‘The Cuban State No Longer Has Money To Pay Waste Collectors, so I Sell to the Private Companies’

Cooking pots like pressure cookers are made from the processing of cans. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miguel García, Holguín, 7 January 2023 — Search, collect and crush. Ramón’s day, at age 57, contains those three actions. He makes his rounds through the city center of Holguín, where cans of soft drinks or beer can be more common in the trash. Then, after several days of accumulating, he sells his loot to an intermediary who will take it to a workshop where it is turned into slotted spoons, frying pans, pots and buckets.

“It’s been more than three years since the Raw Materials Recovery Company here had almost no money to pay the collectors, so now I only sell to private companies,” Ramón tells 14ymedio. “Many people have left this job because they earn less and less, and it depends on many things, so everything is very insecure.”

Ramón needs a lot of tourists to arrive in Holguín because they empty thousands of cans a week, and he can “fish” them out from the city’s broken garbage containers. “Now fewer foreigners come, and the soft drinks that are sold almost all come in small bottles, which is not what I pick up. My thing is aluminum.”

On the outskirts of the rustic workshop, the cans that have previously been collected and crushed accumulate. (14ymedio)

Born in 1968, the same year of the Revolutionary Offensive that erased the private sector in Cuba with a stroke of a pen, this holguinero once dreamed of being an engineer, but a traffic accident caused him a head injury that left him with the inability to remember numbers, concentrate and even find his way home in the busy streets of the city.

“I made a living with whatever appeared, but since 2014 I have been doing this,” he explains. Although the Raw Materials Recovery Company has existed since 1961 on the Island, for decades its operation was nourished by the waste collected by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the State centers in their days of voluntary work, or with the by-products of the State industry.

After the opening to tourism during the crisis of the 90s, not only did travelers arrive but also their waste. Canned beer was no longer a novelty to be sold in hotels, shops and cafes. National soft drinks were no longer distributed in the traditional glass bottles but in the lightest and easiest to handle aluminum containers. It was at that moment that the “can crushers” emerged everywhere.

“I made my neighbors crazy,” acknowledges Luisa, another 81-year-old from Holguin, who was one of the first in the city to take up collecting raw materials on her own. “I would come home with a sack or two and spend the whole afternoon crushing cans, I didn’t let any can get away,” she says. Now she has left the business “because it got very bad.”

For the collectors of 30 years ago, the problems were different. “We didn’t have a license; we had to hide every time a policeman passed by, and people treated us badly because they thought we were all crazy,” Luisa recalls. “Now you can ask for a permit and sell the cans legally in one of the State raw material houses, but there’s hardly any business.”

By 2013 the country already had more than 5,700 people who were registered as self-employed in that occupation

It was the economic easing promoted by Raúl Castro from 2008 that boosted the activity, and by 2013 the country already had more than 5,700 people who were registered as self-employed in that occupation, according to Jorge Tamayo, then director of the state Raw Materials Recovery Company.

“With four or five bags of cans that I sold a month, I earned more than my doctor brother,” Luisa recalls. “We made the slab for this house out of crushed cans, because before it was made of tiles, and it was always wet. I had agreements with the private tourist homes, who gave them to me before throwing them away, and I also made some contacts in hotels to pick them up twice a week.”

Over the years, there were delays in payments. “You took the raw material to the State premises, and they told you that you had to wait for the money.” The State began to decline in the organization of its points of purchase, and the private sector occupied the place left by the increasingly ailing State companies with insufficient resources.

The clandestine factories now absorb most of the cans recovered from the garbage. Many of the owners of these small industries do not even have a license to operate, or, if they have a permit, it only covers a small number of employees under their direction.

Image of a finished lid for a pressure cooker. (14ymedio)

In the People’s Council of San Rafael, Víctor, (his name was changed for this report), says that in his private workshop he has “six permanent workers, although, if the volume of work grows,” he hires new employees. “One manages the oven, three are turners and the other two finish the pieces, throwing away the garbage generated by the whole process and collecting the cans upon arrival,” he explains to this newspaper.

“The State pays 30 pesos per kilogram of aluminum, and you have to empty the cans of any liquid and put them in a well-tied bag. They can be whole or broken, but now they’re buying only two or three times a month because they don’t have a budget,” Víctor explains. “We can pay a little more, at 100 pesos, depending on the need we have, with no delays to collect.”

Víctor clarifies that his workshop buys from intermediaries, who in turn pay between 50 and 60 pesos per kilogram of cans to the collectors who look for the raw material on the streets. “Everyone wins because a relationship is established, and the intermediary is the one who responds to me, the one who shows his face and has to guarantee that the merchandise he sells me is good.”

The arrival of the pandemic, the closure of the borders to tourism and the drop in the number of visitors to the Island have also influenced the number of aluminum cans that are discarded every day. “It’s not like before. There are fewer, and many collectors have left because they can no longer earn the same, plus the prices of food and everything else have risen a lot.”

The arrival of the pandemic, the closure of the borders to tourism and the fall in the number of visitors to the Island have also influenced the number of aluminum cans that are discarded every day

The fall into disgrace of State premises for buying raw materials is evident. On a visit to the 12th Street of Reparto Nuevo Llano, this newspaper found that in mid-December there was only one employee, who warned collectors who arrived that they were not buying due to “lack of money.” In another, located on 28th Street of the Reparto Pueblo Nuevo, the scene was repeated: two workers with their arms crossed due to the absence of a budget.

In Victor’s workshop, however, the coming and going doesn’t stop. “We have a lot of demand for pots, pans, kitchen utensils, buckets, pitchers and many other products we make,” the entrepreneur acknowledges. “Here the oven stays on for a good part of the day, and when a can arrives, it comes out on the other side in the form of a lemon juicer or a ladle.”

“Even people who can buy an electric pressure cooker in MLC [freely convertible currency] also want to have their aluminum pitcher to heat the coffee,” he says. “They are durable things that can be used for many years, and if they are broken it is not a tragedy for the family; they buy another one and that’s that.”

With instruments, also handmade, they produce kitchen utensils out of aluminum. (14ymedio)

The ruin of the State houses for buying raw materials is the result of the national crisis in which Victor and his employees get profits. “With the opening of the MSMEs [small businesses], a few more cans of beer and soft drinks arrived. That makes us happy because the customers buy them; they buy a lot.”

Thrown on a street or inside a garbage container, Ramón’s agile hands will find that empty can left by a tourist or a national. A large, dark stone, taken from a nearby river, helps him reduce it to a thin sheet. Then it goes into the sack, later into the hands of the intermediary and then into the oven.

In her kitchen, the experienced Luisa knows that the slotted spoon she uses to stir the rice once contained beer or Coca-Cola. The path of recycled aluminum that people like her helped to start remains open.

Translated by Regina Anavy 


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.