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.
“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