On a recent cold morning in Johannesburg, South Africa, Luyanda Hlatshwayo dug deeply into a trash can.
He pulled out items like empty drink containers and old cooking instruments. Then, he found what he was looking for: used white paper.
Hlatshwayo, who is 35 years old, has spent nine years searching through Johannesburg’s trash cans and is a master of turning trash into treasure. He is one of the city’s 9,000 so-called “reclaimers.” They are a loosely organized group of workers who collect and sell reusable materials, or recyclables.
At first, his job may look simple. His tools are his hands and a homemade plastic container on wheels. But, he must keep track of which areas of the city put out trash on which days. He also must note which roads to avoid in the early morning darkness; there is always the risk of getting hit by a car. And he keeps a mental record of what a recyclable item can sell for in the ever-changing market.
Hlatshwayo was studying banking at a local university. But he ran out of money and had to leave school.
Hlatshwayo's job is important. Experts estimate that reclaimers collect and recycle up to 90 percent of South Africa’s post-consumer packaging and paper. In doing so, they save local governments up to 750 million rand, or nearly $53 million, in waste storage space every year.
Industry studies show that, as a result, South Africa has a recycling rate of just under 60 percent. That means it is recycling at the same rate as some European nations.
Hlatshwayo spoke with VOA this month as he made his rounds. “An average reclaimer could collect about 200 kilograms of waste a day,” he said. “You multiply that by 9,000 reclaimers, takes it to about 2 million tons or something. That's in a day. That's redirecting a lot of material out of the landfills.”
Melanie Samson is a researcher in human geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She has spent many years studying this complex, loosely organized system. Similar systems exist in many developing nations, she says. And its popularity is spreading.
Samson says reclaimers exist in almost every modern city worldwide. They are mainly in places where there is major inequality in people’s earnings.
“You have people who are wealthy enough that they're buying things and throwing them away when they still have value or can be reused,” she said. “And you have people who are so poor that they are willing to go through other people's trash to … make a living.”
It is difficult, dirty, sometimes dangerous work.
Sometimes, Hlatshwayo says, reclaimers find unwelcome surprises.
“I found a thumb," he said. He thinks it may have been a human thumb, but he did not want to look too closely. "It just killed my day,” he added.
Eva Mokoena learned to be a reclaimer from her mother. She has been doing it for most of her life. Today, she is chairwoman of the African Reclaimers Organization.
“My area is clean because of me," Mokoena said. "The environment, it's clean. … Even people, they try to put me down, but I keep on flying this flag of being a reclaimer.”
Samson says her research has been eye-opening. She says that informal work such as reclaiming supports an entire, very large profitable industry. She says people need to change the way they think about the economy.
Reclaimers say that is what their job is all about — having a different way of looking at the world. Most people might see trash as useless waste. But they see it as a chance to earn a living and make their world a little cleaner.
I’m Pete Musto.
Words in This Story
trash can – n. a container that holds materials that have been thrown away
keep track of – p.v. to be aware of how something is changing, what someone is doing
post-consumer – adj. describing material thrown away by users rather than generated during a manufacturing process.
packaging – n. material used to enclose or contain something
multiply – v. to add a number to itself a certain number of times
landfill(s) – n. an area where waste is buried under the ground
thumb – n. the short, thick finger on the side of your hand
fly(ing) (this) flag – idm.
informal – adj. not organized in a very orderly and regular way