Some people call them scavengers, trolley pushers and waste pickers, but others prefer to call them informal recyclers. Personally, I prefer to call them the latter. That is because they fulfil a very important role in the environment. Spare a thought for and be kind to them, because without them, our landfill sites would have probably reached saturation point by now.
Most of our cities are facing a major crisis with regards to the availability of landfill sites. The few that are still in operation do not have a long lifespan left. It is matter of a few years before they are filled to capacity. Most of us do not realise how dire the situation really is. Let me paint a picture for you.
The other day I was driving down Baden Powell Drive from Mitchells Plain side, heading towards Muizenberg. Along the road, to the right-hand side, is a landfill site. The seagulls constantly circling the area is testament to the fact that it is a very active landfill site. But you don’t need the scavenging seagulls to be reminded of that. At around midday, on any given bin-day in the Muizenberg and Strandfontein area, dozens of trucks line up the approximately 500-metre stretch of road that leads off Baden Powell to the entrance of the landfill site. Some of them queue right onto Baden Powell Drive, patiently waiting their turn to dump what is probably mostly recyclable material into the already overburdened landfill.
This cannot be allowed to continue, because we will soon be drowning in our own waste. It needs to be tackled right now, with the same kind of enthusiasm that saw us avoiding Day Zero with our water saving efforts. The way the water crisis was handled, seemed to have been a bit of a knee jerk reaction. Clearly the drought or the severity of it was unexpected and caught authorities off-guard, or did it?
Nevertheless, it is in our power to avoid a potential Day Zero for our landfill sites. There are informal recyclers that have been doing that for decades now. Very early in the morning, they are out in the streets, carefully sifting through what most of us consider as rubbish and throw out. For these informal recyclers, every plastic bottle, every tin can, paper or cardboard, could be the difference between going to bed hungry, or having had something to eat. And what they earn is a shame. According to an article in Business Day online, their earnings range “between R1,430 and R2,400 a month”.
A couple of years ago, while I was working for 50|50, the SABC environmental program, we did a story on the trolley brigade. We followed one informal recycler from very early in the morning and throughout the day while he was collecting plastic bottles for recycling. After a long and hard day’s work, with a large load of plastic bottles on his trolley, he earned enough to buy himself a garage pie and a soft drink. And that cycle would repeat itself day after day after day. Early morning, no matter what the weather’s like, they are on the roads with their trolleys, sifting through rubbish, finding recyclables, plastic bottles, dodging speeding cars and ignoring the blaring of hooters from irritated motorists. All of that, for a pie and a Coke.
Most of them are probably not even aware that they are doing much more than just filling their hungry bellies. Each and every one of them is an eco-warrior, an environmental champion that is helping to redirect waste from landfill sites and in so doing, saving our planet one plastic bottle at a time. In an online article, Business Day says that “According to Packaging SA, the country collects recyclables at a rate of 57%, among the highest in the world. SA’s recycling rates surpass those in Brazil and India and fall just behind Europe and the US”. Some of that percentage is thanks to informal recyclers who have created a micro-economy that connects them to recycling buy-back centres and large-scale recycling plants.
The sad reality is that their efforts have never really been formally recognised, until now. The City of Johannesburg recently announced that it will include waste pickers in its recycling initiatives. The organisation Ground Up reported on their website, www.groundup.org.za, that “at a press briefing on 27 June, Nico De Jager, the Mayoral Committee Member responsible for environment, said that the City of Johannesburg is looking into providing registered waste pickers with gloves, trolleys and inoculations to ensure they are included in the City’s recycling initiatives. De Jager urged waste pickers to organise as a collective and register with Pikitup. Pikitup is the official integrated waste management service provider to the City of Jo’burg. He (De Jager) made it clear however that the city is not forcing them to register but it would make it easier to monitor and regulate if there are groups rather than individuals.
I am sincerely hoping that this comes to fruition and that it is not only lip service. It is most definitely a step in the right direction to finally, formally recognise informal recyclers as an important and integral part of any city’s waste management plan. As for us as individuals, we owe these informal recyclers respect and gratitude for the incredible hard and thankless work they do to save the environment. Let us celebrate them for what they truly are, eco-warriors.