The small cardboard publishing house

Posted on 23 July 2016.

From the trash can to the library: in Buenos Aires, the Eloísa Cartonera publishing house recycles cardboard waste to make book covers. A simultaneously ecological, social and cultural project.

In Argentina, the economic and social crisis of 2001 led to the new activity of “cardboard picking” which consists of collecting recyclable waste from the city streets. Thousands of cartoneros have taken to the streets of Buenos Aires. Men and women scour the capital at night dragging heavy carts and going through the trash cans in search of the paper, cardboard, plastic and glass they can resell to recycling plants for a few pesos. In one night, a cartonero can collect between 100 and 200 kg of waste! This informal business has allowed many families to survive during the crisis.

Among the many cooperatives that have flourished during this period, the one set up by Javier Barilaro and writer Washington Cucurto stands out. Both chose to give value to cardboard - and to the work of those who collect it - transforming this symbol of the crisis into a great ecological, social and cultural project. In 2003, the two men decided to start a publishing house - named Eloísa Cartonera - in the working neighborhood of La Boca, near the center of Buenos Aires. The idea was to get the best pieces collected by cartoneros, to buy them at twice the price paid by the factories, and to make book covers with them.

Once selected, the cardboard is cut, painted, folded and glued by hand around books printed on an old Multilith 1250. The process produces unique book-objects, with a dozen copies made at a time, and sold for around two dollars in kiosks, markets and in some bookstores. In just a few years, Eloísa Cartonera has become an institution in Buenos Aires and the small premises of the publishing house soon turned into a place where Boca’s residents can meet up.

The Eloísa Cartonera catalogue now has more than 100 titles. Stories, poems, novels written by the great names in Latin American literature who graciously ceded their rights to the cooperative, allowing it to make books "that can be found nowhere else" available to everyone. Its success has many imitators - both in Latin America and elsewhere. The concept has been exported to Mozambique, Spain, Germany and France.