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Heroism, hit-and-runs and herb: life as a trolley-puller

Kgotso is an Abagerezi working in in Parkmore, Johannesburg. Washing and pre-separating recyclables before putting them in kerbside bins for collection assists trolley-pullers get what they need more quickly so they make more money from the materials they sell.

By Frances Ringwood

“We start work at 4 o’clock in the morning. We have to get up that early because if we’re late, the rubbish trucks will beat us to the bins. Our name for ourselves is the ‘Abagerezi’.  Abagerezi do not have supervisors because life is our supervisor,” says Mandla Nkosi, an Ekurhuleni businessman who started out 20 years ago as trolley-puller.

“In those days, my pregnant wife pushed the trolley from the back and I pulled it from the front. Today, this strong woman and I have built our own business: Manquabuild Construction and Mining.

“I am currently completing my NQF Level 4 certificate and intend to get my matric certificate next year. Eventually, I hope to study Environmentalism at university. My wife has already completed a computing course and she does administration and payroll,” he explains.

Nkosi grew up in the rural Eastern Cape and began working as an informal recycler because no other jobs were available. He now works with other trolley-pullers throughout Ekurhuleni, speaking on behalf of this group to spread awareness about the good they do in their communities, the challenges they face, and the ways that government and the private sector might help trolley-pullers uplift themselves.

“We do not ask for vehicles,” he says, “we ask for education and skills development so we can someday buy our own trucks and start our own businesses,” says Nkosi.

Road safety

“Whether it’s cold or raining, we need to work in order to survive. Motorists caught behind a trolley-pusher will often get [upset] if there is a trolley pusher in front of them and we don’t get out of the way. Sometimes they will bump us on purpose. They have to understand: our trolleys have small wheels made from recycled shopping trolleys. We cannot move them quickly onto gravelled or grassy kerbsides,” he explains.

Abagerezi are also victims of road rage. “In December last year, I attended the funeral of a woman trolley-puller who was purposefully knocked over. The driver just drove away,” says Nkosi.

Drug abuse

Unfortunately, many trolley-pullers are also drug users, taking away their motivation to seek better living and working conditions. “There are many among us who try to influence those who are on drugs to lead a more normal life. Those who do take drugs cannot progress because they work only to make the next R20 to get what they need to smoke. I don’t say what they are smoking but I will guess that about 80% of us are smoking,” says Nkosi.

He is openly grateful to the City of Ekurhuleni and the Department of Environmental Affairs for helping him uplift his own business. He credits both government institutions for allowing the Abagerezi to go ahead of municipal waste trucks so that they can make their living. But he does ask for a greater commitment from a broader swath of society, including government, industry and civil society, in keeping the Abagerezi in mind and offering assistance wherever possible.

“At the moment, the majority of waste goes to landfill and only a small amount is recycled. We hope to turn this around, so that nothing goes to landfill and everything is recycled,” says Nkosi.

Heroism

Less than 10% of South Africa’s waste is recycled. Low recycling levels miss the opportunity to inject as much as R50-billion into the South African economy annually*. Of the waste that is recycled, about 80%** is collected by the trolley-pullers and waste pickers (people who pick recyclables off the landfill face).

If anyone is going to spearhead a recycling revolution in South Africa it will be these groups. A recycling revolution at scale would drive GDP growth, creating more wealth countrywide as well as thousands more badly needed jobs.

Yet, there are still many barriers preventing trolley pullers from developing further into more profitable entities, such as cooperatives or even companies.

Challenges

One of the biggest barriers is the fact that banks won’t give trolley-pullers bank accounts, let alone finance for vehicles and business loans.

“Even myself, I cannot get a bank account. This is very dangerous because it makes our business a ‘cash-in-hand’ business. This exposes us to criminals and threatens our lives. Maybe some kind of technology could be developed so that recycling centres could pay money to our cell phones?” asks Nkosi.

Elsewhere in the country, recycling industry bodies are already looking into the rollout of a token system which would exchange high volumes of clean recyclables for tokens which could then be exchanged for cash. The details are yet to be announced and it is still unclear to what extent such a system would benefit the Abagerezi.

“Another problem we face is exploitation by middlemen. A trolley-puller might work an entire day, hoping to earn R50. The average exchange rate per kg of waste is about R3. After a trolley-puller has pushed his cart for 10km he won’t turn back and look for another materials buyer if the first one he gets to offers him only R2.50 or even R2,” says Nkosi.

Recycling purchase rates can be dependent on the quality of recyclate being bought. Quality, quantity, grade and contamination level play a role in the eventual price. It is for this reason that education and skills development is crucial for informal recyclers. That’s not to say that trolley-pullers are not exploited but this is a highly complex issue and there are no easy answers.

“Something else we’ve encountered is businesses designing trolleys which they give to us and also giving us bicycles. For this we are grateful but there are some problems. One company who gave us trolleys did not consult the Abagarezi first to find out what we needed, so what we got wasn’t useful. Also, if you give an Abagerezi who smokes [drugs] a bicycle, he will sell it to the first person who offers him R100 for it,” explains Nkosi.

Government support

Nonhlanhla Baleni, director of environmental health at Fezile Dabi district municipality praises the work trolley-pullers do for their communities but he notes that integrating them into the formal recycling sector is a challenge. “I work closely with the municipalities in the district, monitoring their interactions and engagements with trolley-pullers and waste pickers.

“I applaud the work they do. The main challenge we’ve come across is that many people working in that space are in South Africa illegally, and so don’t want to be formalised. That makes it difficult for us to create a database of informal recyclers,” says Baleni.

He also points of that if trolley-pullers form and then register as cooperatives it becomes much easier for municipalities to get in touch with them and give them the skills development support and financial assistance they need.

Separation at source

Douw Steyn, director of sustainability at Plastics|SA comments, “government is already looking at formalising the informal waste collection sector. We in the packaging recycling industry rely heavily on trolley-pullers and waste pickers to get good, clean material for processing. If government successfully implements separation at source, that would increase recycling volumes drastically.”

Separation at source would also make the Abagerezi’s job much easier by making clean recyclables easier to collect in the necessary bulk quantities to make it worth their while, giving real impetus to the much needed recycling revolution.

 

*Statistics quoted from The Waste Information Baseline Study conducted by the Department of Environmental Affairs (2011) during Edna Molewa’s “War on Waste address at Wjite River (2015).

**82.2% is the weighted average of post-consumer paper and packaging collected by trolley pushers and waste pickers – according to a CSIR study. Estimated on the amount of waste recycled through the informal recycling sector vary, especially from waste stream to waste stream.

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