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Feature: Warrior Against Poverty

Caroline Baillie stands outside a factory in Buenos Aires where members of a cartonero cooperative pull recyclables from trash and garbage bound for a landfill.Caroline Baillie campaigns on two fronts: against poverty in Argentina and old-style teaching at home.

An article from the March 2008 issue of ASEE’s Prism magazine by Margaret Loftus

Many visitors are drawn to Buenos Aires for the nightlife, the cafés, or the tango. But it was trash that lured materials engineer Caroline Baillie back to Argentina’s capital last summer. During a 2005 visit, she had been struck by a distinct legacy of the nation’s crippling economic crisis: great numbers of impoverished trash pickers collecting and sorting discarded plastic and cardboard to sell to recyclers. “If you’re out at 5 p.m., they’re all in the streets scavenging,” she says.

Members of a cartonero cooperative  pull recyclables from trash and garbage bound for a landfill.

Based on her work with women’s cooperatives in Lesotho, Baillie knew it was possible for such groups to boost their meager earnings by turning recyclable materials into products. She felt a similar model could be applied to help the cartoneros, as the jobless Argentinian rubbish collectors are known. So when Baillie took a sabbatical from teaching and research at Canada’s Queen’s University, she and her partner Eric Feinblatt headed south to launch Waste-for-Life Buenos Aires. Their aim was to develop a hot-press prototype for cartonero cooperatives that would turn the rubbish into furniture or composite building materials, such as ceiling tiles. The products could be sold to contractors or used in cartoneros’ own homes.

For the next six months, the couple strove to understand the complex Buenos Aires trash-disposal world and overcome a series of obstacles: They weren’t fluent in Spanish, which made it hard to gain the cartoneros’s trust. They also couldn’t get outside funding, and so had to find a way that their hot-press, once perfected, could be manufactured cheaply. But by the time they left, a plan had taken shape for a self-sustaining commercial operation.

“We were really bloody-minded about it,” says Baillie.

Read the entire article in Prism online.

Members of an Argentinian cooperative who maintain the regenerated  land atop a former landfill.

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