In Buenos Aires’ giant Central Market, edible food is recycled from waste and used as a solution to environmental and social problems.
GFor 30 years, Tomasa Chávez frequented the central market in Buenos Aires, rummaging through the tons of fruits and vegetables that stallholders threw out in search of food. Today, she still does, but there is a difference: since 2021, she has been one of the workers hired to recycle food as part of a social program launched by Central Market.
‘I used to come almost every day to collect what was edible and what could be sold in my neighborhood. Food, cardboard, wood … Now I’m still going to separate edible food, but I work from seven to three and I get paid for it, says the low, gracious woman.
The central market of the Argentine capital is a universe that seems vast and unfathomable to those entering it for the first time.
With an area of 550 hectares in the municipality of La Matanza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it is buzzing with life. Just describing it as a central market supplying fruit and vegetables to a metropolis of 15 million people would do the place a disservice.
On the market there are large companies and small businesses, streets, avenues, department stores and buildings. There are even areas that have been taken over by the homeless and a rehabilitation center for people with substance abuse problems. In some places people flock between boxes of fruit and the noise is overwhelming, but there are also large empty spaces where everything is quiet.
The general picture of the market – the picture of hundreds of people rummaging through the rubbish in search of something to eat or sell – is a reflection of the country’s social situation.
Nearly 1,000 trucks drive into the central market every day to pick up fresh food sold in the shops of the city and Greater Buenos Aires. According to official data, 106,000 tons of fruits and vegetables are sold every month.
There is also a retail market with all kinds of food, visited by thousands of people from all over the city. They are looking for better prices than their grocery store, with inflation continuing to rise. It is now at no less than 60 percent, which has destroyed the purchasing power of the middle class and the poor.
In Argentina, the poverty rate was over 40 percent even before the pandemic. The general picture of the market – the picture of hundreds of people like Chávez rummaging through the rubbish in search of something to eat or sell – is a reflection of the country’s social situation.
Poverty and waste
But since August 2021, much of that energy has gone to the two-pillar waste reduction and recycling program: to use food suitable for consumption, for social assistance and the rest to produce compost or organic fertilizer to promote the ecology of agriculture.
“There was a social and environmental problem that needed to be solved. Today, we have fewer losses, provide social assistance and create jobs, “he says Marisol TroyQuality and Transparency Manager in the Central Market.
“We realized very quickly that a lot of goods that were thrown out for commercial reasons were still in good condition and could be recovered.”
The 12 giant quays, where fruit and vegetables are sold wholesale, form the heart of the Central Market. A total of 10,000 people work every day.
At 02.00, the activity begins every day on the market with the hectic haul of boxes of local products from all over Argentina and neighboring countries. It is a festival of colors, each quay has 55 stalls.
Tons of less waste
“The idea of looking for food among the waste from the market was born because of the economic crisis and the pandemic,” says Marcelo Pascal, a management consultant. “We realized very quickly that a lot of goods that were thrown out for commercial reasons were still in good condition and could be recovered.”
“There were already small stalls that used vegetables from the waste. Many edible products were recycled, but the process was messy, so we tried to organize it, ”he says.
From August 2021 to June 2022, 1,891 tons of food were recycled for social assistance, and 3,276 tons were used to make compost, according to official figures from Central Market.
“We reduced the amount of waste that the market sent to landfills for final treatment by 48 percent. That is 25 tonnes less per day ‘, says the agronomist Fabian RainoldicHead of Waste reduction program†
Restore edible products properly
Justo Gregorio Ayala operates on an esplanade next to one of the wholesale quays. In front of him stands a box of crushed tomatoes. They are not suitable for retail sale, but many are ripe and edible. His job is to separate the edible tomatoes from the waste.
“I live here in the market, in Hogar de Cristo San Cayetano, and I got this job six months ago,” says Ayala. She lives in the drug addiction rehabilitation center that opened in 2020 in the market itself.
“There have always been many products on the market to recycle, but now we are doing better,” she continues. Ayala is one of the employees employed for the program.
However, he clarifies that the scenario varies depending on the temperature. ‘In the summer, the vegetables and fruit have a much shorter lifespan, and the exhibitors throw out more products. Now in the winter we do not find much.
The workers work in eight of the market’s 12 departments. There are a total of 24 workers, divided into three groups, who separate the goods in the middle of the quay, which the exhibitors must leave behind.
“We deliver food to 700 soup kitchens on a weekly schedule: about 130 a day.”
The recycled goods are loaded on trucks that are driven to a huge warehouse in another part of the market. There they are ready for use in social assistance projects.
“We deliver food to 700 soup kitchens on a weekly schedule: about 130 a day,” says Martin Romero, head of the social services department. Behind him, 22 workers are performing their duties as the first vehicles begin to arrive to pick up their cargo.
“We have also put together eight kilo bags with everything we have available that we deliver to 130 families,” he explains.
What is not suitable for human consumption ends up in the composting area, a piece of land of almost three hectares. The process of decomposing organic matter takes about four months.
»The organic waste is mixed with wood chips from the boxes, which absorb water and reduce the leachate that pollutes the soil. The organic compost is donated to agro-ecological gardens, which use it to fertilize and restore degraded soil, ”explains Rainoldi.
The goal is a central market that uses everything and does not send waste to the landfill. It’s a long road that has just begun.