Recycling Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES–As a means of exploring one of South America’s biggest cities, I ran.

I passed zipping cars disobeying traffic laws, father and son duos juggling hacky sacks for cash, and parillas–Argentine barbeques–spilling their sweet smoke into the streets.

Eventually I found myself on the outskirts of the city drawn to a warehouse surrounded by a chain link fence with a grassy dirt road leading up to its entrance. There was a pile of junk out front made up of car parts, plumbing pipes, machine motors and random metal scraps.

Tending to the pile were young men and women, sifting through it, organizing it into like parts. “Is this a recycling plant?” I questioned, and then there was the triple double-take. Beyond the amounting pile of parts, there was a billboard tower with gigantic ants crawling up it. They were made from ingredients of the “junk” soufflé just to my left.

Argentina’s recent history is characterized by political turmoil, economic crisis, and skyrocketing unemployment. While Argentina has been focusing on recovery, developed countries have been spending most of their effort attacking global climate change and incorporating sustainability into their political strategy.

Sustainability is based on the concept of using the earth’s natural resources in a manner that sustains the world’s current lifestyle while not depleting our natural resources for use by future generations. A sustainable practice is usually comprised of three main aspects: profitability, social and economic utility, and environmental soundness.

In the United States, the “green movement” has become the face of this effort, an overall positive effort but one that is, unfortunately, undercut with green washing (things that aren’t actually green), and overly expensive products. Although Argentina voluntarily agreed to the Kyoto protocol, an international environmental treaty aimed at reducing green house gas emissions, the emissions believed to be the leading cause of global climate change, not much has been achieved on the Argentine environmental front. Very few experts look to South America for inspiration and leadership in the green movement. With this in mind, I began to examine the warehouse.

As I turned away from the ants, a squat scraggly man who looked like he had swallowed a yoga ball, cigarette in hand, red wine in the other, 2 p.m. on a work day, said “hola.” I asked if I could come inside. He told me there was a five-peso entrance fee. “I’m running,” I said. “I don’t have anything on me.”

“Dame sus zapatos” (give me your shoes) he said, laughing ruggedly and opened the door at the same time, welcoming me in. I looked down at my $100 kicks and chuckled. This man was the artist, Carlos Regazzoni, and landlord. He had squatted the abandoned warehouse and adjacent land 10 years prior, and convinced the city, through his art, to donate the space to him.

Inside there were a few more young people cleaning up the old wooden floor of the warehouse and working on their own art. I was the only visitor. There was a brick oven at the South end of the building, except instead of bricks and a ceramic dome, the structure was made from metal scraps and what appeared to me to be the top half dome of an air vessel. There were chairs and tables and they were all different shapes, sizes, and colors.

One of the chair legs was even made with the bottom of a golf club. The sliding doors in the back were wide open, allowing natural light – not coal or oil based electric light- to fill the area. There were paintings from various artists hung on the wall with wire dangling from old copper pipes. I asked to use the bathroom and found that the toilet paper holder was a an old plumbing pipe that held the wads of softness perfectly in spinning position and had a metal cap that could be screwed on and off to change the roll. Every last detail was an item that was re-used, and every last detail was perfectly functional in its role.

“This is a pretty large space. It must take a lot to heat it,” I questioned.

“We throw on double sweatshirts and drink hot cocoa with whiskey. Pretty easy actually,” Regazzoni said.

As groups of visitors filtered in, I decided to stick around for dinner, which I had agreed to pay for at a later time since I didn’t want to give up my shoes and planned on returning. The young men and women who had been scattered around throughout the day working on their own art or cleaning up the space, were now preparing food in the half-dome-air-vessel oven, and waiting on the visitors. They were earning their keep in return for the opportunity to be part of the art community and have access to materials, space, and inspiration.

Dinner was some of the best milanesa–an Argentine dish where meat is pounded into a thin slab and breaded with seasoning–I have tasted. Peering into the kitchen, I saw that they were taking food scraps and putting them into a composter. They used the compost to fertilize a garden in the back that they in turn harvest for the meals they cook. To top it off, when the workers waited on us, they acted, playing different characters in preparation for a play they were to put on the following week.

Regazzoni’s recycled sculpture art is innately a form of recycling at the least. But more so, the entire concept of taking someone’s waste and turning it into beauty, inspiration, and furniture, all part of a self-returning learning environment, cuts deep into the true idea of sustainability. An example that is not limited to only those who can afford it, but with resourcefulness and creativity is accessible to everyone.

Regazzoni’s warehouse would certainly not get a United States Green Building Council LEED certification. But in comparison, the carbon footprint of turning the existing space into a community center, self-supplied restaurant, theater, gallery, and garden using all un-processed recycled materials was a multitude less than the carbon footprint of building the Getty Museum in L.A., a LEED silver rated building. Though the Getty is an incredible museum, Regazzonis’ warehouse is ranked right up there with it in my book.

Sustainability was unassumingly and genuinely captured in Regazzoni’s space and in a developing country. There, it was unforced and free of smoky mirrors; something we in the U.S should consider in the face of a popular, sophisticated, positive, but sometimes misleading “green movement.”

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