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“There’s a sense of freedom of just letting your trolley go at 90 kilometres an hour with no brakes. When it’s 5 o’clock in the morning, the cars haven’t come out yet, there’s no smell of diesel, you can smell the fresh air, and everyone is sleeping...”
"It’s a time when no one is stigmatizing you. That freedom overlooks the unpleasant parts of the job.” Luyanda Hlatshwayo has a smile on his face as he places his hand on the handle of his trusty trolley. “And also, no one is going to mug me, because I’m a reclaimer!”
Luyanda pushes his trolley among the towering bags at Bekezela settlement – a site in Newtown, Joburg which doubles as both a sorting site for reclaimers (also known as “waste pickers”) and a home for hundreds of families. Bekezela is a place where children play soccer and women wash clothes next to where reclaimers sort their haul, and today Luyanda is taking me on a tour through a day in his life as a reclaimer.
Luyanda is a member of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) in Johannesburg and has been a reclaimer since 2012. He is one of over 90 000 reclaimers who make up the informal waste sector in South Africa. You’ve probably seen them too, cruising down suburban streets on their rickety, homemade trolleys or pulling massive bags up steep hills in the pouring rain. In essence, reclaimers sort through trash and pick out all the valuable materials (like plastics or tins) and sell them for recycling purposes to make a living. The collected material is hauled from all over the city to a sorting site where materials are separated and subsequently sold.
More than ever, reclaimers are filling an essential gap in waste management in South Africa. In a country where in some parts waste management services are often non-existent and with few recycling mandates, reclaimers play a vital role in the recycling economy. In fact, they are responsible for over 51% of all recycling that happens in South Africa. Over 2.4 million tonnes of plastic are produced in South Africa each year but only 14% of it gets recycled back into actual products; with those numbers, the efforts of reclaimers are sorely needed.
But what is the life of a reclaimer like? I was burning to know. It takes energy and determination - and lots of it, as Luyanda tells me: “At 3am, most reclaimers are busy setting up their trolleys. At 3.30am, the first group is moving out. At 4am, if you’re still in bed, it’s too late and you can’t go to work.” Reclaimers are in a race to beat the municipal garbage collectors before they get to emptying people’s bins and taking the waste to landfills where they will no longer be able to access the materials. Waking up early is an essential part of the job and for Luyanda, it’s the hardest. “It’s tough when it’s so early and cold in the morning but the first two weeks on the job are the most difficult time. If you survive those two weeks, you’ll be able to do this work.”
ARO is working to empower reclaimers through official recognition, paid work contracts and higher recycling rates for the free services they provide to municipalities. For their valuable work, WWF awarded them the Living Planet Award in 2021. The organisation is filled with people from all walks of life, from former teachers to ex-offenders, and includes both locals and foreign nationals. What unites them all is the desire to earn their keep by doing an “honest day’s work”.
“We don’t want people to give us money so that we stop doing this work. We want to work. We see value in this work. Rather, give us trucks so we can do even more work,” says Luyanda of how reclaimers can be supported.
I ask Luyanda what it takes to be a successful reclaimer. For one, it’s a weight game. The heavier the recyclable, the better. Buy-back centres (the places where reclaimers sell their materials) pay out by the kilogram. For example, 1kg of PET plastic (short for polyethylene terephthalate – a type of plastic commonly used to make soft drink bottles) is roughly equivalent to 28-32 two-litre bottles, and for that 1kg, you’ll get about R7.20 [as at May 2022].
The buy-back price on plastic will fluctuate in response to factors such as the value of oil, which determines the value of recycled plastics at any given time. The next important factor to consider is material. By far the most sought-after, valuable material is aluminium, typically used in soft drink cans. One kilo of these cans can fetch R20 at the buy-back [May, 2022]. “When you’re pulling that full weight and it feels like 200kgs, you feel like ‘ok - now I can go home’,” explains Luyanda.
“How hard is it to lug hundreds of kilograms over long distances?”, I ask. But Luyanda is quick to answer, “pulling from Roodepoort to Newtown [around 17km] is not painful because you know you’re pulling money. The heavier the bag, the better. There’s a reverse psychology thing that guys have: an empty bag is ‘heavier’ than a full bag. A full bag says: I’ve worked hard.” And all this hard work has led to hundreds of families and dependents of reclaimers being able to afford a living.
The Bekezela settlement is a standout example of what is possible when we embrace the circular plastics economy instead of our current linear model. In a linear economy, raw materials are made into products that consumers use and then discard as waste. The products leave the economy and have dire impacts on the economy, people & nature. In the circular economy products and materials are reused, repaired, remanufactured, refurbished and recycled, thereby reducing what ends up in our bins as waste.
Bekezela is a fully functioning community complete with two vegetable gardens, several spaza shops and even a crèche for young children. Fittingly, many of the materials used in these projects such as the toys in the crèche or the containers in the veggie garden were reclaimed from people’s refuse.
The concept of circularity also shows how it can transform lives. Pointing to the children playing nearby, Luyanda says, “all those kids now know how to write their ABCs when last year December they had no dreams. There’s no power, no TV… they can’t watch cartoons. This has completely changed things. Now children know how to write their names. One day, who knows, maybe we can build universities. Why not?”
Nearing the end of our tour, I ask Luyanda how we as residents and consumers can support reclaimers and the work they do? “Just talk to us. Talk to your reclaimers and ask them what they need. Work with them,” he says. Sorting your recyclables before trash day saves reclaimers the hassle and unpleasantness of having to go through garbage, freeing up more time to collect more, preventing more plastics from ending up in landfill as waste.
As Luyanda escorts me out of Bekezela, my eyes catch a graffiti sentence sprayed above an image of a dehorned rhino on a nearby wall: “NEVER GIVE UP” it reads. Waves of awe, sorrow and admiration flood over me. The reclaimers have shown me how treasure can be found in what we all have discarded as waste. They’ve shown me the value of their work for the recycling economy and for keeping plastic out of nature. But more than anything, they’ve shown me the strength of the human spirit, alive with hope and determination. With all the hardship they endure, reclaimers have learnt to just keep pulling that trolley; never daring to give up.
Learn more about the circular plastics economy