Latin America: Social Networks Bring Recognition to Primary Recyclers

[All links lead to Spanish language pages except when otherwise noted]

“Being aware of the value of social networks, we will take advantage of them. So if you're one of our followers, you'll notice we're on Twitter”. With this statement, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Recyclers (Red LACRE in Spanish) celebrates the 500 followers gained on its site in three months of work since they opened their account @redlacre. They are celebrating, but they want more, because the challenge is to reach 1,000 soon and keep going in order to extend this network of contacts that allows them to promote the value of their work much easier.

But what is a primary recycler? They are the people whose business is to gather, choose, recover, transform, market and reuse solid wastes from the primary source, making it their main source of income. In our countries, we commonly call recyclers by different names. For example, in Chile and Argentina they are known as cartoneros, in Mexico pepenador, and in Nicaragua buzo [translator's note: all terms loosely translate to “waste picker”], among other names they would like to do away with, so that they can be recognized as primary recyclers or simply recyclers (reciclador in Spanish and catador in Portuguese).

Recicladores en Guatemala por Exequiel Estay Facebook Red Lacre

Recyclers in Guatemala, by Exequiel Estay, Facebook Red Lacre, used with permission.

They have been organizing across the continent since the early 90s and now have a formal network,  Red LACRE, which consists of 15 countries and 4 more will soon join. The purpose of their movement is to be recyclers “with inclusion”, that is, each country guarantees that it will allow and formally recognize their work. The key to realizing this objective is enhancing visibility via the Internet and social networks, among the best tools they have to help advance their goals more rapidly.

These networks also allow us to understand better what a recycler is and how valuable his work is. We find that in Wikipedia, on October 23, 2011, (according to their site), the term “Primary Recycler” appears, where we are given some key points to better understand this profession.

Se distingue además de cualquier otro tipo de reciclador, por ser quien trabaja directamente en donde se depositan los residuos, lo que comúnmente se conoce como basura. Por ello, la selección de los residuos sólidos, los hace desde el lugar de disposición primaria y los transportan hacia el lugar donde se realiza la selección fina y enfardado, para una venta posterior. Se entiende por selección fina la separación de distintas calidades de materiales, lo que le permite el acceso a mejores rangos de precio.

“They are also distinguished from any other type of recycler, because they work directly where waste is deposited, what is commonly called trash. The sorting of solid waste is made at the first site of deposit, then transported to another area for secondary sorting and wrapping for later sale. Secondary sorting is understood as separating out various qualities of materials, which allows for access to better price ranges”.

Conversation in 140 characters

Embroidered Logo for the Recyclers of Chile. Photograph by Chilean Recyclers, imaged used with permission

Embroidered Logo for the Recyclers of Chile. Photograph by Chilean Recyclers, imaged used with permission

Looking at the Twitter accounts of the recyclers who are organized through their network, we see a kind of raising-awareness and education campaign to learn about their work.

Statements like “we live off of recycling” or “RedLacre fights to formalize our work and improve current labor conditions” are repeated in their messages, as well as other messages that give more hard facts that enable us to gauge the impact of this work, such as “Did you know that the number of people who live off of recycling in Latin America is more than 4 million?” or “We help save municipal budgets. We recycle waste from your neighborhood and create jobs”.

Similar conversations do not only revolve around explaining the work, but also begin to paint a picture of the characteristics of the countries involved and the specific scenarios that make up the realities in each country. Add to this the comments made with reference to this profession:

Alvaro Alaniz (@alaniz_a): En Brasil, las latas de Coca Cola tienen la imagen e historia del pdte de una cooperativa de recicladores de Rio. INCLUSION!

Alvaro Alaniz (@alaniz_a): In Brazil, the Coca Cola cans have the image and story of the president of a cooperative of recyclers in Rio. INCLUSION!

Exequiel Estay Tapia (@RECICLADORESYA): recicladores chilenos luchando por una inclusión en el anteproyecto de ley de residuos…inclusión verdadera YAAAAAAAA

Exequiel Estay Tapia (@RECICLADORESYA): Chilean recyclers fighting for inclusion in the draft solid waste laws, true inclusion NOW.

Francisco Pollak (@panchopollak), también refiriéndose a Chile: Hoy conocí tres historias de los llamados “cartoneros” convertidos en recicladores y emprendedores. La materia prima es voluntad.

Francisco Pollak (@panchopollak), also referring to Chile: Today I learned the stories of three so-called “cartoneros” transformed into recyclers. Their will is their raw material.

PLACC (@cclimatico): Recicladores de Perú se formalizan y crean pequeñas y medianas empresas #cambioclimatico #Gestiónderesiduos.

PLACC (@cclimatico): The recyclers of Perú organize and create small and medium businesses #climatechange #wastemanagement.

CiViSOL (@civisol), sobre Colombia: Por inclusión simulada de recicladores la Corte suspendió la licitación de aseo de Bogotá. Esta es la historia >…

CiViSOL (@civisol), about Colombia: Because of the deception involving inclusion of recyclers, the Court suspended the bidding for waste removal in Bogotá. This is the story >… [es]

Friends with benefits

Facebook is another social network where we find a strong presence of the different recycle cooperatives that exist on the continent. Here we see how the traditional bulletin board has moved to the computer screen and this large virtual community has become a coordinator of actions, and promoter of experiences and identities.

Photographs, videos and links add information such as hours of operation, grant requirements, course dates, and a series of data useful to the public about the work of all the groups and its members.

Imagen de Inside Out Montevideo. Fotografía por Jorge Meoini

Image of Inside Out Montevideo. Photograph by Jorge Meoini, used with permission

The page for the Network has more than 700 friends and from there one can access other groups such as the Recycling Dream Cooperative of Montevideo Uruguay (Cooperativa Reciclando Sueños de Montevideo Uruguay.) This group shares on its wall the experience of a group of recyclers whose faces were photographed to appear on billboards in various areas of the city, as part of the international project Inside Out (financed by the TED award).

According to the artists who created the work, Magdalena Gurmendez y Agustín Fernández, the images are a way of providing recognition of the vital work the recyclers perform in the city.

La tarea de clasificación de residuos es uno de los primero pasos en la cadena del reciclaje, por lo general esta tarea se realiza en pésimas condiciones de trabajo -recorriendo la ciudad en carros para buscar en los contenedores-, pero el trabajo en cooperativas permite una dinámica distinta, trabajar bajo techo, con residuos pre-clasificados…

“The job of sorting waste is one of the first steps in the recycling chain, and in general this work is performed in dreadful work conditions — traveling the city in carts looking in dumpsters — but working in cooperatives provides a different dynamic, working indoors, with pre-sorted waste…”

In conclusion, this fight for inclusion gets its strength through social networks. There, the workers gain a new space, from the streets to the heart of social networks, to no longer be invisible, to garner understanding of their work as a profession and how it should be formalized. The Internet is at the service of recycling, of the environment and of the generation of new economies, so that with a click, we rediscover this work that we usually don't even see.

Gerardo Espíndola Rojas is Product Manager of Red Mi VOZ. Read more about our partnership with Mi VOZ [en].

1 comment

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.