BOGOTA, Colombia – Outside luxury condos in one of Bogotá’s most exclusive neighborhoods, Dora Vargas, 64, sifts through a plastic waste container. She’s looking for empty water bottles, cardboard boxes, newspapers and any other recyclable materials she can sell. Her earnings are modest – for a day’s work, she can earn from $5 to $8 – yet this line of work has supported Vargas and her family for 45 years.
Since the 1950s, Colombia’s most impoverished families have earned a living by picking and selling recyclable material found in trash bags set on city sidewalks. The work is often seen as a last resort, yet for women, who make up about 30 percent of Bogotá’s estimated 14,000 registered waste pickers or “recicladoras,” selling reusable material has offered a means to live independently.
At the age of 19, Vargas was pregnant with her first child and forced to choose between begging and collecting recyclable material in order to provide for her family. Vargas chose the latter and slowly picked up on the skills and knowledge she needed to become a full-time waste picker: She learned what waste could be recycled, how to organize recyclables, and how much they could sell for. Later, she bought a pull-cart to maximize the number of recyclables she could transport to bodegas, where they are weighed and sold.
With the small profits she made, she fed her family and eventually split from her partner, who was not contributing to the household financially.
“Sometimes the men you find aren’t what you expect them to be,” she said. “You think that they’re going to support you, but you end up supporting them. That didn’t work for me, so I opted to stay alone.”
Still, the flexibility of choosing her own hours allowed Vargas to spend time with her family. Motivated by Vargas’s success, her sister and brother soon joined her to form a family recycling collective.
“Many of us female waste pickers are the heads of the house and it’s important for us to support our family,” Vargas said. “We have two hands, two feet, a brain, and two eyes. We don’t have to depend on anyone, and to think otherwise is a mistake.”
Women Lead in Waste Pickers’ Rights
Colombia is considered one of the world’s most progressive countries for informal recyclers due to the efforts of organized waste pickers who have fought for their rights since the 1980s. It is only country in Latin America to constitutionally protect the rights of waste pickers to carry out their work. Women lead many of the city’s recycling cooperatives and associations, including the Association for Recyclers in Bogotá, considered a pioneer in recycling organizations in Colombia.
Nohra Padilla has headed the organization for more than 15 years, and women work at every level of the organization, from collecting material on the streets to categorizing it inside collectively owned warehouses, to managing cooperatives. An estimated 58 percent of members are women.
Federico Parra, a regional coordinator of the research and policy network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), says there may be a link to the importance of women’s roles in households and their leadership status in cooperatives.
“There are many interpretations as to why women lead so many organizations, but one of the strongest points looks at the role of women in the domestic realm in terms of guaranteeing redistribution, equity and coverage,” Parra said.
Padilla was the recipient of the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the largest award for environmental activists, and now shares her experiences and strategies with waste pickers across Latin America. But her career began as a waste picker in a city dump alongside her mother and siblings at the age of 7. When the city closed the dump, she and other waste pickers banded together and founded the Association for Recyclers in Bogotá in the early 1990s to protect waste pickers’ basic rights and to demand recognition for the public service they provide.
“Twenty-five years ago, the work of waste pickers was absolutely rejected and stigmatized. The authorities worked to take away our recycling material, would hit us, would take away our horses,” Padilla said. “This is labor that has been accruing social value, because of the effect we have had with our organizations.”
A Vital Public Service
Waste pickers divert 1,200 tons of reusable material from piling up in Doña Juana, Bogota’s only landfill, which is nearing capacity.
In 2003, Colombia’s highest court granted waste pickers the right to work, the first ruling of its kind that legally protected waste pickers’ services in Latin America. In 2011, the Constitutional Court ordered Bogotá’s waste management system to include waste pickers in its tendering process.
As a result, waste pickers are now formally considered to be waste collection service providers and paid an additional $29 for each ton of recyclable material they collect by the local municipality, doubling or even tripling some waste collectors’ earnings.
Vargas says the working conditions have improved since she started working as a waste picker.
In the past, she was detained and stopped from working by police, cars ran over her cart full of recyclables, and passers-by hurled offensive comments at her. Today, she says her work days are a lot calmer.
“People value our work more and they don’t treat us poorly like they used to,” Vargas said. “They see that this is a job just like any other.”