How sustainable is recycling? Reconciling the social, ecological, and economic dimensions in Argentina

Pegels, Anna / Stefanie Heyer / David Ohlig / Felix Kurz / Lena Laux / Prescott Morley
Discussion Paper (23/2020)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

ISBN: 978-3-96021-137-2
Preis: 6 €

Span. Ausg. u.d.T.:
¿Es sostenible el reciclaje? Propuestas para conciliar los aspectos sociales, ecológicos y económicos en Argentina
(Discussion Paper 10/2021)

Due to the prevailing economic crisis, Argentina has been facing a growing number of informal workers, many of them urban recyclers. Following the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated decline in formal employment, this number can be expected to rise even further. Increased recycling activity is, in principle, a positive development. However, the working conditions of urban recyclers often do not correspond to the ILO definition of “decent work”.It is therefore important to ask how the recycling system in Argentina can be shaped to be socially sustainable, as well as environmentally and economically sustainable. Based on qualitative stakeholder interviews, our research aimed to collect and synthesise the ideas and expectations of a diverse set of actors in the recycling sector of Buenos Aires City and selected municipalities of Buenos Aires Province. This enabled us to identify four key areas of dispute and potential action.First, work in urban recycling is a form of social safety net in Argentina, as in many countries with persistent poverty. This can lead to a trade-off between maintaining the social function of the sector and subjecting it to the kinds of efficiency requirements placed on other sectors. Given the inherent power asymmetries between large companies and individual urban recyclers, the latter may be crowded out once the sector becomes profitable. Second, it is important to avoid viewing urban recyclers as recipients of charity. By re-introducing materials into the resource cycle and reducing pressure on landfills, they create positive externalities and offer a valuable service to society. Paying urban recyclers for the service component of their work in addition to the value of the raw materials collected would constitute a significant step towards ensuring both decent incomes and broad social recognition of the workers’ value.Third, the knowledge and experience gathered by urban recyclers holds great potential for grassroots innovations, such as making productive use of materials that do not currently have a market. With the cooperation of other actors, such as universities, and the provision of resources and support via the removal of red tape, these innovators could more easily employ their ideas to the benefit of society.

Fourth, as a cross-cutting issue, all solutions aimed at unlocking the potential of urban recycling for a transition of the waste sector towards economic, ecological and social sustainability require a careful navigation of the political economy dimension. Constellations of interests have led to incentives that are, in many cases, not conducive to economic efficiency and bind resources that could otherwise be used to improve recycling schemes. Reform of these incentives requires a careful analysis of power constellations and potential change coalitions.

Über die Autorin

Pegels, Anna



Weitere Expert*innen zu diesem Thema

Aleksandrova, Mariya

Climate risk governance 

Balasubramanian, Pooja


Banerjee, Aparajita

Environmental and Resource Sociology, Public Policy 

Burchi, Francesco


Dombrowsky, Ines


Hein, Jonas


Hernandez, Ariel


Houdret, Annabelle


Lehmann, Ina


Loewe, Markus


Rodríguez de Francisco, Jean Carlo

Ökologische Ökonomie 

Schüpf, Dennis