Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Materiality and the Recovery of Discarded Materials in a Buenos Aires Cartonero Cooperative

Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Materiality and the Recovery of Discarded Materials in a Buenos Aires Cartonero Cooperative

Article excerpt

We are currently witnessing an interesting paradox in the social categorization of "waste." Until about a decade ago, this term designated a vast and heterogeneous assortment of discarded materials that embodied the representation of antivalue: objects depleted of all use and/or exchange value. Today, however, few would hesitate to consider waste an unmistakable source of emerging value; some would even view waste materials as a kind of Holy Grail. These contemporary views have been stimulated by a variety of contributions ranging from theoretical conceptions of soft-core capitalism-such as calls for a "green economy" and/or a "circular economy"1-to the guidelines condensed in the new Integrated Solid Waste Management technocratic paradigm, which has become a dominant reference for governments, private companies, and nongovernmental organizations.2

One phenomenon that distinguishes the discussion of waste management in the large urban centers of the global South is the existence of sizable population groups devoted to the collection and sorting of recyclable materials as a livelihood. In Argentina, a vast body of literature is devoted to the work of the so-called cartoneros (waste pickers),3 addressing their work of collection and recycling as well as the formal and informal commercial circuits driven by their activity.4 Although these circuits constitute another instance of the age-old linkage between things and people, it is striking how seldom studies of material culture have inspired treatments of this topic at the local level.

In this essay I explore this topic by focusing on the specific production of a material culture associated with the disposal, collection, sorting, packaging, and recycling of waste materials. I ethnographically analyze the relational fabric that links residents of a middle-class neighborhood with cartoneros from a cooperative based in a nearby shanty town.5 My analysis focuses on the moral disputes that arise in and through the trafficking of objects that are discarded as trash by middle-class residents and then recuperated as materials by the cartoneros. I argue that in the course of these objects' itinerary, they do not simply pass "from one hand to another" but instead traverse what Zsuzsa Gille has referred to as "waste regimes," thereby acquiring and embodying different, and often contradictory, values and meanings.6 I particularly seek to account for the way in which the distinctions that mark the transition from one regime to another are constructed (from trash to value). These distinctions, which are expressed in the types and qualities of objects that pass through different circuits, have profound implications for the individuals and groups who handle those objects and conduct transactions with them, because they contribute to the moral definition of the individuals involved in these multiple acts of transfer.

I would therefore argue that analyzing the materiality of trash involves much more than objectifying and tracing the itineraries of the things that circulate. It also involves provoking the formulation of new questions, a task to which this essay seeks to contribute: in what way do the materialities associated with trash play a role in constructing the mediations (the distribution of knowledge, power, legitimacy, and identities) that organize the relational plot woven around the handling of waste materials? Responding to this question involves, for example, not only accounting for the dozens of classifications and types of materials that the cartoneros recuperate, classify, and in some cases process but also paying serious attention to the role that this materiality plays in the construction of interpersonal bonds.

The (De)fetishization of Waste as a Practice of Valuation

The Reciclando Sueños (Recycling Dreams) cooperative was started by a group of unemployed men, most of whom had no prior experience working in associations or partnerships. Although the group was formed in late 2003, its initiative began to gain importance in the field of waste management when, toward the end of 2006, it launched the program Reciclando Basura, Recuperamos Trabajo (By Recycling Trash, We Recuperate Jobs), aimed at promoting separation at source and separate collection of waste in an area consisting of about one hundred blocks in Aldo Bonzi, a middle-class neighborhood located in the municipality (partido) of La Matanza7 in Greater Buenos Aires. …

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