Buenos Aires (in)formal waste pickers’ cooperatives:  a new governance model for waste management?

Buenos Aires (in)formal waste pickers’ cooperatives: a new governance model for waste management?

di Cosima Malandrino

Urbanization, economic development and exponential demographic growth have maximized urban services problems in many cities around the world. Just like in the case of water and sanitation systems, providing waste management services to millions of people requires complex institutional and technical arrangements. Compared to other utilities however, waste stands out for its multifaceted characteristics and its fluctuating nature. Indeed, while waste is commonly considered as « garbage » – i.e. something no one wants and that cannot generate any benefits –, it can also become a resource, acquiring commodity features since its management and recovery generate profits. Such is the bipolar nature of waste that Jeremy Cavé highlights in his studies (Cavé, 2015). Considering waste a resource allows us to understand the reason why so many conflicts arise when it comes to its appropriation. Many stakeholders are in fact involved in its collection, processing and disposal, competing to extract value from it. For instance, in countries like India, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, poor urban populations often revert to informal waste picking as a survival strategy in order to extract value from recycling materials found in the streets. Far from only being a survival strategy, informal waste picking has in many cases become an occupation carried on from generation to generation by entire families. The high number of informal waste pickers in cities like Cairo, Mexico City, São Paulo, Bogota, and Buenos Aires has increasingly spurred the debate on the legitimacy of this informal practice, highlighting the need to start implementing or re-thinking recycling waste management systems. Indeed, in the past 20 years, more and more municipalities around the world have adopted recycling schemes in order to manage the entirety of the solid waste stream, not only its unrecyclable component.  The so called ‘modernization’ processes of Solid Waste Management systems (SWM) often follow the necessity to cope with dumping sites congestion and to implement environmentally sustainable policies. However, modernization schemes generate disputes over the appropriation of waste among the many actors involved in extracting its value. Informal waste pickers often become victims of new public policies on waste management that prohibit their activity, and either centralize collection and disposal services, or delegate them to private companies. Appropriation conflicts arise among private companies, municipalities, and informal workers due to the very nature of waste as a good. Neither fully public nor private, garbage is an object that by definition is rejected and abandoned, therefore intrinsically carrying undefined property rights. Moreover, its value fluctuates, as from being an abandoned object it can be recovered and acquire value due to this re-appropriation. Analyzing the governance of solid waste in Coimbatore, India and Vitória, Brazil, Jérémie Cavé thus calls for the need to abandon the dichotomous approach that treats waste as either garbage or resource, and start considering solid waste as a common good. Being a rival and non-excludable good, waste requires a governance model that goes beyond the public/private dichotomy.   To overcome the classic governance solutions that either opt for a centralized municipal system or a delegated private service, we hereby analyze a third option, which allows us to truly apprehend waste as a common good. The case of Buenos Aires, Argentina, shows the possibility of forging public- civil society agreements, enforcing a system of waste management based on cooperatives rather than private companies or public entities alone. In the words of Sheila Foster, “a third option for managing common resources is a regime in which a community self-manages or assumes a greater role in governing those resources in a sustainable way” (Foster, 2009: 280).  


The case of Buenos Aires’ cartoneros

El Alamo Cooperative, Buenos Aires. Cosima Malandrino, 2018  

The research I conducted in Buenos Aires, from January to May 2018, stresses the political potential of informal actors organizing when it comes to the governance of urban waste services. Through the analysis of Buenos Aires informal waste pickers’ political organization, my study re-centers social sciences’ focus on the informal sector, a socio-economic stratum that is often overlooked or underestimated due to its marginality. Especially when it comes to waste picking however, this sector is all but marginal. An estimated 20 million people around the world work in the waste recycling sector (ILO, 2013). UN Habitat data highlights that between 15% and 35% of the world’s waste is recovered by these informal workers (2010). In Argentina, far from being a “new social actor”, informal waste pickers have accompanied the urban development of the city of Buenos Aires since the 19th century (Schamber and Suarez, 2007). It is however due to the economic crisis that hit the Argentinian economy at the turn of the century that their presence in the city’s streets has heavily increased. As of 2006, informality made up 39% of total employment in Argentinian urban areas, an increase that started in the 1980s, reaching its peak during the crisis years (World Bank, 2008). From repressing informal waste collection as an illegal activity, the City government has reacted over the years to a waste crisis that led to a radical transformation of Buenos Aires waste management system. Between 2002 and 2013 the city was the theatre of continuous mobilizations and negotiations between cartoneros (1), non-governmental actors, and public authorities. A conflict that started as a ‘usage rights’ dispute over waste (2) (Cavé, 2015) developed into a profoundly political struggle that epitomizes the conflictual nature of waste management politics and symbolizes the transformation of labor-state relations in the past 30 years. Previously excluded from any negotiation with the State, informal workers have indeed succeeded in being recognized as a legitimate actor by the local government. Thanks the progressive formalization of their labor by the City government, a majority of cartoneros have entered and created recycling cooperatives, acquiring sale power, rights and regulations, which have improved their working conditions and quality of life. Today, more than 5300 recuperadores urbanos (urban collectors) officially manage the collection of recycling materials in the city of Buenos Aires. The City has contracted 12 cooperatives, which collect around 600 tons of waste per day out of the 6000 tons of waste produced in the city.     










Fig. 4: The cooperatives divided by area of waste collection and the classification centers also managed by some of the cooperatives. In orange is the biggest cooperative of CABA. Source: Cosima Malandrino, 2018

This regularization or ‘formalization’ did not unfold as a peaceful process of policy change. Filled with political conflict, the process of legitimation of informal waste picking lasted more than 10 years, and it is still ongoing. Notwithstanding the contracting of the 12 waste picking cooperatives in 2013, the fieldwork I conducted for this research highlights the controversial nature of the formalization instruments implemented by the City. Our findings question whether the City actually formalized Buenos Aires waste pickers in a substantial way. If we define formalization as legalization, the City has indeed succeeded in formalizing a practice that was before illegal and persecuted. However, if formalization means acquiring full formal labor rights like the ones granted to any other formal occupation, our research finds that Buenos Aires waste pickers cannot be considered fully formalized yet.  


Cooperatives as a successful governance tool?

At the center of this controversy lies the figure of the cooperative as the instrument chosen by both waste pickers and the City in order to formalize the activity. Our interviews show that cooperatives represented an accessible organizational structure for waste pickers, who came from a complete individualistic organization of labor, and who didn’t have enough resources to fund an enterprise.   The organization of labor with rules and regulations introduced through cooperatives has allowed waste pickers to recognize themselves and be recognized by society as legitimate workers. The formalization of their status therefore led to a process of consciousness building that in turn stimulated an organized movement of political mobilization. Since 2001, waste pickers have progressively politicized their workers identity, demanding the full recognition of their labor rights to the City. Such politicization has further prompted major waste pickers organizations to extend their mission, and mobilize for the recognition of other informal occupations like street vending and seam stressing, among others.


“Unity, in defense of workers”. February 21st, solidarity march called by Hugo Moyano – Camioneros, CGT, 21/02/2018. Photo: Cosima Malandrino, 2018

However, if on the one hand formalization engendered this process of collective identity activation and sector-wide organization, on the other hand it also relegated waste pickers to an ambiguous worker status. The cooperative system adopted by the City indeed allowed authorities to delegate a public service to a third party, without having to pay for it as much as for a private subsidiary company, and without having to respond to the obligations deriving from a traditional labor contract (Parizeau, 2015). Thus, the system set up in 2013 contracted cooperatives to manage recycling waste in exchange of a monthly incentive or subsidy granted by the City, well below minimum wage standards, and further excluding waste pickers from traditional models of labor negotiations. Waste pickers are therefore de jure self-employed – they are granted social security as such – , but they are de facto dependent on the City’s monthly incentives and logistical support (machinery, equipment, uniforms). If the membership in cooperatives granted welfare rights and fostered a process of identity building, it also positioned them in an ambiguous situation, in-between being formalized but not yet becoming formal workers.  


The findings that this article has tried to briefly illustrate reflect the realization that urban actors such as waste collectors represent at once the transformations of the labor market, and the challenges at stake in the coordination of service provision in large metropolis. Moreover, they highlight the particular nature of waste as a common good, which calls for innovative governance tools able to distribute usage rights to different stakeholders. In this sense, cooperatives constitute an interesting organizational tool, capable of channeling citizens and associations’ collective action efforts in order to more equally dispose of a resource. Therefore, the study on cartoneros’ mobilization not only sheds light on new patterns of political organization among informal actors but it also indirectly informs us on how to improve workers conditions, services, and governance structures in large urban agglomerations.   Finally, Buenos Aires waste pickers’ formalization allows us to introduce a new perspective in a field like waste management studies that is often dominated by environmental and overtly technical approaches. Bringing politics back into the study of infrastructures and urban services means deconstructing the apparent technical decisions of urban governments and underlining their socio-political implications (Lorrain, 2014; McFarlane Rutherford, 2008; Le Gales and Lorrain, 2003). Analyzing utilities networks constitutes a “gateway to the issue of governing large cities” (Lorrain, 2014), as their construction and management requires an out of the ordinary institutional coordination effort. If utilities represent a key governance tool in the large metropolis, it is important to analyze the policy instruments and regulations that control their organization (Lascoumes and Le Galès, 2007). Formalization processes and the instruments that are chosen to implement them, therefore acquire a political significance as they often reproduce “existing set of power relations within urban societies” (McFarlane and Rutherford, 2008: 365). The waste management sector is especially prone to such political dynamics due to its enormous incidence on local governments’ budgets, and to the diverse array of stakeholders that often pursue opposing interests. It is estimated that an effective waste management system makes up 20 to 50% of municipal budgets (World Bank, 2012). Considering that urban residents’ per capita waste generation will increase from 1.3 billion tons per year in 2012 to 2.2 billion tons in 2025, waste management will continue to constitute a serious challenge for urban governance worldwide (World Bank, 2012).  


  1. Cartoneros is the Spanish term used in Argentina to refer to informal waste pickers especially in the post-crisis years. It first carried a negative undertone. It has progressively been re- appropriated by the very waste pickers.
  1. Jeremy Cavé refers to usage rights as granting “privileged access to a flow of resource units” (p.174). When we talk about usage rights disputes in the case of Buenos Aires we therefore highlight the appropriation conflicts that arise among different urban actors who seek to access a resource – i.e. waste – and eventually obtain the right to access waste and dispose of it. Private companies and informal waste pickers were notably taking part in this appropriation conflict in Buenos Aires, both trying to extract value from waste.


This article is an adapted and (very) summarized version of my Master’s thesis: MALANDRINO, Cosima. (In)formal Workers Organizing: The Politics of Buenos Aires Waste Pickers . Master’s Thesis: Political Sociology. Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris – École Urbaine , 2018. English, pp. 104.

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FOSTER, Sheila R. “Urban Informality as a Commons Dilemma”. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Winter, 2009), pp. 261-284.

LASCOUMES, Pierre, and Patrick LE GALES. Introduction: Understanding public policy through its instruments – From the nature of instruments to the sociology of public policy instrumentation, 2007, Governance, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 1-21.

LE GALES, Patrick, LORRAIN, Revue française d’administration publique. 2003/3 (n 107), pp 305-317.

LORRAIN, Dominique. Governing megacities in Emerging Countries. New York: Routledge, 2014.

McFARLANE, Colin, and Jonathan Rutherford. “Political Infrastructures: Governing and Experiencing the Fabric of the City.” 2008. International Journal Of Urban & Regional Research 32, no. 2: 363-374.

PARIZEAU. Kate. Re-representing the city: waste and public space in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the late 2000s. Environment and Planning. 2015, Vol. 47, Issue 2, pp. 284 – 299.

SCHAMBER, Pablo, SUÁREZ, Francisco M. (eds). Recicloscopio: Miradas sobre recuperadores urbanos. Buenos Aires: Prometeo, Universidad Nacional de Lanús, 2007 pp. 324.




BERTRANOU, Fabio, CASANOVA, Luis. Informalidad laboral en Argentina: Segmentos críticos y políticas para la formalización. Buenos Aires: ILO para Argentina, 2013. 155 pp.

CORAGGIO, José Luis. La presencia de la economía social y solidaria y su institucionalización en América Latina. UNRISD Occasional Paper: Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy, 2014. No. 7, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva.

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New websites, new tools to advocate for the governance of the city as a #commons

New websites, new tools to advocate for the governance of the city as a #commons


Urban commons studies and policies are increasingly acquiring public interest, giving a stronger transformative potential to the concept of the governance of the city as a commons.

This potential also relies on our ability as a community of urban commons researchers, practitioners, social innovators, public authorities, institutions and representatives to communicate the shared vision to advocate for a just and democratic city by generating new urban storytelling from the common work we are committed to.

The Co-City approach – consolidated in Europe and North America and experimented in cities of the Global South –  enhancing local authorities’ capacity and leveraging value of collaboration within local communities, represents an original and proactive approach to implement the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.

LabGov, in this moment of transformation and evolution, found strategical to put a special effort in communication to have a stronger voice in contributing to the common goals of promoting shared, collaborative and polycentric urban governance.



Renewed and redesigned, the websites will become platforms to coordinate all LabGovs’ works, insights and news form partners and best practices we are involved in as well as latest theoretical and academic publications.

Discover new sections and features like:

To be consistent with its evolution, LabGov also renewed its visual identity and created new communications tools.

Find the guidelines here and download the new brochure here.

For us each step represents a new start, built on the past but with all challenges and opportunities to come. Confident in our partners willingness to join us in spreading urban commons messages, more tools, media buzz and networking activities will follow to the launch of today, so, please keep connected and stay tuned!

LabGov Comms Team



Youth & Cultural Heritage – the pioneering projects of IBC Emilia Romagna

Youth & Cultural Heritage – the pioneering projects of IBC Emilia Romagna

The Institute for Cultural Heritage – Istituto per i beni artistici, culturali e naturali (IBC)of the Emilia Romagna Region, founded in 1974, operates as an advising body for the regional government and local authorities in policy making related to cultural heritage. It promotes projects in the field of architectural and environmental heritage, museums, libraries and hierarchies, for different purposes: restoration, protection, enhancement and enjoyment of cultural heritage.

The IBC Emilia Romagna has been developing best practices in youth engagement to the enhancement and management of cultural heritage goods, involving both schools and young associations.

We interviewed Valentina Galloni, coordinator of the pioneering project “I love cultural heritage”.

How the project “I love cultural heritage” works and how does it fit with the IBC’s activities

In Emilia Romagna, The Institute for Cultural Heritage has adopted a new policy to actively engage youth to their local cultural heritage. This policy is realized through two already consolidated initiatives: one devolved to youth cultural agencies of the region – the “Youth for the Region” contest – and the other – the contest “I love cultural heritage” – aimed at targeting students in schools.

The “I love cultural heritage” starts in 2011 to ensure the regional reach to a European project, where at the time IBC was a partner, called “Acqueduct”. The aim of the project was to train teachers and cultural institutions’ operators to understand the value and the importance of cultural heritage as a vital tool to spread key transversal competences to students. Those competences, as established by the Panel of Reference adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in 2006, are: learn to learn, social and civic competences, initiative and entrepreneurial spirit, and cultural expressions and consciousness. In order to effectively meet those goals, several pilot projects started in partner countries in collaboration with schools and cultural institutions actively involving students. Given the effective methodology employed and the successful results achieved by students, a new regional initiative has been envisioned by IBC. This is how “I love cultural heritage” came to life,  encouraging every year new schools to join the partnership together with museums, libraries and archives, and to present a project adding value to local institutions and/or cultural assets. The active students’ involvement and the development of transversal competences are themselves two key goals of the project.

Which are the projects’ evaluation criteria? Which supporting activities IBC offered in addition to funding, if any?

For the projects’ evaluation we use the following criteria: innovation and originality of the project proposal and communication; clarity and coherence in its articulation; the active participation of students in its implementation; the capacity and modality of schools and other local stakeholders’ engagement; the proposal reproducibility in other scholastic contexts or museums, and libraries. Thus, we support the project not only financially but also in terms of training, documenting and promotion. The referents take part in meetings with initiative’s coordinators, with those who previously implemented projects and with the MOdE’s – Museo Officina dell’Educazione dell’Università di Bologna – professors, for what concerns the documentation and the evaluation of the projects. At the end of every year, results are collected, published, and spread in affiliated websites, in as much they can inspire future projects; they will be further presented by the same students in the final conference.

Which are the main innovations introduced by students in the project’s partners institutions?

During these years, students have achieved extremely original and innovative projects: board games, eBooks, audio guides, videos, interactive and emotional maps, bas-reliefs, design objects, xylographies, didactical routes, web sites, promotional projects for tourism, virtual reconstructions, catalogues and exhibitions, monitoring attentively every phase of the process.

Many projects connect students coming from different schools linking their different competences to reach a shared goal. For example, in a recent project students made a short film to highlight the value of some paintings hosted in a museum: students from high school not only acquired knowledge in various disciples (e.g. art, history, cinema etc.) but also developed the new competences like film-making, writing and acting. Older students from a cinematographic institute helped and guided them in this venture; students from fashion school crafted their costumes while students from art school helped with the scenography of the movie.

Which are project’s main objectives achieved? And which the main criticisms?

The different editions of the contest involved thousands of students who have worked with hundreds of cultural institutions, organizations and associations from all over the region. Museums, archives and libraries are the institutions where students work as a group, learn, create, play and make use of their learned competencies and their talents; each one of them is given the possibility to have an active role in the achievements of a cultural project; each one understands the role he or she can have in taking care of a cultural asset and how this can impact future generations. Students have the possibility to actively experiment the museum, the archive and the library as areas for active learning. Here they can develop new forms of communication to enhance their cultural heritage’s value. Now other cultural institutions are involved as well: initially the project was designed only for museum, later on archives and libraries were involved too. The funded projects have increased (currently 20) as well as the funds allocated for each project (at the moment 4000 euros: 2000 for the school and 2000 to the cultural institution).

Some criticisms are due to the fact that these activities are extremely challenging, since they develop through the whole academic year. Therefore, they require commitment and energy in task accomplishment and organization between the different involved actors. Nevertheless, the overall evaluation is very positive and enthusiastic from the part of the students.

Over the years, also a project called “Youth for the Region” has been developed. What are the objectives and results obtained up to date?

In this case as well, the main objective lies in the active involvement of the youth, in order to create new forms of management and communication of cultural assets. Youth associations are invited to partner up with agency, possibly owner of a cultural good, to present an innovative project with regard to the governance of the asset.

Each year, several projects compete in the contest and, in order to select the 10 best projects, the criteria employed are among inventiveness, active participation and capacity to involve the entire local community. Moreover, a necessary condition for the admission is to receive either from the respective agency or from a third subject, a contribution of at least 2000 euros. As a matter of fact, the capacity to attract new resources is ultimately considered a further the criteria. Each project financed with a 10.000 euros funding, is further monitored and followed up by the Institute for Cultural Heritage becoming example for next projects.

These projects represents occasions to research and to collect historic material, to learn how to use new technologies, to strengthen the link between cultural assets and the surrounding landscape, to give new inputs and awareness to the local community about the importance of cultural heritage. They foster civic engagement in cultural heritage commons’ management, fostering social inclusion and job retrieval.

The participation to the contest can constitute an impulse for some associations, evolving them from start-ups into concrete realities; for others, it has been an occasion to value and acquire recognition for their own work while enlarging the local partners.

As demonstrated with these projects, Culture & Participation are key part of the IBC mission and activities at the cutting edge of in the current debate. Which are the main obstacles encountered? And which the potentialities still to experiment?

Unfortunately, students are often committed to other activities which obstacles the possibility to make a real job from these projects. They should be supported more and for a longer period. A public – private partnership should be promoted to create a financial system to support their activity.