A day with Argentina’s ‘street engineers’

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They take pride in what they do at the Reciclando Sueños co-operative. Situated in the La Matanza district of greater Buenos Aires, the workers describe themselves as cartoneros profesionales (professional recyclers) and ingenieros callejeros (street engineers). Whilst some in the city see waste picking as a lowly activity, these workers consider themselves to be providing a public service vital for the future sustainability of the city. In embryonic form, they are nurturing an important urban infrastructure from below.

The co-operative gathers the plastic waste that blows through the vast grid of Buenos Aires’ seemingly never-ending streets. The cartoneros form one of many co-operatives that have developed in the city over the years. Reciclando Sueños specialises in plastic materials. Only some of these have market value, sometimes very limited. So they are trying to find ways of adding value by developing processing techniques, and by experimenting with ways to reclaim a wider range of materials. It is in this grassroots innovation sense that they call themselves street engineers.

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So they have developed heating techniques to help separate, clean up, and concentrate different plastics. This, and other methods such as milling, help bulk up the materials and add value. But they have also been experimenting with the conversion of beer bottle labels into bricks suitable for construction, and which have acoustic and thermal insulating potential. The National Institute for Industrial Technology (INTI – Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Industrial) are testing the bricks for certification, but it is taking time to generate the knowledge in officially approved form. It can be tricky working with the bureaucratic procedures of research institutes. Any progress through the system works due to helpful connections with committed individuals within these organisations.

When visiting the co-operative, accompanying a group from the network for Engineering, Social Justice and Peace, it felt to me like the ideas, experimentation and commitment to developing material processing infrastructure in La Matanza was very distant and disconnected from some important research and innovation infrastructures. Waste for Life are showing what might be possible with a more attentive engagement from researchers. I wondered what a more dedicated and localised research and innovation infrastructure might look like, and how it could facilitate the creativity evident at the co-op. Even further away is the whole investment and production infrastructure that generates this plastic and, potentially, re-uses it.

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The only connection the co-operative currently has with production and consumption infrastructures is through the prices it takes for the materials reclaimed. In trying to boost the price they can get for a wider range of materials, the co-operative is innovating techniques for plastics recovery and reuse. But the processing insights generated by these self-identified street engineers are poorly served by this price mechanism. Until other providers identify the workers as innovative, then existing infrastructures will provide insufficient resources and poor development spaces for co-ops like this to play a more informative role in new urban infrastructure.

(Photo credit: Adrian Smith)

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