare hands for a living, out of work.

The government instead tends to assist them. Until a few years back it provided special service commuter trains, called cartoneos, to transport the cardboard people into the city.  

El tren blanco
El tren blanco (the white train) ran from José León Suárez station to Retiro in the capital and provided transport specifically catered to the cartoneros and their carts. Its ancient and battered carriages however were mere shells and the service was eventually cancelled; considered, if not demeaning, then at least too dangerous.

Nowadays most cartoneros get to the city in shared lorries. Once their commute is over they roll out their carts and hit the streets to gather up all they can. Mothers and fathers send their children in one direction while they hit the other; all later meeting up to bulk together what they have gathered, ready for sale to the recycling companies. In 2009 the price they could get for white paper was 40 US cents per kilo, for cardboard 20 cents, plastic bottles around 35 cents while for aluminium they could get almost 90 cents a kilogram. (As a reference the 2009 price for a kilo of cheap sandwich ham was around US$6.50 for a kilo).

There remains today very little money to be had in it all but for many it is their only way of making a living.

Unfortunately the sight of the cartoneros going about their work on the streets at night and the mess they leave behind is extremely ugly and is just another detail which demonstrates that as much as Buenos Aires pretends to be otherwise, Argentina is still a long way from truly being a country of the developed world.

(Prices for recyclables from economía 29/11/09)


  1. thnx for this blog..this is SO SAD.I was born in B.A. Argentina,although I moved away as a young child. it's disastrous whats become of the beautiful country of Argentina. it actually was once (long time ago)in much better shape economically..a relative just got back from there& reported of how sickening it was to see the state of his beloved Argentina--from the quality of the clothes&items to the rampant stealing etc. , it's gone down the drain because of a gov't (past&present)who cares more for their own personal gain than that of their people!!

  2. Kari ReinikainenJune 29, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    This should remind us all that an economic meltdown may leave scars to the society affected that last well beyond the crisis that caused the scars.

  3. I find it hard to agree with the perspective impied here that the most important factors to consider here are the aesthetics of the city's streets, the ease of movement of car drivers and the feeling of insecurity of "decent" people confronted by their most nightmarish boogeyman: people from the impoverished outskirts of Buenos Aires (outskirts which are not "somewhat humble" - these people live in shanty towns, so that is a definite understatment).
    At least you consider the possibility that if government were to "solve" the problem, it would leave these people without a job. Although clearly, you are worried by the perspective of these people forming a union (an idea I have heard nothing of, though they have formed worker cooperatives, a totally different concept).
    If these people were given other job options, they would certainly take them. There are some initatives to give them training to make their job more qualified and at the same time provide an essential enviromental service for a city which does not separate its rubbish.
    So what the governemnt should do is not take them away from the streets and the offended eyes of the middle class, but insist on a recycling program, which includes these cartonero associations, and in general, provide an economic context in which they have more opportunities.
    I am sorry if the poverty which has increased in the country ove the last 20 years, thanks in no small part to the same kind of policies now being applied in Greece has hurt your "developed world" sensibilities. Argentina is not a part of the developed world, and making that fact less visible would not help at all to change that.

  4. Thanks for your comment. I don’t think the aesthetics of the city’s streets is the most important factor but it is an undesirable consequence of the present economic situation in a country with no official recycling programme. For this the cartoneros are of course not to blame and I think I made it clear that they are decent and honest people whom should certainly not be feared (unlike perhaps many of the middle class folk who might disapprove of them).
    Rather I sought to highlight the shame that the country has allowed the situation to reach its current proportions. Argentina was after all once one of the world’s most economically successful countries and as most Argentines will acknowledge, still has the resources to ensure a very fair standard of living for everyone.
    Of course searching out recyclables is something not limited to Argentina, and happens even in rich places like California, but although I myself am not in the least bit offended by all the rubbish; the scale and unhygienic mess that occurs on Buenos Aires streets is surely not unsightly to only the ‘middle class’.
    I have lived outside of the so-called ‘developed world’ long enough for my sensibilities about poverty to withstand far more extreme situations than those here. But it’s not a case of just trying to make things which manifest underdevelopment less visible but more a case of seeking real solutions which would equal development and inevitably make them less visible in the process. A real effort from the government to introduce an official recycling programme, which as you stated could include employing those who are currently cartoneros, would clearly benefit everyone. But if that programme included raking through the rubbish in plain view on the streets, it would hardly constitute progress.

  5. This is great my surename is cartoneros.Oh God my name had a history of being the card board collector of buenas aires.I found only this days