Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Informal Recyclers: The backbone of e-waste management in South Africa: Part 1

Nofoto Sikewega, an informal recycler
Nofoto Sikewega’s morning starts at 5:30 a.m. amidst vast tracts of barren land. Sikewega, 31, clad in heavy boots, overalls, and a hat goes in search of illegal fires that might have been left burning the night before.

She is one of the 2,000 informal recyclers carving out a living at Pretoria’s largest landfill in Hatherly, a short distance from Mamelodi. Amidst all the humdrum going around, she concentrates on rescuing an electronic alarm clock from an illegal fire that had been left burning.

Covering an area of 72 hectares, the size of four football fields, Hatherly is the largest landfill in operation in Pretoria. Simon Baloyi, the manager of the landfill looks out over the vast wasteland and says: "It is beautiful, isn't?"

The ‘beautiful’ landscape consists of vast tracts of dry dust and mud and thousands of tons of every kind of scrap, one can think of. Scores of men and women clad in garments like Sikewega sort the rubbish into piles and bundles. The commodities that we tend to throw away in our bins so carelessly, end up here and is carefully sorted into heaps, bundles and piles before being carted off to the recyclers. Those, which cannot make it to the formal recyclers, are buried in the landfill.

Hatherly was declared a landfill under the Tshwane Municipality in 1993. It also has an archaeological importance. The burial grounds of the Ndebele tribe, who lived here years ago are situated just near its now encroaching borders.

Baloyi himself started out as an informal recycler before becoming the manager of the landfill.

Scrap packed in bags for recyclers
“When the landfill began, we had hardly 200 employees,” says Baloyi. "Now the number of registered informal recyclers working at the landfill is 2,000. Add to this the number of unregistered recyclers, who work here illegally and most of the time steal commodities from the landfill to sell into the second hand good shops in town. These people make the most illegal fires."

The term ‘illegal fires’ refer to the burning of waste, most often electronic waste illegally. There are designated burning spots located within the landfill and a strict scheduling of when scrap is to be burnt. Waste cannot be burnt in undesignated spots and at unscheduled times.
Scrap piled in bags for recyclers

Burning waste seem to be final option taken by the recyclers. The first choice is to separate the scrap that can be recycled. Almost 90 per cent of the plastics and glass are recycled from the landfill. However when it comes to electronic goods a fairly small  amount makes to the formal recyclers.

Sikewega seem adept at spotting the hazardous waste from the non-hazardous ones. She has at her fingertips a long list of what are considered hazardous e-waste under the Waste Management Act 2008. Her knowledge about this waste stream seems to surpass the knowledge of many academics who are working on waste management.

Says Sikewega: "E-waste can be any electronic scrap. But it is important to realize that electronics do not just comprise of electronics but rather plastic, glass, copper and all sorts of metals. Electronics is the most difficult trash to sort out because we have to separate all the elements."

Waste has become an integral part of these informal recycler’s lives.

A fire that was made illegally
It is 17:30 in the evening... Sikewega’s and Baloyi’s day starts to wind down. As she heads off to the communal washroom to take the grime and the dust off her face, Baloyi says: "
Most people just throw their trash off and do not care what happens to it. We take care of it here. If we weren't here, what do you think would have happened to all the trash?"

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