Gregoria Cruz doesn't just recycle garbage, she re-imagines it. She's one of many women in her community who have abandoned the dumps in Arequipa – Peru’s second biggest city – to become promoters of a recycling culture and show that there are opportunities for sustainable development in the garbage.
"We are official recyclers, we help to take care of the environment we live in," Gregoria says. "What we do is for the future."
A few metres from a pig farm, a huge mountain of garbage emits an intense stench that it travels on the wind well beyond El Cebollar, one of the dumps that still exist in Arequipa. For more than 15 years, Gregoria's life revolved around this pile, the resting place for everything that the city discarded. She and others recovered what was of value, dusted it off and resold it to subsist.
Today at age 49, Gregoria is formally employed with Recicla Vida, an association of recyclers with seven members. Six are women, and together they collect about 400 kg of waste every day.
Recicla Vida is one of two associations supported by the Peruvian Environment Ministry and the Municipality of Arequipa, with help from UNDP, UN Environment, UN Volunteers. The initiative has created dramatic changes for Gregoria and of the other 170 recyclers.
For years they worked in extreme conditions, with high levels of poverty and risk to their health and that of their families. Today they are regaining visibility in a city where they used to exist, like the garbage heaps, on the margins of society.
Today, Gregoria is an agent of change. With the association, she spends several hours each day knocking on doors of houses and businesses committed to recycling. She wears a blue uniform and a badge and handles only sorted waste - without remainders of food or other organic waste.
In their free time, the women produce handicrafts from the plastic bottles, cartons and paper they've collected and sell them at markets and events around the city. Gregoria's dream is to buy her own truck and dedicate herself completely to giving trash a second life.
“We will not make a lot of money, but what we do is giving us new opportunities. Now we look at the future,” Gregoria says. “Twenty years ago, I started going to the landfill, and four years ago, this initiative gave me a chance. For the sake of health, nobody should go back there.”
For the first time, Peru has adopted a National Solid Waste Plan with a social perspective. More than a plan for proper waste management, the plan generates opportunities for sustainable local development and ‘green jobs’, integrating the social, environmental and economic dimensions and recognizing the work of recyclers. However, the country faces a major challenge: raising awareness among its citizens.
Graciela Mamani, another member of the association, says many people still do not understand their work and prefer to send their waste to go to the dump. Even up against such attitudes, the recyclers are convinced that not recycling garbage would be a real waste.
Today, almost 25 percent of the solid waste in the district of Arequipa is reusable. Before the project, only 5 percent was recovered in the unhealthy conditions of the city's landfills.
“I do not know how you can make people understand that what we do is for our environment, for our future, for our lives,” Gregoria says.