BUENOS AIRES — A cooperative in the Buenos Aires area is showing household trash in a whole new light. The Creando Conciencia ("Creating Awareness") cooperative has a two-fold purpose: to recycle waste and to provide work for the jobless in and around Benavídez, north of Buenos Aires. In the process, it has become a stunning source of designer furniture.

Its new collection of street furniture, made entirely of recycled "plastic lumber," will be displayed starting April 7 in the capital's Design Museum. The cooperative's 40 or so partners are people who at some point lost their jobs — and in some cases became homeless — after 2001, when Argentina's economy entered a turbulent period. Many turned to collecting and recycling household waste and are now qualified recyclers with certificates from the University of Buenos Aires.

"Our main customers are from Nordelta," a coastal sector of Benavídes, says Edgardo Jalil, a former metalworker and cooperative partner. "We go around three times a week, collecting everything that can be recycled — plastic, cardboard, paper, glass. We recover 22 tons of glass a month and 18 to19 tons of plastics."

But the partners also spread the word about recycling, telling neighbors that a plastic bottle that ends up at a trash site can take 800 years to decompose, whereas "if they put it out for recycling, it will come back as a recyclable container within a fortnight," Jalil says.

Creando Conciencia workers — Photo: Facebook page

The furniture represents a new revenue stream for the cooperative, Jalil says, and has even inspired some cooperative partners to retrain as carpenters or welders. "It means better working conditions for us," he says. Two industrial designers, Pablo Bianchi and Facundo Spataro, helped get the project off the ground. Bianchi's work has focused on relating design, culture and sustainability, particularly in low-income housing projects in which he has been involved.

Spataro, a founder of the Zum Disegno studio, has been working with Creating Awareness for a number of years. He says he has designed a glass grinding machine that has replaced a task "the recyclers used to do with a hammer, which was quite dangerous." He helped the group develop new products such as bins, and most recently a new line of park benches and tables. All the items, he says, are "for the street or for outdoors, and can be screwed to the ground."

Jalil can't hide his delight with the projects. "You know, a lot of us in the cooperative are people who lost our jobs in 2001, and had to go out and look for a way to earn a living," he says. "While gathering recyclable material is a respectable option, we wanted to do this in a stable place, with bathrooms and a minimum level of facilities. More than half our members are women, every day giving it their all to go forward in life. We do our work with a lot of care and respect. That's why neighborhoods like Nordelta took note of us."