“I started recycling when I was seven years old,” says Edilberto Delgado. Now 36, Edilberto has spent most of his life chasing after what others throw in the garbage. Growing up in poverty, he had to look for opportunities wherever he could from an early age. “I didn’t get an allowance, so on my way to school I started to recycle bones, and got my own allowance.”
The bones, he tells me, were collected from dogs that were run over by the side of the Pan-American Highway. It wasn’t a pleasant job, he says, but the money was enough to give young Edilberto some spending money. “They used to pay me 50 centimos (about 18 cents USD) for the bones.”
He moved on to recycling cardboard and cans. “In my neighborhood there was a lot of need, and I lived in front of a place where they dumped garbage, so I went there to do recycling.” Eventually he found a larger garbage dump that burned waste. Edilberto would scrape through the burnt remains, searching for all sorts of materials: “Tins, soda caps, tuna cans, and wires, It wasn’t worth much, but the five or six soles I collected was good money for a kid.”
Although the work was plentiful, it was also dangerous. “You were exposed to many risks – you find glass, rusted nails. There were infections,” he says. “When you stick your hand in a bag, you don’t know what is in there.” As time went on he gained more experience, learning to pick out the most valuable materials. “The plastic soles from old shoes were an easy material to recycle.”
Back then, he says, it wasn’t hard to make a living as long as you got up early every morning to beat the garbage trucks. But over the past decade the competition has gotten stiffer. According to a 2011 government report, over 100,000 people work in the country’s recycling industry, the majority of them informally. More recyclers fighting for a finite quantity of scraps can create hostility. “Some of them are very aggressive,” Edilberto says.
Some 23,260 tons of waste are produced in Peru each day, and the Ministry of Environment estimates that by 2021 this volume will double. On any given day it is common to see bicycle carts being wheeled through the streets of Lima towing scrap metal, or recyclers peering into garbage bags, sifting for plastic bottles and other materials.
Once shunned, these recyclers are starting to see greater acceptance across the city, and several NGOs are working to get them formalized and into recycling co-ops. In 2010 the government passed a law allowing informal recyclers to become formalized. But Mili Castro, manager of a recycling association in Villa El Salvador, says recyclers still face an uphill battle, as several of Lima’s neighborhoods have yet to embrace them.
“The law still allows each municipality to decide whether to work with independent recyclers or to hire a company to do it,” she says. Although recyclers now have the opportunity to get permits, a large portion of them have not yet done so. Obtaining the recycling permit, she says, can be a complicated process given the circumstances. “The problem isn’t the money, its that there’s a lack of knowledge. Many recyclers are illiterate, and what stops them isn’t money but the bureaucracy of dealing with lawyers, a notary and several forms.”
The health risks associated with remaining an informal recycler, she says, are high. “Diseases are quite common among them. There are many problems with tuberculosis, and you can only imagine how their clothes and hands end up after going through the garbage.”
Edilberto, who has spent most of his life working in recycling, is one of hundreds who happily got off the streets last year, and has started his own recycling business after working with Ciudad Saludable, a local NGO. He now buys waste from homes and businesses, and makes a profit recycling plastic and metal. This new way of working has proven safer and more profitable. But Edilberto confesses that he occasionally goes back to informal waste-picking on the streets. “There’s still money there,” he says.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that have occurred since the 2010 law was passed is that recyclers now feel they’re getting the recognition they deserve.
“I used to feel ashamed of being a recycler,” says Edilberto. “Even my family didn’t know, but now recycling has changed. The truth is that if I’m going to teach my children about recycling, I will teach them about the business, not the streets.”