One man's junk...

9 December 2005
7:13 AM

Every day one of my four Spanish classes is a conversation class. Right now Caitlin is my conversation partner and we discuss all sorts of topics, from books and movies to social issues. Awhile ago she brought an article from Los Tiempos, the local newspaper. It described the plight of a growing population of individuals who live off the garbage in the city. The article interested me because I have seen people—children, mothers, families—looking through the dumpsters several times.

The article is a little weak structurally. There isn’t much analysis or discussion with city officials about the situation. And at the end, it just trails off. However it does provide some provocative details which may interest you. If you want to read the article in Spanish, it is available in the Los Tiempos archives. Since a majority of my readers don’t speak Spanish, I thought I would try my hand at translating the article to English. This is my first real translation attempt, so it may be a little rough around the edges (though I’m pleased to say that it is easier to read than the automatic computer translation). The translation follows.

Eating, Living, and Getting Shoes from the Trash
Hundreds find their daily livelihood in dumpsters. They split up the city; the most fortunate get El Prado.

Trash doesn’t just give them food, but also clothing and shoes. Plastic bags wrapped around weathered feet make improvised shoes that protect against the cold Wednesday night. Marco Cabellero is 60 years old and since three year ago he has lived exclusively on trash, collecting cardboard containers. He receives 30 centavos for each kilogram he can gather [about 2 cents a pound]. Another hundred families do the same.

It doesn’t matter much that they risk their lives. What’s important is to earn a few pesos to survive. For some time, these people have recycled trash from garbage cans, rivers, and city plazas, testing their health and patience.

They are children, teenagers, grandparents, male and female. You see them wandering around garbage cans starting at 5:00am, next to one another and trying to collect as much paper, cardboard, glass bottles and plastic as they can.

All this rubbish is sold by the kilo at various centers. Some is sold to middlemen who own stores and buy material by weight.

This way it’s possible to recycle material. A kilo of white paper is worth 50 centavos (6.3 cents); a kilo of newsprint, 40 centavos (5 cents); a kilo of cardboard, 30 centavos (3.8 cents). For a kilo of plastic bottles you earn 1.5 bolivianos. (19 cents), while a kilo of beer cans gets you 6 bolivianos. (75 cents). The result of a day’s work? Between 10 and 15 bolivianos ($1.25 to $1.90), used almost exclusively for nutrition. Is there anything for clothing, shoes, or heath?

Marco Caballero feels it every day. “Sometimes I can’t gather enough because I’m old, and because the young kids start collecting much earlier,” he says.

In reality, the collectors have divided the city and each looks only in his assigned location. “But the kids don’t respect our divisions,” says Caballero. They use their bicycles to collect garbage from the dumpsters and city plazas and they don’t leave anything behind.

“The weekends are the times we collect the most. All types of garbage, especially beer bottles and cans. The most fortunate are those who gather near El Prado. There they even find wallets.”

Jorge is a nine-year-old boy who collects beer bottles and cans. He goes out every Saturday and Sunday at night to search the trash for stuff he can use for school or play.

“We go out at 10:00pm. I pick up all sorts of stuff with my mom and brother. Bottles, cans, and anything else valuable. From the dumpsters, streets, and parks until 5:00am. Everything we find we sell the next day,” he explains.

Health risk
According to the Health Department’s recommendations, people who collect waste from dumpsters and other unhygienic places risk their health.

According to doctors, such people are exposed to various skin diseases and allergies. Occasionally people contract mental disorders and stomach problems.

The people who collect garbage search in the dumpsters without any type of security or protection. They don’t cover their mouth or use gloves.

Marco Barrera Guzmán

At 5:00am we have to go out to search the various areas before other people do it first. There’s not just a few of us. There are hundreds who are also searching for whatever they can find.

In my case, I still have to work to survive at 69 years old. But still, thanks to this work I can live. With the 10 bolivianos ($1.25) I earn each day I can eat lunch and take care of some personal expenses that I have.

Roberto Alcalá

I’m a miner from Huanuni. Because there isn’t work, I had to resort to collecting garbage. Before it was good, but now many people have taken up this work. But what are we going to do? We all have a right to live.

We risk all sorts of sicknesses. Last week I got sick. I didn’t know to whom I could go. Thanks to some friends I got better because they gave me some medicine.

N.N., store owner

For the most part, it’s the elderly, handicapped, and those who can’t find work who collect garbage. These people bring all sorts of material for their daily livelihood, to survive.

They bring me paper, cardboard, and bottles most. I started this job with a paper factors in Copelme. The factory supports my paying these people who dedicate themselves to collecting trash.