How Empties Changed Ma Agnes and her Son’s Life

By Anthony Molyneaux (On behalf of Time Select. Original link here.)

The SA SDI Alliance supports innovative income generation livelihood schemes like waste picking.  The Solid Waste Network (SWN) is an Informal Settlement Network (ISN) initiative in Cape Town that provides access to markets for informal waste pickers. Savings activities are integral to capacity building in communities and makes people more resilient against poverty. This profile of Ma Agnes highlights how a strong woman’s savings scheme can improve her and her son’s life.

According to recycling agencies, South Africa is one of the world leaders when it comes to recycling plastics. The reason for this is largely thanks to waste pickers on the ground making money from recycling trash. Still, the Western Cape says it’s running out of landfill space and something needs to be done to help solve the problem.

Ma Agnes stands by her container where she collects over 15,000kg of glass every month thanks to her business savvy and hard work.

Ma Agnes stands by her container where she collects over 15,000kg of glass every month thanks to her business savvy and hard work. (Image: Anthony Molyneaux)

 

Ma Agnes lives next to a popular socialising spot in Khayelitsha. She used to wake up to glass bottles strewn across the main stretch behind her house.

But instead of complaining, Agnes turned the waste problem into a business.

“I started collecting these bottles in 2006. There were a lot of empties left behind from the chisa nyama next to my house. I recycled the glass for money,” said Ma Agnes.

Twelve years later and Ma Agnes now earns R2,000 every month by recycling the 15,000 kilograms of glass in the large container outside her home.

“I have built a garage with the money. I’ve also set up a car wash and it’s paying for my son’s school fees,” said Ma Agnes.

Recycling initiatives such as Ma Agnes’s are welcome news in the Western Cape, where a serious waste problem is looming.

Running out of space

“The fact is we are running out of landfill space and we all need to reduce our waste,” said MEC for environmental affairs Anton Bredell.

The Western Cape generated 2.8 billion kilograms of waste in 2017, according to government, an alarming figure when one considers that an estimated 1.8 billion kilograms were recycled by varying recycling activities in the same year.

Waste is only set to rise due to the increasing numbers of people arriving in the city.

RECYCLING MUST BECOME MORE THAN A NICE-TO-DO. IT MUST BECOME A WAY OF LIFE.

In response to the problem, local government is planning to open larger regional landfill sites to accommodate the waste. But government acknowledges this is a short-term solution.

Although the majority of waste that goes to landfill is building waste like bricks and stone, recyclable waste ends up in landfill sites.

“Recycling must become more than a nice-to-do. It must become a way of life,” said Bredell in his budget vote speech.

South African Plastics Recycling Organisation general manager Annabe Pretorius says we are a world leader when it comes to recycling plastic but only because waste pickers do the dirty work.

Ma Agnes stands by her container where she collects over 15,000kg of glass every month.

Ma Agnes stands by her container where she collects over 15,000kg of glass every month. (Image: Anthony Molyneaux)
 

“41% of SA’s plastic was recycled in 2016 thanks largely to waste pickers,” said Pretorius.

“They are invaluable to the recycling initiative and can make a decent income from it. But the onus should really be on households to separate their waste at their homes.”

Blue Sky Recycling company aids waste pickers by collecting their materials and paying them by the kilogram for the waste.

Blue Sky Recycling company aids waste pickers by collecting their materials and paying them by the kilogram for the waste. (Image: Anthony Molyneaux)
 

Waste economy

Tami Landa collects all types of waste from plastic to cardboard using only his wheelie bin. Large canvas bags stand outside his father’s home waiting for collection.

Landa is unemployed and receives an income of R600 per month for his efforts.

“I need more money but I don’t have transport so it’s a slow process to collect enough plastics and glass,” said Landa.

Private collection companies such as Blue Sky Recycling collect Landa’s and Ma Agnes’s product and pay them for it.

WE CALL WASTE ‘BLACK GOLD’. SOME PEOPLE SAY FOREIGNERS STOLE ALL THE GOLD AND DIAMONDS IN THIS COUNTRY SO NOW ALL WE WANT IS THE WASTE.

Operations manager John McKerry believes by helping the picker on the street as well as smaller companies like Blue Sky, government could alleviate some of the waste problems in the Western Cape.

“We have 2,000 pickers on our database but we can only get to 300 a month due to our limit of trucks and employees,” said McKerry.

“We recycle roughly 250,000kg every month which would have gone straight to landfill and we provide a source of income for the unemployed and the poor,” says McKerry.

“We call waste ‘black gold’. Some people say foreigners stole all the gold and diamonds in this country so now all we want is the waste,” says a joking McKerry.

Another Blue Sky client, 60-year-old Mama Lekota, collected 800kg of glass over a five-year period. After collection of her glass she said she would use the money to buy a new lounge suite for her home.

Ma Lekota receives payment for the 800kg of glass she collected over a five-year period.

Ma Lekota receives payment for the 800kg of glass she collected over a five-year period. (Image: Anthony Molyneaux)
 

The city’s response

“The picker situation and environment is more complex than initially meets the eye. Various pilot programmes are under way in different areas to investigate how best to assist them from all angles,” said Stuart Diamond, the city’s acting mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services.

In terms of construction and demolition waste, the city has recently initiated a contract for the crushing and re-use of building and demolition waste for sale into the building industry from selected city waste management facilities.

The Western Cape government has said it aims to divert half of all organic materials from landfills.

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