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Patricia is 35 years old, living in Huajuapan de León in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and working as a Recycler at the Integral Center for the Treatment of Solid Residues (CITRESO). A mother of 4, she has been participating in the project “Inclusive Recycling”, which promotes the recognition, dignification and inclusion of informal recyclers in municipal solid waste management systems.

The project is implemented by the Huajuapan Municipality, a student group from the Mixteca Technological University, the Mexican nonprofit organization SiKanda, and the Recyclers themselves. Informal Recyclers at Huajuapan de León make a living from separating and selling recyclables found in the trash. In average, they make little more than 230 Euros a month. Their working conditions can be difficult. Patricia is also a spokeswoman for the Recycler’s association “CIEM Arcobaleno”, the first independent organization formalized by informal recyclers in Southwestern Mexico. On occasion of the International Women’s Day (march 8th), and the World Day of Informal Recyclers (march 1rst), we spoke with Patricia about her background and job.

Tell us where are you from?
I was born in Mexico City, in Azcapotzalco Unidad el Rosario, but I have been living in Huajuapan, Oaxaca, for the past 5 years.

What’s life like in Huajuapan?
At first it was very difficult because I couldn't find a steady job. Now I see life differently, I like it. I live at my parent’s home.

When you first came to Huajuapan, what did you think about the people who live here?
I feel there’s much more education than in the city. Everyone says “hello”, “good morning” and “good afternoon”. They call you “sir” or “lady”. There is plenty of food which is what I love best! The people I have had contact with are very nice and respectful.

Tell me about your job.
I work at the CITRESO (Integral Center for the Treatment of Solid Residues) in Huajuapan. I’ve been doing this for the past four years, separating the materials that are recyclables.

What is the CITRESO?
It’s the place that gathers all of the solid waste in Huajuapan, the Municipal dumpsite.

How did you start doing this job?
That’s a sad story actually. I’m still not over it. Four years ago my youngest son was run over by a car. I used to work as a checker for a taxicab stand, but since I had to spend a lot of time in the hospital, once my child was cleared I lost my job. My sister, who had been working at the CITRESO, told me I could probably find a job there. So I came here one Saturday and asked for a job and I got it. My sister was the one who would explain the job to me. This material goes here, that one goes there...

What did you think about this job before you started working here?
I had absolutely no idea about the process. I thought the trash just came here and got dumped and that you just had to take PET and cardboard out. It was not until I started working here that I saw all the different recyclable materials.

What do you like most about the job?
I like the work environment, and working with my colleagues.

What’s the work environment like?
Since we’ve known each other for years we have fun, we laugh. It’s not difficult. We have a lot of fun. At first I already knew some people here, my sister and others I hadn’t seen for years. But I’m quite sociable!

What do you like the least about your job?
When we have mountains of garbage to go through, under the sun. I don’t like that.

What are the hours like?
I wake up at 5.30, get changed, prepare my children for school, make their lunch and breakfast. I leave home at 6.30 a.m. and I get to the CITRESO around 7, get dressed and begin working.

What equipment do you need?
The sacks were I collect plastic bottles, cardboard and hard plastic, transparent glass, amber glass and green glass, a bag for paper, one for tins, one for aluminium and a tube to scratch through the trash.

At what time do you get out?
There’s no set hour. Probably around 2.30 p.m.. I don't have time to go pick up my kids. When I get home they’re already there.

How many children do you have?
I have 4. The youngest one is 6.

Do you tell them about your job? About recycling?
Before I used to take them with me to the CITRESO. Since I had no one to take care of them I had to take the smallest one. So if you ask him what aluminium is, or PET plastic, he knows! My daughters know too, we separate and we prepare compost.

So in your family life, you also implement the activities you do at work?
Yes! For example, when we buy sodas we have our bags separated and my little ones know how to separate the trash. Everyone in the house knows. From the youngest to the oldest.

What’s the most difficult thing about your job?
The sun, having to pull heavy things beneath it. During rainy season, mud. Climate plays an important role.

After 4 years as a recycler, how do you think your work contributes to the community?
We don't contaminate the environment so much. I’ve been unable to teach my neighbours how to separate properly. I hate it when they burn the trash. It is very common here, and very polluting.

What do you do when you see people burning trash?
I think people are very unconscious. I want to tell them how to deal with their garbage, but I don’t know how they’ll react. So I avoid those problems, them telling me “what’s it to you”. I would like to give classes about what it does to the environment when they burn the trash.

What are the most important challenges as a woman recycler?
For people to know what we do. For people to see the work we do at the CITRESO, the conditions we have to deal with. We have no protective gear, or gloves or boots. We need people to recognize our work and help us to improve the conditions.

What gear do you use then?
Sometimes what we find in the trash. We reuse it.

In 2018, Patricia participated as a representative of CIEM Arcobaleno in the project “Polo por una Ciudadanía Participativa” (Pole for participative citizens), implemented by Fundazione AVSI, SiKanda, SEPICJ and Centro Lindavista in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla, through EU Funding. The project aims to strengthen civil society organizations in order to increase their incidence and participation in public policy. For six months, Patricia received training through a capacity-building Diploma aimed for small nonprofits and collectives. She graduated successfully.

What’s your role at the CIEM?
I’m a spokeswoman. My role is to see for the benefit of all, and if someone comes up to me with a problem, I tell the committee and we come up with a solution. The most difficult thing is that, coming up with solutions so we can be united as a committee.

What do you learn from your colleagues?
One of the things I’ve learned, from them and from the Diploma we took, is to be more tolerant. To listen to each other. We all have problems. If they come to you it’s because they trust you. This benefits your work because you feel more at ease. If people were more tolerant, we would be a stronger community.

What was the Diploma about?
Peacebuilding. I run out of words because there were so many things I didn’t know about, for example, what makes a sustainable project, or what support the government can provide. The Diploma made a big difference in my life. Going from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. Learning from the work of other organizations. Getting to know more people. I’m satisfied with myself. I’m sociable, but I panicked about speaking in public or not knowing how to express myself. Now I’m not afraid to speak. I’m more confident in myself.

What’s your biggest satisfaction?
Not just supporting my colleagues, but also having participated in the training. As a woman recycler, I feel proud of my work and of myself, because with my job I can provide for my family. I’m proud I can buy shoes for my children, and feed them, thanks to the garbage, thanks to my job. As I tell my mom, garbage has given me many things, and I’ve done better for myself.

Mexico recycles and composts less than 10% of its total waste. Although mandatory in many state laws, it is an uncommon practice to separate waste at source. Most of the work is performed by over 30,000 informal recyclers, 60% of whom are women, working nation-wide often in unsafe conditions. Informal recyclers constantly suffer discrimination from their type of work.

Recyclers or waste-pickers?
Recyclers. We’re the true ecologist who want people to know the role we play in taking care of the environment. We help them not to pollute so much. In the future, I hope we’ll be recognized as Recyclers from CIEM and teach children at the schools.

What could people do to contribute to your work?
Separate their trash and give it directly to the CITRESO.

Something else you’d like to share?
Come to the CITRESO and get to know what we really do. I wish that the CIEM organization was recognized, at least in our own municipality, but we’re lacking more exposure.

We also want people to know we produce our compost. I really like being there. If people knew about what we do, we could improve our conditions. I hope you share the word!

Further links:

Mexico - Vegetable gardens

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Please support our work

Accounts for donation:

Sparkasse Marburg-Biedenkopf
IBAN: DE46 5335 0000 0000 0444 40

Volksbank Mittelhessen
IBAN: DE58 5139 0000 0016 4090 06

or conveniently online: