Peru's Scavengers Turn Professional

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Pilar Olivares / Reuters

A man collects garbage in Lima

Jose Luis Gonzalez, 60, has been called many things — almost none of them nice — in his 40 years working the streets of Lima, Peru's sprawling capital. "They call us vultures or scavengers most of the time, but sometimes they are meaner, saying we are thieves, criminals. It has never been easy work," he says. Gonzalez is one of an estimated 100,000 people in Peru who make a living diving through garbage to collect refuse — paper, metal, glass — that can be resold for a profit. It is a hardscrabble life, but one thing positive may now be handed to him and his fellow trash sifters: a new name for their profession.

Early each morning, he mounts his modified tricycle cart, pedaling through the streets of the seaside district of Barranco in search of treasures. He forgoes a shrill horn for his booming voice, shouting for glass, paper or used items that he can resell. "You have to be considerate and not make a mess. If you cause trouble, the police will take your cart, and then you're stuck," he says. On a typical day, which usually includes six hours' collecting goods and two hours' sorting and selling items to middlemen at a municipal lot, he clears around $3.50. A good day means double that, which is still not very much for him, his wife and the four school-age kids they have at home. He earns around half the monthly minimum wage of $175, average for people in his line of work. (See pictures of India's slumdog recycling entrepreneurs.)

Now, the new National Movement of Recyclers of Peru is hoping to change that. Founded six months ago, the group has an ambitious plan that would double income levels while helping the country's municipal government deal with the problem of solid waste. The first step is changing the image Peruvians have of this army of cart-riding men and women, promoting the word recycler instead of more traditional and derogatory terms like garbage picker and scavenger. "The movement increases self-esteem. Society has always scorned recyclers, seeing them as the last rung on the ladder," says Galo Flores, who provides support to the movement through a local organization, Ciudad Saludable (Healthy City).

The crux of the program is economics, both for the members and the districts where they work. Flores says that by working with the recyclers instead of seeing them as a nuisance, local governments could save a bundle by cutting the fuel costs of garbage trucks and the fees paid to dispose of solid waste. Associations of recyclers would be registered as microenterprises, and members would be eligible for social benefits such as health care while contributing small amounts to the country's tax base — which would make them, according to Flores, "real citizens for the first time." (See pictures of garbage wars in Naples.)

The movement kicked off the new year with 30 recyclers' associations, two-thirds of them in Lima. It gets its inspiration from a similar group in Bogotá and a few other organizations in South America. The Peruvian movement was formally launched a few months after local recyclers took part in the first world conclave of recyclers, held last March in Colombia. One of the outcomes of the meeting was the commitment to start an international group, Recyclers Without Borders.

Peru's recyclers, with the help of Flores and the backing of a few companies and some lawmakers, have moved quickly to solidify the movement. They have a strategic plan for the coming five years and helped draft legislation on behalf of recyclers. The bill, submitted in October and currently in committee, would facilitate the formalization of recycler associations by granting them government recognition. The legislation has the support of President Alan Garcia's administration through the Environment Ministry because of the contribution it could make to cleaning up this Andean country's towns and cities and contributing to Peru's efforts to slow global warming. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)

Peru currently produces around 20,000 tons of solid waste daily, according to government statistics. Most of this waste is dumped indiscriminately, ending up in rivers or the Pacific Ocean. A cleanup campaign in late January removed 30 tons of garbage from a 3-mile stretch along the banks of the Rimac, the principal river in Lima. Peru has only eight properly designed and operational landfills nationwide.

The government estimates that recyclers are currently reprocessing about 1,800 tons of materials daily, but the goal is to increase the amount to 5,000 tons by organizing them in associations. "There are more than 100,000 recyclers in Peru. We hear them in Lima with their horns, calling for used bottles, paper and metal. They are generating income and doing a job that in other countries costs a fortune," says Environment Minister Antonio Brack. Brack says each ton of recycled paper, apart from cleaning up the environment, saves about 20 trees, contributing to Peru's ambitious goal of setting aside more than 50 million hectares of forests — an area double the size of Colorado — to help mitigate the effects of global warming.

Brack is bullish on the recycling idea even though the prices for recyclables have crashed during the international financial crisis. The prices for paper, glass and other products in the U.S. have plummeted in recent months, falling more than 75% in many areas. So Brack is busy promoting the policy in person. He was at the center of the Jan. 22 kickoff of a new recycling campaign by the local branch of U.S. paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark. He played master of ceremonies in a tuxedo made from recycled paper, crafted by one of Peru's top fashion designers. Kimberly-Clark has been importing used paper for its plant in Lima, something it hopes to change by encouraging recycling locally.

Gonzalez, pushing his cart through Barranco, says he is encouraged by what the recyclers' movement has to offer. "Organizing is a good idea. I have never liked joining groups, but I think this association will help us."

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