Research on environmental health risks to Buenos Aires’ waste collection workers gains Ph.D. student Kate Parizeau a Trudeau scholarship

Friday, January 11, 2008 12:23:25 PM

Academic News

We are pleased to announce that Kate Parizeau, Ph.D. student in Geography and the Centre for Environment’s collaborative Environment and Health Program, was awarded a $150,000 Trudeau Scholarship in 2007 for her research on the environmental health risks to waste collection workers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following is an article by Kate on her research.

Waste collected by Buenos Aires’ “cartoneros” workersWaste collected by Buenos Aires’ “cartoneros” workers

Photos: Waste collected by Buenos Aires’ “cartoneros” workers, named for the cardboard they collect. Kate Parizeau studies the environmental health impacts to cartoneros and how they cope with poverty. (Courtesy Kate Parizeau)

By Kate Parizeau

I believe that the study of waste and its management can tell us a lot about how a society works. My Ph.D. research investigates environmental health risks and diverse coping mechanisms in the informal recycling industry in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The people who sort through curbside trash on a daily basis are called “cartoneros”, named for the cardboard so many of them collect. Most of these workers live in the provinces surrounding the city limits, and travel into Buenos Aires in the evenings via trucks or specialized trains. Cartoneros usually collect cardboard, newspapers, white paper, plastic, glass, metals, household items and clothing discarded from residences and businesses. These materials are either re-sold or re-used. These workers do not tend to make much money from this work, and are often stigmatized and marginalized because of the work that they do.

I have made two trips to Argentina in the past year and a half, where I have conducted key informant interviews, a survey with 400 cartoneros, and a series of in-depth follow-up interviews to complement the survey. I am currently analyzing my survey and interview results here at the University of Toronto. I will return to Argentina again in 2008 to share my preliminary results with policy audiences and cartoneros themselves, as well as to conduct additional research.

In addition to examining how political and economic changes have affected the lives and work of Buenos Aires’ cartoneros, my work also investigates the ways they respond to and cope with the dangers and difficulties that accompany poverty. For example, income insecurity is high in informal work; while cartoneros often have restricted access to banks and so cannot save money, many do save materials to sell in times of financial need. As a part of my survey, I asked cartoneros to describe their health, and to explain the factors that contribute to their health status. While many pointed to the health risks of working with trash (exposure to pathogens, cuts and punctures, strain from heavy lifting), some also indicated that the very acts of leaving the house, working, walking, and earning an income are also protective health measures. These complicated negotiations of situations of poverty and inequality are a major focus in my research.

When this project is finished, I hope to have contributed to public policy debates surrounding informal recycling in Buenos Aires, and to have faithfully represented the opinions and experiences of my research participants. The work of cartoneros is an important element in the dynamics of Buenos Aires, and I hope that my research will contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of the role that cartoneros play in this contemporary world city.


Kate Parizeau is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and the Centre for Environment’s collaborative Environment and Health Program. For more information, please email Kate at