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Making a Living From Trash

Making a Living From Trash / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez
Posted on May 3, 2015

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 1 May 2015 – They appear
silently, without anyone taking notice, a little after dawn. They will
not hide again until nightfall, when they return home or camp out in
some corner of the city to count their profits. They used to be called
“divers,” not without a certain disdain; now, the activity is gaining
organization as well as workers. Without the collectors of raw
materials, Havana would be an even dirtier city.

Jesus is one of them. Dragging a mountain of cardboard pieces on his
cart, he goes to a buying house with the merchandise acquired today.
For each kilo they pay one peso and 20 cents, but sometimes he gets
other material – pieces of aluminum or bronze – and they pay him more.
“It all depends on knowing how to search,” he says.

At Benjumeda and Retiro Streets in Central Havana is one of the
warehouses where the collectors go to patiently wait their turn in
line. Each one carries the merchandise however he can, whether in a
street sweeper cart or a trailer hitched to a car, a luxury, this latter
one, uncommon in the business. In Cuba, gathering rubbish is a job like
any other, because it barely provides enough for survival.

Around the recycling industry there has been created a whole network of
private workers who play various roles. The “buying houses” can be
individuals, like the one at Belascoain and Santo Tomas Streets, next to
another state collection warehouse. The difference between the two may
be, for example, that in the private ones they also buy the imported
beer bottles that no other site accepts.

With the unveiling of the private sector came the legalization of this
kind of job. The trash collectors must pay around 30 pesos a month for
their license, in addition to social security. Their tax system does
not include the obligation to present a sworn statement, explains Jesus
while he waits for another truck. The one that was there has just left
completely full.

But there are also workers who operate without authorization, as an
extra job. They see trash in the street, pick it up and discreetly put
it in a little bag. “Are you going to throw that out, sir?” they ask
when a neighbor approaches the containers at the corner of his house
with a box of empty bottles.

The illegals must always be careful about the police, but the legal ones
also are harassed sometimes, above all if their presence coincides with
an important event in the city and it is not “proper” for them to be in
the streets, wandering and ragged, because they “mar” the environment.

The official media estimate that 430,000 tons of trash is recycled each
year, which means a savings of 212 million dollars for the national
economy. Sixty-four percent of the collection – which includes a first
cleaning, sorting and transporting of material to the collection point –
is achieved thanks to the army of individuals who roam the streets.
They see an empty can, they pick up an empty can.

Those in line at Benjumeda think that figure falls short, and they
accuse the State of barely employing a few trucks and waiting, while
they bring everything. “We must really account for 80 to 90% of the
total gathered,” estimates the driver of a Fiat who pulls a small
trailer loaded with pieces of stainless steel and who clarifies that he
does not regularly devote himself to recycling.

“In the Carlos III [shopping center] they do it, but I don’t know
anywhere else like this,” says a young man referring to the small raw
materials warehouse located next to the crowded store. Some more
warehouses exist, but not many. Big Havana stores have one or another
hidden space dedicated to accumulating the boxes, now empty and
disassembled, awaiting transport.

“Those in charge of doing it don’t pick up the trash on time,” according
to a recent television report. The official report said that “in most
cases there is no control over the contracts, there is a lack of
stringent performance among the involved parties, there is slowness to
approve cancellations of resources and equipment, and they do not
fulfill delivery plans.”

“Big enterprises have to deal with their own rubbish and finance the
process with their own resources,” the report specified. Thus, the
private sector demonstrates a management capacity superior to that of
the State, working on a smaller scale.

The deficiencies, therefore, exist at an institutional level. In Cuba
the infrastructure for the treatment of trash is insufficient. Dumps
are lacking – those that exist still do not use any system for sorting
wastes – and transportation is scarce. Also, there is a lack of
industrial interest and of exportation of re-useable material.

All these conditions mean that there is not an effective collection
system, and trash accumulates on the corners. Fires are frequent, and
the micro-dumps constitute a serious sanitation problem, which is
aggravated in the poorer neighborhoods, where service is even worse than
in the downtown and tourists areas.

Although these problems have been recognized by the authorities, no
measure has been announced to address trash collection via a coherent
state policy.

Meanwhile, it is possible to see gatherers working at dawn, after each
important event that attracts the public and generates a lot of trash.
Without a contract, without security for the dangerous circumstances or
other conditions of their work. That is how it works, the silent army
that lives from the trash of others.

Translated by MLK

Source: Making a Living From Trash / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez |
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