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Will recyclers lose their income with the new rubbish law?

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Huddling together in the dark, a group of men sit on a traffic island waiting for the dawn. With hoods drawn closely to their faces against the winter cold, they sit surrounded by refuse and try to keep warm.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 19, 2018

To them, this is a night like any other, and is simply part of their job. When morning comes, they will walk from house to house to earn their income, but they are not begging. They are looking for plastic bottles.

These are men who rely on their collection of recyclable waste to make a living, and their lives have recently been made even more difficult.

“If we don’t sleep here, we won’t find anything in the morning and will have no money to take home,” says Sylvester Khumalo. When 20 two-litre bottles are worth less than R5, every single item counts.

Affiliated with local recycling initiative Hugo’s Greenhood, Khumalo is one of a group of men who walk the streets of Glenhazel almost daily, collecting material they can recycle. These men have a routine – they know when residents put their bins out and when they should start collecting. But unless a recently instituted by-law is practised sensitively, they could lose their only source of income.

At the beginning of this month, going green went from being a lifestyle choice to a legal requirement for the residents of Johannesburg. Plans were announced in June by councillor Nico de Jager, City of Joburg member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for environmental and infrastructure services, to make efficient waste disposal a compulsory part of city living.

Put into effect by a programme called Separation at Source, the laws mandates households to set aside glass, paper, metal and plastic. Officials have said that every single residence – be it house, complex, suburban estate or township – will be made to recycle. Comprehensive routes for collection have been established, bags for recycling will be distributed, and no home will be ignored by the refuse collection team.

Of the 800 000 households in the city, 300 000 will receive designated plastic bags to start mandatory recycling. According to the city’s waste management entity Pikitup, residents’ need to change their perspectives to make it work.

According to news site TheSouthAfrican.com, De Jager explained that residents who do not comply will soon face penalties. He said: “It’s going to be a project that we phase in, but over the next six months, we will be looking to give out penalties to residents who aren’t compliant.”

Concerning the impact this will have on informal recyclers, both Pikitup and De Jager maintain that the new recycling policy will strive to include those who rely on recycling as a source of income.

Pikitup’s managing director, Lungile Dhlamini, has given his assurance that there will be no negative impact on recyclers with this programme, responding to fears that they would be left without waste to reclaim. However, it was stressed that the estimated 6 000 recyclers must organise themselves into groups so that they can better engage with them.

This is not enough, say the recyclers. They say that if Pikitup carries out collection in certain areas on particular days, they (the recyclers) may miss out on their opportunity to gather any recyclable material. “There are particular days when we go to some homes,” says Khumalo. “If Pikitup is going there before us, people put their rubbish out early, it gets collected a day before we come, and we get nothing.

“We now need to sleep close to some homes so that we can get there in the morning before Pikitup does. If we don’t do this, we won’t have any money for food or anything for our families. We need them to know when we collect and to consider us.”

According to one of his colleagues, the meetings proposed by Pikitup are not worth attending. “I don’t know of anyone that goes to the meetings they offer,” says Mlungisi Mabaso. “I do my collection, take my things to recycle and earn my money.”

He and others stressed that recyclers can often be fiercely territorial and even aggressive, making the need for them to service a particular area on their terms vital. “We don’t go to the dumps. Ever.” Says Mabasa. “If you go there, the collectors there will kill you. That is their place.”

According to Sharon Ruben of Hugo’s Greenhood, turf wars are just one among many issues facing the recyclers. Meeting with these men on Tuesday evening on a local traffic island, Ruben discussed the grim reality that they face and stressed just how dependent they are on their work.

“This island is their motel for the night, open and freezing,” she says. “We are living in 2018 and people are forced to spend the night like this so that they can earn a living honestly. They wait here for morning so that they can collect refuse in time. Recycling is a billion-dollar industry and these men are playing their part, but they’re not seeing any profit from the city.”

Lisa Lowenthal, the founder of environmental and social upliftment group SkeemSaam, agrees. “Recycling efforts like theirs save Johannesburg over R700 million a year. They are helping us. Pikitup wants compliance and it just makes them richer. We need to show these collectors some sensitivity and work according to a schedule that gives them consideration.

“If we operate according to the schedules dictated by big companies, these people will miss out. This new law can help them only if people are sensitive to their needs and their schedules.”

In this vein, Ruben and the collectors of Hugo’s Greenhood outlined two simple requests to consumers: Separate recyclables and be mindful of their schedules. “It’s good that people will now have to separate their recyclables,” says Ruben. “It makes a huge difference to these men, who won’t have to rummage through waste to find something they can recycle. It really doesn’t take much to separate your rubbish.”

As for mindfulness, the men expressed their gratitude to residents of Glenhazel, roughly 60% of whom they say are recycling. Still, they stressed how important it is for people to put these recyclables out in time for them to collect, before the rubbish is collected by waste disposal services.

Their collections are carried out in Killarney, Rosebank and Houghton on Mondays; Houghton, Waverley, Norwood and Orange Grove on Tuesdays; Glenhazel on Wednesdays; Sandringham and Glenhazel on Thursdays; and Bruma, Cyrildene and Observatory on Fridays.

“If residents, Pikitup and us collectors have the same schedules, it would be perfect,” says Khumalo. “People put out their recyclables, we collect and then Pikitup comes afterwards. That works for everyone.”

Ruben added: “These are men just trying to put food on their tables. We need to do more, and the separation of our rubbish and bearing them in mind when we take it out is really not asking much.”

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