• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


Danielle- Recycling as a Livelhood in Oaxaca

Page history last edited by Danielle 12 years ago

Write introduction and include your research question.   




Research Plan:


1. Meet with Aerin about recycling initiatives in Oaxaca- February

2. Interview Up-Cycler, in Spanish- February 14

3. Go to up-cycling market- early March

4. Interview with Jose Carlos from Sikanda- February 23

5. Visit the dump and Pepenadores (with SiKanda)- February 24

6. Have a follow up meeting with Sikanda- End of February/early March

7. Meet with Aerin about paper recycling- March 31

8. Interview paper recyclers- early April

9. Organize everything into final!



Recycling As A Livelihood In Oaxaca


  Every day, the twenty-two municipalities that make up Oaxaca city collectively contribute 1000 tons of garbage to the city dump (Si-Kanda). Of this trash, almost ninety percent can either be recycled or composted. In the main metropolitan area of Oaxaca, very few family’s recycle and recycling centers or drop off locations are scarce and inaccessible. For my independent study project, I am looking at three livelihoods in particular that focus on recycling and re-using materials: Pepenadores, paper recyclers and up-cyclers. The quantity of stuff that is thrown away everyday is overwhelming, but if we do not start dealing with it soon, the amount of waste that humanity has managed to accumulate will cause serious unavoidable problems.   

            The term “to throw trash away” gives the impression that when I no longer have a use for an object, I can throw it away and I will never have to deal with it again. The concept of recycling is good because it prolongs the life of materials and diverts trash from the landfill; however, recycling still promotes the idea that we do not have to reduce our waste or personally deal with trash. Pepenadores are the few people who actually live with trash everyday and they make their living by collecting and selling what other people deem as garbage. The name “pepenador” comes from the Aztec word “pepenar,” meaning “to pick up.” Pepenadores have the reputation of being trash pickers because they spend all day sorting through the dump looking for recyclables that they can sell for money. However, recently, the pepenadores have started to refer to themselves as “recyclers,” and this has changed the way they view themselves as well as how pepenadores’ role is valued by society. The role of the pepenadores is critical for the waste situation in Oaxaca because the dump has already exceeded it’s limit and the 180 pepenadores that live on the outskirts of the dump significantly reduce the amount of trash that continues to pile up (Si-Kanda).

            People have been living in the dump for years; however, twenty years ago, the people collaborated to form a structured group (union) to set rules and create a unified force for the purpose of communicating with the government for rights and services. The first true pepenador was Rafael Vasquez. Vasquez lived on the outskirts of the dump and began by collecting glass and selling it for money. Eventually, more people, without jobs and with limited educational background, moved to the dump and took on the pepenador lifestyle. The average income of a pepenador is 48 pesos a day, which is a little less than minimum wage in Oaxaca (Si-Kanda). Since the inception of the union, recycling collection companies drive trucks into the dump everyday, which makes it really easy for the pepenadores to sell their findings.

            As a group, the pepenadores named their union “Guieniza,” and every few years, the people elect a new leader. Around five years ago, Señora Rosalba became the first woman union leader of the pepenadores. In an interview with her, she recalls being surprised that she was elected because a woman had never been nominated before. However, she knows that she represents the people well and she has been able to bring about a lot of change, such as better healthcare policies and education for the children. Today, Elvira is the leader of the union, and she is the second woman to hold this position. Although the pepenador union and leadership system works well for the community, the people continue to struggle with gaining respect and partnership from the Oaxacan government.

            The dump has switched hands several times from public to private, but currently, the state government controls the landfill. However, the government does not have plans for dealing with the city’s waste, and each community in which the government proposed to create a new dump has refused to be the new home of the city landfill. As of now, it is easier for the government to not create a real solution and fail to respond to the requests of the pepenadores. Additionally, along the road to the dump, several unofficial private companies are in the business of buying recyclables from city garbage trucks. The city garbage men collect recyclables throughout the day, sell them to the companies on the side of the road, and they get to keep all the money. This system has recently increased and created some problems for the pepenadores because the inorganic materials in the dump have noticeably decreased. Also, the government reprimands these illegitimate companies because they lack a permit, but the government is doing nothing to fix the system.

            Although the amount of recyclables in the dump has gone down, the quantity of organic material has steadily increased. Recently, the organization Si-Kanda has assisted in the creation of worm composting projects in the pepenadores’ community to help the people benefit from the abundance of food and plant waste. The new worm bins create nutrient rich organic fertilizer that the pepenadores are able to sell in the city for a profit.

            I had the opportunity to visit the dump and talk with the pepenadores as well as deliver gloves for them to use when picking through trash. I went with Jose Carlos, the co-founder of Si-Kanda, and he introduced me to Elvira, the elected leader of the pepenadores union as well as many of the community members. Jose Carlos has been working with these same people for several years now, so he knows all of their names, the community feels comfortable with him and the pepenadores greatly appreciate the work he is doing with them. I asked Elvira about her garden that Si-Kanda helped her start, and she was excited to show me the lettuce, beets and cilantro that she is growing and now able to cook with. Also, with some of the extra money she is earning from her new composting system, she was able to purchase a new water tank that is proudly displayed in front of her home.

            One of the first projects that Si-Kanda undertook was constructing a home out of recycled bottles and TetraPak for the oldest pepenador in the community. Señor Andrés is 88 and still working everyday collecting recyclables in the heat of the dump. His old house consisted of a few scrap pieces of metal held together with a few nails, and with the help of other pepenadores and outside volunteers, Andrés now lives in sturdy home with windows, a front door, concrete floors and reinforced walls. Si-Kanda’s goal is to build more houses like this for any family that requests one, especially focusing on people with handicaps. The model for this TetraPak house was taken from another organization, and it has served the community well because the people use it as a meeting place in addition to a landmark.

            During my visit to the municipal landfill, I had a tour of one of the five schools on the outskirts of the dump. The students at this particular school are not children of the pepenadores, but the families live in close proximity with the pepenadores, so they are familiar with the community. Jose Carlos was visiting this school because the school board and teachers had contacted Si-Kanda to learn more about setting up a composting program with the students. The meeting was a great experience for me as an observer, because we all sat in a circle, there were more women than men, and everyone had a chance to share their opinion.

            The group of parents and teachers all seemed really excited to start the composting project, and Jose Carlos is going to return to the community in a few weeks to check up on how things are going. The composting initiative at this school will also benefit the neighboring pepenadores because some of the women pepenadores are in charge of teaching the school about worm composting and fertilizer. Therefore, the project will be good for the school, reduce organic waste, and create leadership roles for the pepenadores. Once the compost begins to accumulate, the school will be able to sell the fertilizer to the city, and people will use it in their gardens to yield better crops. Recycling of food waste is often overshadowed by paper, cardboard and plastic; however, the majority of our waste can be composted and returned to the earth.

            One of my main questions for Jose Carlos and the pepenadores was that if individuals began sorting their trash, recycling and composting in their own homes, would this negatively affect the pepenadores and their work. In 2008 only 3.3% of Mexico’s total urban waste was recycled (Rhoda and Burton). Although this statistic seemed really low to me, I realized that since less was recycled, more valuable trash went to the pepenadores. Jose Carlos reminded me of the scale of the waste that goes to the landfill everyday, so if recycling efforts increased in the city, the pepenadores would still have plenty of trash to go through. In Oaxaca city, some recycling projects have sprouted. For example, I have seen a few bottle collection bins in the Llano and the lending library on Pino Suarez also serves as a paper-recycling drop off spot. I look forward to visiting the lending library soon and learning more about paper recycling in Oaxaca.

            So far, I know that the paper that is collected for recycling is shipped to Puebla. In Puebla, there is the infrastructure to process the paper and create new recycled paper. Additonally, the paper collected by the pepenadores is also sent to Puebla to be processed. There is significantly less paper collection in the city than plastic and cans, and this might have something to do with the fact that people can receive more money for glass, metal and plastic. I am hoping to learn more about the paper recycling process and find out who benefits from paper recycling. As with anything, there are several critiques of the paper recycling process. The plant uses many different chemicals to bleach the paper in order to make it white and available to use again. Also, the facility uses a lot of water to turn the recycled paper into a pulp, which is then put into a spinner to dry it. The drying process is wasteful in terms of energy consumption, and critics argue that recycling paper has as many environmental impacts as cutting down new trees.

            Recycling in general creates jobs, which in turn is good for the economy, so paper recycling as a livelihood has few criticisms in that respect. Since I hardly ever see paper recycling initiatives in the city of Oaxaca, it is interesting that Mexico is among the top consumer of recycled paper. So, although less than half of the paper consumed is recycled, the Mexican market for purchasing recycled paper is huge (Acevedo). In the article, China and Mexico top paper recycling markets, Acevedo states that, “Mexico recuperates only 45% of the paper that it uses for recycling purposes. Experts indicate that this is due to the fact that the paper that is thrown into the garbage is generally contaminated by organic residues, which make recycling difficult” (Ibid).

            One of the best ways to recycle materials is to create something of higher value from the discarded objects. Up cycling is the process is the converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value. The concept of up cycling is relatively new, and in Oaxaca it has taken off. Different markets host a variety of up cyclers and products, such as jewelry, made from waste materials. At the farmers market on Fridays and Saturdays in Xochiochi, many people sell earrings, wallets, bags and other items made from common household trash. One item in particular that I have seen a lot around Oaxaca city is wallets made from snack wrappers. In Xochiochi, several vendors display their different sized wallets made from chip and cookie wrappers and I another woman sold earrings made out of soda can pieces.

            There is a gallery on Abasolo that changes vendors every so often called Mano a Mano, and local crafts people can sell their products and it is a great atmosphere. On February 14, 2012, there were approximately twenty different tables set up with people selling jewelry, notebooks, shirts, and bags. Every item was made from recycled materials and everyone was more than happy to talk about their products.

            I spent a good amount of time at Mano a Mano talking to different vendors and asking them about their products. Recycled cans and dry beans inspire one artist, Justine. Her table was a display of jewelry made out of colored beans, and cut pieces of cans. She also makes baby hats out of recycled fabric, and the way that she stitches them allows for the stitching to be taken out easily in order to fit the baby for a whole year. The concepts of longevity and durability were major themes of the market, and it was really refreshing to see artists thinking in the long term and thinking past the lifespan of their product. For example, one pair of earrings that I saw was made out of recycled fabric that had been wrapped in a ball. The artist informed me that when the earring is done being used as an earring, the fabric could easily be undone and used as scrap material for a new project.

            I ended up talking for a while with another woman, Elisa, about her jewelry that she makes out of recycled bike parts as well as household items such as tape measurers. Up cycling of bike tires is especially important because the inner tube material releases toxins such as dioxide when disposed of in a landfill. Therefore, prolonging the life of an inner tube helps to reduce current emissions. Elisa owns a bike shop in Oaxaca, so that is where most of her materials come from. She also collects reject materials from stores that are going to throw away defected fabrics or metals.

            Elisa is from Italy, and she first came to Oaxaca five years ago to volunteer building homes from recycled materials for a particular homeless family. She fell in love with the city and the progressiveness of Oaxaca drew her in. She has lived in Oaxaca for almost two years and she works primarily as an architect, but part time as an up cycler. I asked Elisa if she was familiar with the book “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough, and her face lit up. McDonough is her inspiration for being an architect and an up cycler. His book (co written with German chemist Michael Braungart), calls for a radical change in the way we make things, focusing on up cycling and re creating materials rather than down cycling or cradle to grave patterns. McDonough has completely transformed the concept of up cycling into a popular model for creators across the world. One evident benefit from up cycling is that the materials are usually free since people are going to dispose of them anyways.

            Our planet is a finite place, and we have limited resources; therefore, it is our responsibility as citizens of the planet to be cognizant of our consumption and disposal. In my opinion, the fact that people can live off of recycling in incredible and it goes to show how necessary recycling and cycling materials is for the economy and social structure, not to mention the environment. The pepenadores are evidence that society does not think highly enough of recycling efforts, since pepenadores’ children are often bullied in school and the government does not respond to any of their requests. Also, while recycling is critical to preserving our natural resources, reducing what is consumed is more of a priority. I propose that government or media initiatives begin focusing more on reducing overall consumption rather than promoting expenditures.





The Oaxaca municipal dump                                                                 Young Pepenador hauling recyclables to sell



Sign of Oaxaca dump                                                                                Piles of cardboard at the dump



The dump



Works referenced:


Burton, T and Rhoda, R. The disposal of solid wastes in Mexico

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico (2010) <http://geo-mexico.com/?p=2810.>


Starkman, Alvin. Greening of Oaxaca – Environment v. Survival: Oaxaca Green Progams Arrive, But Emissions Control is Problematic. Mar 9, 2010<http://alvinstarkman.suite101.com/greening-of-oaxaca-the--environment-v-survival-a211294> .


Leon Vargas, Jose Carlos. Si-Kanda. In person interview, February 24, 2012.


Elisa, Up cycler. In person interview, February 14, 2012.


Acevedo Vicky; Mexico City Consultant. China and Mexico Top Paper Recycling Markets, 2010. <http://www.hktdc.com/info/vp/a/ghsw/en/1/4/1/1X072CND/China-And-Mexico-Top-Paper-Recycling-Markets.htm>



Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.