Written by Tasmi Quazi, Photographs by Tasmi Quazi, Andile Ndlovu & Ntombizandile Krakra
What was an ordinary start of the month for most, was a jubilant one for a group of inner-city recyclers of Durban, South Africa. To honour Global Waste Pickers’ Day (also called Global Recyclers’ Day) on the 1st of March, the Pine Street precinct recyclers, mostly women working in the cardboard recycling sector, challenged the previous record of fellow recyclers of the Palmer Street precinct – of the most number of cardboard sold in one day. Recyclers from both precincts excitedly congregated on 1st March 2013 at the Pine Street Cardboard collection point for the show-down!
The result? The Pine Street Recyclers, 15 or so, collected just over 1 tonne for the day, whereas 6 Palmer Street Recyclers sold 1.5 tonnes of cardboard for last year’s Global Recyclers’ Day. Out of the 1.5 tonnes however, Palmer Street Recycler Leader, Afrika Ntuli, single-handedly sold a week’s worth of recyclables worth 1 tonne. So after peals of laughter and debate, the winners were decidedly – recyclers worldwide!
On being asked what their message to the world was on this day, two clear points emerged. The first being that they are proud to be recyclers, particularly as women. Recycler Leader of Pine Street, Makhoba said: “We are happy to be recyclers, it is our work and the fact that we do it in broad daylight, come rain or shine shows that we are not ashamed of it!”
This followed a chorus of support for women informal recyclers as many reported that although access to recyclables can be precarious at times, and younger itinerant men have been found to steal women’s recyclables, generally, there is understanding between women and men recyclers in the cardboard recycling sector. On this, Palmer Street recycler leaders, Afrika Ntuli and Maria Vilakazi, added:
“…the women should forge ahead, be supported by the community, and be proud of the work they are doing because they are supporting their families through this work. Phambili Makhosikazi, Phambili oMama (isiZulu for forge ahead women, forge ahead mothers!) ”
The second message was a plea to formal businesses and government for support for their work. This was after talking about the challenges of being harassed, charged excessive rentals on sites where they sort their recyclables, and made to pay illicit bribes to some formal business representatives such as managers, security officials or till operators in order to access their waste recyclables.
The recyclers emotively expressed:
“Do not harass and intimidate us, allow us access to recyclables. Formal businesses and the municipality should appreciate recyclers’ contributions because there is less litter on the streets, and less litter is going to the dumping site. This is not only saving the City money but it is increasing the life spans of the dumping sites!” MaMthembu, Recycling Leader of Pine Street
“Shops (formal businesses) shouldn’t charge us or ask for bribes because we end up emptying their bins and cleaning up their refuse areas for free! I earn an average of R1000 per month, but have recently been given notice that the business people want to increase the rental to R400 per month for their space that I use to sort my cardboard. That leaves me with so little money at the end of the month…” Zibuyile, Pine Street Recycler
What has become pervasive is that women recyclers are a particularly vulnerable group of workers, and people exploit the opportunity to coerce services from them. This includes using the recyclers to provide manual labour to clean refuse areas, and/or charging excessive rentals and bribes of them.
Consequently what the recyclers request from businesses is for access to waste recyclables and for their work to be dignified so that they are not exploited. From government, they request support for improved working conditions, such as reasonable access to public spaces for sorting of recyclables in order to reduce harassment.
Despite the somberness of the reported challenges, the recyclers lauded the important role that Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) and its partner, the Bright Site Project, has been playing in dealing with the above challenges through the City’s Imagine Durban Inner-City Cardboard Recycling Project which was implemented between 2010 till 2012. Ultimately, their concern much like AeT’s, is that if local government does not continue to recognise and support informal recyclers, it entrenches their vulnerability.