Gregoria Cruz doesn't just recycle waste, she reimagines it. As part of a team of seven people, including six women, she collects around 400 kg of waste every day in Arequipa, Peru's second largest city. The group's mission is to rid the streets of plastic and other waste, and to prevent sustainable development opportunities from going the way of the dustbin.
For more than 15 years, Gregoria's life revolved around what the city abandoned and what she salvaged to make a living. Today, at the age of 49, she works as an official recycler for Recicla Vida, an association of recyclers. They collect around 400 kg of waste a day.
Recicla Vida is one of two associations supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNDP), United Nations Volunteers, the Ministry of the Environment and the Provincial Municipality of Arequipa. Thanks to this initiative, the work of Gregoria and 170 other recyclers has completely changed.
For years, they have worked in extreme conditions of poverty, at great risk to their health and that of their families. Today, they are finding a place for themselves in a city where they were previously invisible, on the bangs of society.
The second life of garbage
Gregoria is now an agent of change. With the association, she spends several hours a day knocking on the doors of homes and businesses committed to recycling. She wears a blue uniform and a badge, and handles only sorted waste - with no food residues or other organic waste - for resale.
In their spare time, the women produce handicrafts from collected plastic bottles, cardboard and paper, and sell them at markets and events around town. Gregoria's dream is to buy her own truck and devote herself entirely to bringing waste back to life.
"We don't make a lot of money, but what we do gives us new opportunities. Now we're looking to the future," she says. "I was at the landfill for 20 years, and four years ago this initiative gave me a chance. For health reasons, no one should go back," she says.
A solid plan
For the first time, Peru has adopted a National Solid Waste Plan with a social perspective. This plan is not limited to proper waste management, but also generates opportunities for sustainable local development and "green jobs", by integrating social, environmental and economic dimensions and recognizing the work of recyclers. However, the biggest challenge facing the country is to raise awareness among its citizens.
As Graciela Mamani, another member of the association, puts it, many people still don't understand their work and "would rather see the garbage go to landfill". Even with this challenge, the recyclers are convinced that not recycling garbage would be a real waste.
Almost 25% of solid waste in the Arequipa district is reusable. Before the project, only 5% was recovered from the unhealthy conditions of the city's landfill sites.