Coca-Cola, Gates Foundation and Others Team Up to Give South American Recyclers Dignity

Garbage collectors in Montevideo, Uruguay
Garbage collectors in Montevideo, Uruguay

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Coca-Cola Company, Fundación Avina, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), launched a coalition that aims to improve the lives of the at least 4 million people who make a living off of recycling.  In some regions, up to 90% of recycled materials are procured by informal collectors but those same people reap little of the benefits.  The hours are long, conditions are filthy, and the work is sometimes dangerous–to the entire family as everyone is often involved.

After a long day of sunbathing, volleyball, and body surfing at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Ipanema or Copacabana beaches, from afar the beaches appear to sparkle as the sun sets.  The glistening, however, is not the sand, but the countless bottles that litter the shoreline where sunbathers lay hours earlier.  Municipal workers hold their own in cleaning up the beaches for another day of locals’ and tourists’ frolicking in the sun,  but individual collectors do most of the work, gathering glass, plastic, and metal containers that can be turned in for cash.

The scene is similar at night in Buenos Aires, where the 2001 Argentine economic meltdown and international bailout left countless residents impoverished.  Cartoneros riffle through trash and collect bales of cardboard and paper that they haul to recycling middlemen–after a long night of work, the payout is anywhere from US$10 to $20.  Similar scenes can be found in both urban and rural areas from Colombia to Peru to Uruguay.  The commodities boom and economic liberalization have lifted millions of South Americans out of poverty, but many citizens barely eek out a living in the informal recycling economy.  Now a US$8.4 million multi-organizational initiative will strive to integrate these informal waste collectors into the formal recycling market.

Trash in gutter during Carnaval in Salvador, Brazil (photo by Leon Kaye)
Trash in gutter during Carnaval in Salvador, Brazil (photo by Leon Kaye)

At an MIF conference in Asuncion, Paraguay, this band of private companies and NGOs announced it would round up consumer packaged goods companies, recyclers, municipalities, and civil society organizations to formulate action plans that will absorb informal trash collectors into the recycling value chain.  Some projects are already underway across South America, and this coalition will use the successful initiatives as case studies.

Should the plan succeed, the economic and working conditions of informal recyclers will improve, the private sector will be engaged and work with the collectors, and regulatory frameworks will evolve ensuring that people will receive a fairer share from their hard and gritty work.

Whether raising awareness of recycling’s benefits in Bolivia, or creating books out of used cardboard in Buenos Aires’ La Boca, the world’s most diverse and dynamic–and often most challenged–will be one big recycling and micro-enterprise laboratory.

Leon Kaye is the Editor of and contributes to The Guardian Sustainable Business; you can follow him on Twitter.


Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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