Recycling in Cuba as a Means of Survival

By Ivett de las Mercedes

One of Havana’s aluminum can collectors.

HAVANA TIMES – Finding value in something that has passed its expiry date and has no more wear and tear is part of the recycling process in Cuba. There are different mechanisms to ensure this: raw material collectors are one of them. Ernesto Rodriguez de la O (67 years old) forms part of this broad framework. 

HT: How did you start collecting cans?

Ernesto Rodriguez: After retiring, I began to take it up more seriously, although I would collect them back when I worked at the garbage dump on 100th street.

HT: Ok, so tell me a little about your job at the dump first.

ER: We worked in shifts at the dump; there were four of us at mine. We would sort through everything that came in the trucks and then take it to the recycling plant. I don’t know if it still exists, but I can assure you that it was really beneficial; it turned waste into organic fertilizer and biogas. That’s exactly why I had to retire.

Working at the dump helped me learn what products were better paid. As my wages weren’t very much, I used to sell already sorted raw materials to dumpster divers (collectors without a license). Of course, that’s illegal and if the police catch someone with a bag of cans in the dump, you can expect a fine at the very least. We all know that this propogates diseases, but anything goes when you have to provide for a family.

Photo: Elio Delgado Valdés

I now collect cans out on the street and sell them to the raw materials office and have some daily income. There’s a “raw material collector” license for this job, but I haven’t got it. I only collect enough to get me by, not to pay taxes, if only I were because then I wouldn’t be looking over my shoulder all the time and worrying about receiving a 1500 peso fine.

HT: Did your job at the dump make you sick?

ER: Yes, methane gas is everywhere. The tons of garbage that come in are thrown into a well-like hole, which is then covered with soil to stop the gas from reaching the atmosphere and contaminating the environment, or causing a fire if it reacts with oxygen. Nobody can imagine how long it would take for a fire in a dump to die out if that were to happen. 14 or 15 square meters of waste are deposited there every day. I started coughing a lot and having constant pulmonary emphysemas because I didn’t wear a face mask.

Photo: Juan Suarez

HT: Did you carry on working even though you were sick?

ER: I had to carry on because if I didn’t, I would have starved to death. I also worked as a guard at night. The manager let me stay in his office, so I wouldn’t have to go home. I became a slave to my work, I didn’t have a choice. Back then, several cases of lung cancer were reported, especially among people who lived near the dump, and I was diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after.

HT: Different materials such as cardboard, beer bottles, plastic bottles, can be recycled. Do you only collect cans?

ER: Yes, cans are easier to transport and weigh less. I live in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality and I collect cans in Miramar. I only collect cans that are outside of garbage bins and dumpsters, not because I look down on those who do this, but because of my respiratory problems. When I have a full bag, I go to the park on 3rd street to crush them with a rock, or with my foot, with whatever I can; I’ll collect cans for as long as they exist.

HT: What do you do after that?

ER: I carefully put them into a bag so I can get in as many as I can, otherwise I’d just take a few. When I get home, I put it down in a corner of my living room and when I have enough, I go to the recycling office.

Sacks full of cans.

HT: How much raw material do you need to collect in order to cover your basic needs?

ER: That’s a little complicated. 3.5 kilograms are 24 pesos, 4.5 kilograms are 32 pesos. Just figure how much I have to collect to get by in a single day! Add to that, transport costs and the bags I need to buy to hand these recyclables over to the collection office.

HT: Do you know anything about what these recyclable materials are used for?

ER: Well, recycled paper and cardboard are used to make egg cartons and toilet paper. Rum and beer bottles are obviously used in factories again. Plastic bottles, computer and car parts are used to make pipes.

HT: What do you think about this work?

ER: When I was young, having a decent job was the most important thing. Collecting cans is the same as working in an office in my opinion. In fact, I would say it’s much better because I’m my own boss, I work when I want to and nobody tells me how to do my job. Plus, I’m convinced that my work helps keep the city beautiful and clean. Where there’s a lazy person, that’s where I am. I can even boast about my battle against mosquitoes because a beer can that has been thrown out on the street for a few days will surely have a family of yellow fever mosquitoes living by it.

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4 thoughts on “Recycling in Cuba as a Means of Survival

  • So glad to read how Sr. Rodriguez has such a passion of cleaning up and recycling at the sametime. He must know that it takes 100 years for a plastic bottle to breakdown and that metal and paper are very viable for recycling. Here in the USA we have our recyclyeables picked up once a week to prevent them from being taken to a landfill.

  • many years ago while a student at rideau high school in ottawa canada i,d collect empty pop bottles at the side of the highway it paid for gas for my old 1949 pontiac and a few 10 cent glasses of beer over at the Cave in Hull – the good old days.

  • Ernesto Rodriguez is godsend to Cuba and a hope for the future of all Cuba. He should be rewarded as such and an example for everyone. If the rest of the world can recycle then Cuba can do the same. If the embargo was lifted then Cuba would soon be buried in litter. Recycling is critical now

  • The problem of unneccesary litter in Cuba is my biggest disappointment of my visit. It is appalling and sickening. How a people can be proud and yet too lazy to clean up after themselves is incomprehensible. It should be a national priority. Recycling can benefit any society’s economy, pride, health, and well being.

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