For the third time in 3 weeks I’d noticed that my recycling garbage bag had been ripped open and all the recyclables had been mixed with the non- recyclables.
I’d spent the whole week separating my recyclable, consumable waste, placing it in the special plastic bags supplied by the garbage collectors. I felt I was doing my bit towards helping clean up the environment, and for once doing something right- recycling my garbage- and now somebody was trying to steal my thunder.
Going against my usual apathetic approach, I decided that I was going to investigate into this matter instead of just moaning about it around the dinner table. I vaguely remembered that the garbage collecting company dropped off a recycling manual with all the ins and outs about recycling as well as their contact details.
I managed to get in contact with Bertie Lourens from WASTEPLAN, the company that was contracted to collecting the recyclable garbage in my area.
WASTEPLAN- a privately owned company- is one of the few contracted companies that, via tender, are awarded contracts to collect garbage for recycling. They currently operate in the Western Cape Province and Gauteng with Durban in the pipeline.
After chatting to Bertie on the phone for a short while I realised that here was someone who was deeply passionate about recycling and cleaning up the environment.
Says Bertie. “It all started for me with a course in environmental studies at Potchefstroom University. Even though I never completed the course, and detoured into sales of none other than vacuum cleaners, environmental issues were always close to my heart. Realising that I had to follow his dream I gave up my day job and WASTEPLAN was born 7 years ago.
I explained to Bertie about my problem of the damaged bags and not having my recyclables collected.
“Aah,” replied Bertie. “Another complaint about torn bags.”
I could almost hear him swearing under his breathe before he continued.
“The problem with the torn bags is that every morning the homeless in the areas where we collect, rummage through the garbage before we get there. They either rip open the recyclable bags to get to the newspapers and other stuff that might be of benefit to them, or they empty the recyclable bag into the normal waste-bin and take the bags with them. I’m sure you understand that what is waste to us can be warmth, a raincoat or a water collecting device to them. What they don’t have use for they will load into their trollies-usually the property of a major retailer- and trade at a scrap dealer.”
“I fully I understand their plight, but this doesn’t help me who is trying to do some good.” I replied
“Well it seems like we’ve implemented a plan that is suitable to both the residents and the homeless in the areas where we collect,” continued Bertie
“What we’ve done is we now use the homeless people in the respective areas to act as informal collectors(IC) for us. They’re not employed permanently by us but have the choice to work for us on-let’s say-a freelance basis. We meet them once a week, weigh what recyclables they’ve collected and pay them accordingly. For the more regular informal collectors, we pick them up every morning in our trucks and drop them off in the areas where we collect. We supply them with bags, bibs with our company name on it, and trollies. The bibs give them an identity and peace of mind to the residents. With us supplying the trollies, they don’t have to steal them from the retailers. It’s a win- win situation for all concerned
“So how do they benefit?” I queried.
“We pay them a better rate per kilogramme than they would receive from any of the other companies, and we pay them weekly. If they turn up for work, collect the garbage, they earn a wage. We have created informal employment for 54 collectors who between them collect in the region of 18 tonnes of recyclable garbage per week.
I could feel myself softening up when Bertie continued. “The really fantastic experience from what we’ve implemented is that two of the informal collectors have cleaned up their act so much that we’ve employed them permanently in our sorting plants. They now have their own identity documents and bank accounts. After years of living on the streets they’re now climbing their way back into society. And we’re doing everything possible to help them.”
Now that I’d managed to discover the cause of what now seemed like a minor infringement on my cause to do good, I wanted to meet these two collectors and get their side of the story.
Bertie arranged for me to meet them at one of the sorting plants the next day.
Driving out to Somerset West the next morning, working through the implementations of what Wasteplan was trying to do. Two of the many challenges that are facing South Africa are; unemployment, and the rate at which the landfill sites are being filled. The government has set dates and targets regarding the landfill sites such that by 2015, municipalities must have reduced their use of landfill sites by 50% and by 2022 it will be completely outlawed for municipalities to be using sites at all.
Unemployment is another whole different issue; problematic and complicated. But here was a company that was seemingly alleviating both problems without having to do too much.
I arrived at the sorting plant only to be amazed at how much garbage was actually being sorted. Steeped mountains of boxes and oceans of plastic lay before me. Seeing it up close I shuddered at how much waste we actually create.
I’m introduced to Johannes, or Jay Jay as he goes by. Jay Jay tells me his 36 years old but from the lines and scars on his face he could be 10 years older. He has been living on the streets for the last 20 years. When he talks about living in nothing more than a cardboard box somewhere in the bushes next to a highway, it’s almost as if his eyes glaze over as he tries to fblock out that reality. He heard about Wasteplan from a friend only 7 months ago. Initially he and his friend worked together using one retailer’s trolley while he was being taught about collecting and sorting the garbage. In the beginning he was paid R350,00 per week for what he was collecting, and for someone who lives on the street with no rent to pay this was more than he needed. But for Jay Jay it was more than just the money. In his broken English he explained, “You know the people in the suburbs really respect us now because of what we do. They see us with our bibs on and they like that we’re taking their rubbish away. Only us, wearing the bibs are allowed to take their garbage. Sometimes they even give us old TV’s, microwave ovens and cell phones. For the first time in my life I have a bit of respect. But with Bertie’s help I now have an identity document and a bank account and because of that I’m no longer scared of the police.
Forty year old Johnny joins us. His been on the streets for the last 15 years. He and Jay Jay have become firm friends and they’ve become so reliable and good at what they do that the company moves them around between the different sorting plants when the output needs increasing.
Johnny remembers when Bertie arrived 2 years previously at the place where he and others were sleeping and offered them work. At the time he was living in the bush in a makeshift cardboard shack. He explains how every night he had to walk to the nearby garage to collect water in a tin for cooking. How in winter it got so cold and so wet that it wasn’t possible to fall asleep and that he almost went crazy from trying to keep warm.
Both Johnny and Jay Jay hate life on the streets and they see working for Wasteplan as a way out. For them, living on the streets is a fearful experience. They’re at the mercy of the police, the elements and at times from the other homeless people who get drunk and take drugs. Neither of them use drugs, but they do enjoy a beer. “The work is very important to us and we can’t come to work late or smelling of beer.” Says Johnny
Life on the streets is so unbearable that both of them are busy clawing their way out. So much so that the two of them, and Johnny’s wife, have found a nearby room which they will soon be able to afford to share.
“We offer this incentive to all the informal collectors,” says Bertie. “We will help and employ anyone that is reliable and will clean up their act. The funny thing is that many don’t want to change their lifestyles. They’re happy on the streets as it lessens their responsibilities and allows them more freedom, while they still earn some cash. We’ve had great success with the likes of Johnny and Jay Jay but there have been a few who fell off the wagon and have either been killed in a fight or are in prison. But we do keep on trying.”
“So if you have these programmes in place how come my garbage bags are still being ripped open?” I ask Bertie
“As with every new project, there are initial setbacks while we find our feet. Some areas are working better than others, but as we learn we improve our systems. Some of the homeless people are resistant to change and want to exist as they know how. They’ll still just rip open the bags, take what’s needed, and sell it to scrap dealers. But slowly and surely we’re educating them.” replies Bertie.
While driving back to the city I compare the situation of my life to those of Johnny and Jay Jay. I have to deal with a torn garbage bag once a week while they have to wake up in a cardboard shack. Somehow my problems seem minute in the greater context of things. But due to some initiatives it seems that both problems will soon be over.
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