Overworked and underpaid, toiling in unhygienic conditions and sometimes abusing illegal drugs to withstand the tedious and long working hours’. These are phrases that describe the labours of our environmental heroes, the garbage pickers who sift through waste in search of plastic for recycling. While in most cases it’s not their profession of choice, they take up the mammoth task of separating our domestic garbage, an important duty that most of us ignore.
Many people refer to them as scavengers, a rather insulting term for the profession that has Zimbabwe recycling, sometimes without our even knowing about it. Waste picker, waste harvester, garbage picker and recycler are some more appropriate terms.
Environmentalist and founding trustee of Proudly Zimbabwe Trust, Fungai Chiposi said, “It demonstrates the extent of poverty in the country when you see human beings foraging among other human beings’ waste. In as much as people may want to celebrate this as innovation, it is simply desperation. We must put in structures that separate waste at domestic level or unit level so that these people simply pick up the bag they want and go on their way. More importantly, companies generating waste should monitor their production cycle and not reduce small organisations trying to do something about the situation to perennial beggars.”
If they are not sifting through our bins for plastic, the waste harvesters are battling with huge loads of plastic on their backs, moving on to the next source that might hopefully provide more plastic containers. Tapiwa Kusema (not his real name), a 23-year-old waste harvester, talked about his working conditions and what he earns per day, “Every morning, when my health allows, I go out and gather plastic bottles in town until I have collected a bale, which is worth $8. During my rounds I often come across shoe polish, floor polish and perfume containers which help to increase my income.”
There are several buyers of plastic waste at the Siyaso market in Mbare who employ four or more people whose sole function is to wash and prepare the plastic containers. Emanuel Makwara, an entrepreneur who buys plastic bottles at the Siyaso market, refused to disclose how much he makes from the venture, but he revealed, “When I buy the plastic bottles I have four ladies who wash the containers and cut them in half in preparation for selling to the people who recycle plastic to make buckets.”
The idea of separating waste in our homes – putting plastic, glass, tins and paper into different bags – is an idea that is still alien to most Zimbabweans. In other countries citizens are fined instantly for failing to separate their waste as required by their laws.