María Dolores Valdéz, 35, and Nilda María Achucaro, 51, have been collecting and selling recyclable materials in northeastern Asunción’s Santa Ana neighborhood for eight years. It’s good work, says María, who does it with her husband, sister, and niece (who also works as a maid). They go out in the evenings with their horse and cart, and once a week a buyer comes to take their haul.
But for collecting around 400 pounds of plastic, aluminum and plastic bags per week, María and her crew only make between 200,000 or 250,000 guaraníes (about $50 to $60). Shared between the four of them, this puts each person below Fundación Paraguaya’s 2012 extreme poverty threshold of $78 per month. Nilda, who works the waterfront on foot since her cargo motortrike broke down, earns even less.
When they joined Fundación Paraguaya’s clientele as leaders of the women’s committee Mujeres Valientes (Courageous Women) a few years ago, María and Nilda started up a line of business and a new source of income: making and selling jewelry and embellished flip-flops.
With a little start-up capital from Fundación Paraguaya, María and others were able to complete a month-long jewelry-making course and purchase supplies for their new business. Today, María, Nilda’s daughter Joanna, and a small army of adolescent relatives and neighbors, make the jewelry, and they all go to street fair at the edge of their neighborhood to sell it each weekend. Almost every item of jewelry goes for 5,000 guaraníes (about $1.25), and with so many hands, they can create a lot. They say it sells out fast, and they also make jewelry and flip-flops to order.
On my last day in Paraguay, I visited María and Nilda one last time for an international craft day—and to share some ideas for, shall we say, synergy between their two businesses. The word of the day was ‘upcycling’.
María showed me how to make a flower from plastic petals, a circular base of perforated plastic, and stretchy thread, all bought from the suppliers in central Asunción’s Mercado 4. My hands seemed too clumsy, but she says it takes practice.
Or it could have been that I was too busy thinking how to cut, form, and paint pieces of bottle plastic to make a wider variety of petals. When I gave up on the flower (María had made two in the meantime), we tried it, and everyone was pleased with the result. In exchange, I showed everyone how to make paper beads (by rolling a glue-coated triangle of magazine paper around a toothpick) and gave away earrings I had made by cutting and painting the designs found on plastic water bottles. We also talked about ways to re-work all the glass bottles out there. I didn’t even try the complicated task of beading a crocodile-shaped key chain, and my companions were a bit bemused by my specialty of making jewelry from worn-out bike parts.
In the end, I walked away having bought souvenirs aplenty and been given supplies to practice my flowers. María was eager to try it with homemade petals, and to incorporate the other techniques into her repertoire, expanding her offerings and lowering her costs at the same time. Still, she would be going back to Mercado 4 for some things (we didn’t make jump rings or earwires, for instance), not least because it’s fun and exciting, and browsing the huge bead stores makes her happy.