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Scavenging in trash: A story of survival, dignity and hope

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Scavenging in trash: A story of survival, dignity and hope

With his black spectacles and a goatee, Sydney Nondeyi (pictured, above) has a somewhat scholarly air about him – that of the distinguished and articulate lawyer he once aspired to be. But Nondeyi does not work in a law firm or court – he is a waste picker. Cindy Govender explains.

Part of an informal industry that provides livelihoods to some 60,000 to 90,000 people in South Africa, Sydney Nondeyi spends his days scavenging for recyclable items in domestic trash collection bins along suburban streets, largely invisible to the rest of society.

Like many pickers, Nondeyi was driven to the streets out of necessity. In 2006, he found himself unemployed when the store where he worked as a retail merchandiser was sold and he was laid off. New jobs were as scarce then as they are now. With a family to support, Nondeyi decided to become a picker. “Instead of going to crime,” he says. Ten years later, this work still sustains him and his family. 

In a modest way, his work also helps sustain the South African economy. The contribution of waste pickers to the local recycling and waste industry is significant – according to a 2013 BMI Research report, the informal sector is responsible for recovering most recyclable paper and packaging waste collected – paper (mostly informal), glass (80%), PET (polyethylene terephthalate) (90%), plastics (68%) and metals (30-40%) – and an estimated 51% of new paper and packaging placed in the market in 2013 was recycled, according to Packaging SA. The country’s waste pickers also save local municipalities millions of rands each year by diverting consumer waste from landfill sites to recycling plants and providing a valuable, low-cost solution to recyclable material recovery.

The relationship between the informal economy and the formal economy is symbiotic. “If we did not have them, we are unlikely to recover the amounts of recyclable waste that we do,” says Professor Linda Godfrey, principal scientist for waste for development at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). “They contribute to the waste industry but do so largely invisibly. They are not recognised as a formal player.” 

The informal recycling industry offers a livelihood to people who subsist on the wrong side of the divide between the haves and have-nots, in a country that continues to have one of the highest income inequalities in the world. Nondeyi’s community, like others, faces the reality of the high unemployment rate in South Africa – 26.7%, according to Stats SA’s latest release – and many have also turned to waste picking to get by.

At 7.00am every morning, six days a week, Nondeyi says goodbye to his wife and three young children (three, nine and 12 years old) in Tembisa and heads off to work in a mini-bus taxi. His destination is the affluent Sandton suburb, where he will trawl through the domestic refuse collection bins that line the kerbs on municipal waste collection days, in search of valuable recyclable materials. Some 4-5 hours and 10-15km later, Nondeyi hauls his trolley of pickings into a buy-back centre, operated by a recycling trader. Once he sorts his pickings into the distinct categories of saleable recyclables, they are weighed, aggregated with other pickings, baled and trucked off to the end purchasers.

On a good day, his pickings translate into around ZAR200 ($14).

It is enough for the breadwinner to support his family and two adult children from a previous marriage, leaving him with a small surplus that he saves. The benefits of picking for Nondeyi are straightforward: It puts food on the table. The work is simple and he can work at his own pace. “I am my own boss,” he says. 

But for all its flexibility, waste picking is not without difficulty or danger. Many ordinary South Africans do not see the pickers at all; others see them as an irritation. Nondeyi is wistful as he laments how people in the suburbs are sometimes disrespectful to him and how dogs scare him away from valuable bins. He and the other pickers also have to be super vigilant for dangerous chemicals and the irate and impatient drivers they often encounter as they haul their trolleys on the roads. Lugging heavy trolleys across the hilly terrain of the city for half the day is physically strenuous and competition for the bins is fierce. It is first come, first served. “Sometimes it’s difficult to beat the next guy because…” he pauses, “we are all scavengers… it’s only about luck…”

Although life in the last few years has generally improved for Nondeyi – he can now afford to send his children to school and crèche and support them – he is not optimistic about the country.

His concerns are no different to that of the average South African – many in government, including the president, looking after their own self-interest, without concern for the people in lower socio-economic circles, the devaluing rand and the faltering economy. “I’m only worried that our kids are going to suffer,” he says.

Nondeyi’s view of black economic empowerment is sobering and yet surprisingly, not imbued with bitterness. While opportunities have been created for black people, he believes that many of these have been squandered by the instant gratification and flashy consumer culture, commonly prevalent in this nouveau riche class.

His profession also still does not have the benefit of protections and preservation of basic rights from the government. The recycling industry and government have been grappling for years with how to properly integrate the waste pickers into the formal economy. The dynamics are delicate and complex.

Challenges include the lack of social readiness and skills of the pickers to be able to transition smoothly into the formal sector, and both municipalities and the waste and recycling industries being nervous to take on some of the associated risks that often come with this community, such as drug abuse. As Godfrey points out, the waste pickers are also not a homogenous group themselves – while most wish to be formally integrated and regulated, some do not, preferring independence and flexibility. The community also has a high level of illegal immigrants from other African countries. 

The quietly dignified Nondeyi does not want to pick waste forever. He aspires to be successful and is saving to buy a machine for a candle making business that he aims to set up.

A consummate family man, his hope is that his children do not take drugs; that they are educated and even go to tertiary institutions that he never attended. “I’m not rich. But what I can just give them is education.”

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