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A View from the Top (of a Landfill) [SURE Stories]

The following post was written by UHP student and SURE Award winner Julia Wagner.

When I set out to study urban sustainability for my senior honors thesis, I never thought that it would land me in a landfill in the middle of South America. But research, folks, can be exciting!

Julia Wagner Research Photo

A photo I took during my research!

I was visiting the CEAMSE landfill outside of Buenos Aires to get a better understanding for the city’s sustainability planning in regards to their waste management. I wanted to understand the impetus behind the City’s new recycling program, which not only stands for waste reduction but social justice.

As I stood, looking over a mountain of trash, I reflected on how I got there. It started with a semester of study abroad in Buenos Aires, during which I fell in love with the city’s passion, volatility, and depth.  The famous portenos, or Buenos Aires locals, take what they need, and keep innovating until they get it. One particular group, a sector of informal waste-pickers who organized to create their own cooperatively-run businesses really inspired me to return and dig deeper into this fascinating place and study the role of waste in the city. Finally, the SURE Award ensured that I had enough funds to travel back to South America and get the much needed ethnographic interviews to complete my research.

Garbage, it turns out, is a major urban problem all over the world. How cities decide to manage their waste has huge environmental, political, and social implications in their localities. Waste, as product of the items we consume, tells a lot about a people’s culture and values. Many of the materials that we throw away, like plastic, glass, and cardboard, can also be very useful when cycled back into the industrial process; thus, waste is also a valuable resource. In a world where extractive activities become more expensive, recycling has grown into a bustling industry.

It was out of economic necessity that many people started collecting spare recyclables in Buenos Aires. These waste-pickers, or cartoneros as they came to be known, would pick out useful materials from curbside dumpsters to sell back to industries for a profit. These people, their political organizations, and their democratically-run businesses served as the basis for my research. They are single-handedly changing the face of the recycling industry and the culture of recycling in Buenos Aires. Further, they have built a scenario for understanding how informal actors can bring change to city’s formal sustainability planning and green infrastructures.

I find it ironic that my #onlyatGW moment would be funded research in a South American landfill, but as I stood looking out over a mountain of garbage, I couldn’t have felt happier, or more empowered to continue researching the implications of urban waste management in the future.