To motorists, these people are a nuisance and an irritation. No, I don’t mean unroadworthy taxis or street hawkers of pirated goods; I’m talking about the waste picker and his trolley. We cannot drive a day without seeing the ubiquitous waste picker on the streets. It is inevitable that at some point during the day, you’ll have to try to manoeuvre your car around the waste picker’s bulky, heavily-laden trolley. Sometimes these wobbly, overburdened trolleys take up half a lane, forcing you to switch lanes on narrow suburban roads. Yes, they’re not just considered a pain in the neck, but also a danger and obstruction.
I’ve always wondered who these men are, where they come from, and what they are doing. I obviously knew that they were recycling reusable goods found in our rubbish bins, but I didn’t know much else about these people who are so often at the receiving end of abuse from motorists.
being a waste picker was an opportunity for him to be his own boss and determine his own salary.
Simon explained that there two kinds of waste pickers; the ones that you and I see pulling their trolleys on the streets, and the ones that work in landfills. The waste pickers who work in the landfills are predominantly women, because they cannot compete with the men who can pull heavy trolleys over long distances. For the women, it is easier to be based in the landfill, and sort the rubbish from the reusables on site.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a landfill, but it was my first time.
We arrived on the landfill around 7am on a very cold morning, but the waste pickers were already quite busy. Street waste pickers are up and about as early as 3am to rummage through our bins. Some need to walk several kilometres to the suburbs where they collect and sort the waste, and once they’ve filled their trolleys, another several kilometres further to the recycling depot to sell their recyclables. If they get started early, they’ll have enough time to go back out and collect another load. Every plastic bottle, cold drink can and cardboard box adds a few more cents to their earnings, so every bit helps.
What is not well known is that the waste pickers are not just earning a small salary from their individual efforts, but they play a major role in preserving our environment and saving taxpayers millions of rands. South Africa is fast running out of landfill space. But with the help of waste pickers who reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills, the lifetime of the landfill is extended by several years. Waste pickers also decrease the extent to which municipalities have to collect and sort waste, saving the municipalities up to an astounding R750 million per year!
When I asked the waste pickers what message they wanted to share with motorists, they pleaded for us to understand that they too are earning a living just like us, that they too wish that they had allocated space on our roads to push their trolleys. They may be an inconvenience to motorists, but their lives are in danger when pulling trolleys on busy roads. I guess, like everybody else, they just want a little more understanding and a lot more tolerance.
So next time you see these hardworking, resourceful men pulling their shaky trolleys up a hill, take a moment to appreciate that those men are not only helping make our country a better place, they’re willing to do the one thing many of us won’t…