For they are trolley good fellows
Joburg's iconic wastepickers are under threat from new recycling laws. Times Select goes into their world
Getting down and dirty takes on a whole new meaning for the wastepickers crisscrossing Johannesburg with their sometimes rickety trolleys.
But now they are worried.
Talk around the trashcans is that their livelihood – digging through other people’s rubbish to find recyclable goods – is under threat. And they don’t like it one bit.
The City of Johannesburg has announced that, from July 1, Johannesburg residents will be required to separate waste before it can be collected by Pikitup in a bid to “reduce pollution and protect the environment from further damage caused by poor waste management”.As for complexes and townhouses – together with restaurants and shops a goldmine for wastepickers – the body corporates of the respective complexes will be responsible for making sure tenants are recycling.Environmental affairs and infrastructure MEC Nico de Jager has said that if residents do not change their recycling habits‚ there will be no more space for landfill sites in the city by 2023.
Pikitup spokesperson Muzi Mkhwanazi added that the decision was prompted by the city’s largest refuse dump, the Robinson Deep landfill in Turffontein, which is almost at full capacity.
In areas where there is huge quantity of garden waste, Pickitup would provide plastic bags for recyclable materials.
“These areas include Midrand, Diepsloot, Kyalami and Sunninghill.”
But wading through heaps of rubbish in search of recyclable materials has become a source of income for many destitute people across the country.
Among those who wade through the powerful pong of rotten food, the noise of rubbish trucks and the dust of the landfills is Cassius Green, a 55-year-old father of four. He has felt the effect already as people start recycling and selling to private companies.“On an average day we used to make around R400; lately we make half of that, and even R130,” he said.
The Orlando East resident, who has been working as an informal wastepicker since 1994, says the city’s decision to make recycling compulsory is a huge threat to their future.
Green, a representative for more than 90 wastepickers, says they have seen a major decrease in the money they make from collecting boxes, cans, plastic and bottles.Noni Nofemele, 53, is a mother of two who collects recyclable waste in Turffontein. Born at Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, she came to Joburg to look for work, with no luck. Her battle is not only one of survival, but also fighting against the prejudices of her male counterparts.
“Why don’t you go back home, magogo?” they taunt.Nofemele adds that she is liked and accepted by residents, but not by her colleagues. “They insult me and sometimes they want to beat me up because they say it’s their territory.”She prefers to collect two-litre plastic bottles because they are easily available and pay better. “On an average day I make about R40, depending on how full my trolley is. It’s enough for me to survive.”
Although Nofeme is able to make a living, walking long distances to the nearest scrapyard with a loaded trolley is sometimes difficult as she grows older.
Change is inevitable
Gifton Diale, operations supervisor at the 88-year-old Robinson landfill, commended the city’s decision.
“It will make a huge difference. If they don’t do something, 50 years from now we won’t have a dumping site” he said.
He made reference to other landfills that have closed down.
However, Pikitup’s Mkhwanazi slammed claims that the wastepickers’ income is under threat, saying the change is “in the best interest of everyone”.He said the city hads plans to register all wastepickers on a database so their movements and locations can easily be tracked.
“Pikitup is aware of the long distances that some wastepickers are subjected to. In the long run, we are also planning to have mobile buy-back centres which will assist wastepickers in isolated areas.”Wastepicker Joe Lesufi, 62, who says he has been doing this job for more than 20 years, argues that it is a competitive industry, but soldiers on regardless.
Being treated as a thug, fighting over territories and being chased away from the bins top the list of challenges they face on a daily basis. Oh, and their informal network will put many an entrepreneur to shame.“There are better days because I get phone calls from contacts that tell me to come to this and that place where a function or wedding is being held. Then I must make sure I get there fast, before the word spreads.”
Some areas are “more profitable than others”, which is why they know the Pikitup collection route and timetable by heart. The suburbs and areas with a high concentration of restaurants and shops are like striking gold, they joke.
But in the end, the City of Gold has given them riches in an unexpected form, the group at the landfill quips.
“If you want to make money, you must be prepared to get your hands dirty.”