By Megan Rowling
LIMA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Just a few years ago, waste recycler Genaro Jorge Durán Contreras and his colleagues were branded "nut cases" and drug addicts, picked up by police or chased away from their foraging for recyclables.
"But now we have a permit to work. The abuse is over," said the 49-year-old father of six at the Lima office of Ciudad Saludable (Healthy City), a Peruvian organization that helps waste pickers set up formal groups and micro-enterprises.
Durán who heads a 17-member association operating in the smart Miraflores district of Peru's capital, explained how the country's 2009 "Law of the Recycler" - the first of its kind in the world - transformed his job into a respected trade.
"We made a presentation in Congress, and the president told us 'you are important'," he said. "When he spoke to us, it was a moral boost for us all."
Peru now has 205 schemes supporting organized recyclers across its towns and cities. The initiative is bringing impoverished waste pickers out of poverty, while making a start on reducing garbage and its emissions of climate-changing gases.
Organized recyclers earn $12 or $13 a day thanks to their steady supply of materials and ability to negotiate better prices as a group, according to Ciudad Saludable founder Albina Ruiz Ríos. Informal waste pickers bring in only $2 to $3 daily.
"Now we can work and earn enough money to educate our children," said Durán, wiping away tears. His son attends a prestigious technical school, and his daughter plans to study international business.
Durán's team picks up recyclable materials - including metal, PET bottles, Tetra Pak cartons, paper and hardboard - from participating households, and take them to a center where they are sorted and sold to companies for processing. The association took out loans to buy two trucks to transport the rubbish.
BOTTLE RECYCLING LAW
One development that could provide a big boost to the recycling industry in Peru is a proposed law that would allow plastic bottles to be recycled into new ones, as in other Latin American countries.
Peru imports some 92,000 tonnes of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) resin, derived from crude oil and natural gas, to make bottles each year. Less than half is recovered, with the rest ending up in landfills and dumps, Ruiz said.
During this month's climate talks in Lima, 400 uniformed recyclers got out their brooms and swept one of the city's biggest parks in an action aimed at pressing ministers to sign the bottle recycling law.
Ruiz and her colleagues are pushing hard to get the ban lifted soon, stressing the social and environmental benefits.
With four companies already lined up to start manufacturing recycled PET bottles, the move would create jobs and boost the price of the recycled material, generating a better income for those who gather it, Ruiz said.
It should also help Peru become greener. "We would not be buying so much oil resin from a non-renewable resource. And when manufacturing with raw materials, you use a lot more energy and water," she explained.
At the municipal level, rules and regulations also make a difference. For example, in Lima, there are many apartment buildings and office blocks with single rubbish chutes that don't allow people to separate recycling from normal waste.
Ciudad Saludable is working with the city authorities to get a new ordinance approved before the end of the year that would make it mandatory for new buildings to have allocated chutes and storage spaces for recycling.
'TRASH THAT ISN'T TRASH'
Ximena Giraldo Malca, assistant manager for environmental development with the Miraflores municipality, said the scheme, which began in 2011, has attracted around 15,000 families who recycle. That is around 30 percent of the district's residents, and the number is growing all the time.
"When we started, it was a social challenge. People in the neighborhood didn't view the recyclers in a positive light because they were an excluded group," she said. "But now that they see how they follow specific routes and times, they have warmed to them and they are welcomed."
The recyclers wear bright blue protective clothing over T-shirts sporting the program's name: "Trash that isn't trash".
Ruiz, whose organization supports recyclers in over 200 cities in Latin America and India, said the first step is for the workers to register their association. They then receive training, often provided by municipalities, in integrated waste management, biosafety and first aid, personal development skills and how to run a business.
"They learn they are part of the waste management process," said Ruiz. "It is important that they see themselves as entrepreneurs."
In Peru, municipalities authorize the recyclers to operate, and their revenue comes from companies that buy recycled materials. But a new model is being considered in which local councils would pay recyclers to collect garbage.
Despite the advances made in organizing workers, solid waste disposal is still a "huge problem" in the country, Ruiz said.
Only 12 percent of the country's waste is recycled, and just a tiny fraction of that is done by formally recognized workers.
The term of Lima's current mayor, who has backed the neighborhood recycling schemes, ends this month, Ruiz noted. But she and Giraldo are determined that changes in political leadership will not thwart the progress they have made.
"This project will go on - there is no turning back," said Giraldo. "People will demand it."
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)