Of the 380 million tons of plastic produced globally each year, at least eight million tons end up in the sea.
Image: Reuters/Johannes P. Christo
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The call to take care of our environment is arguably at its height. Individuals and corporations have started the arduous task of correcting wrongs being done to the environment, more so via plastic pollution.

Arguably the unsung heroes in this fight are informal waste collectors, individuals like Luyanda Hlatshwayo an executive member of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO).

Hlatshwayo, 35, who lives in a reclaimer community in Newtown said the founding of ARO was out of necessity in 2016 as dealing with the city proved to be hard as they didn’t have proper representation.

“The main focus is to organise as many reclaimers as possible within the city and now we’re actually getting interest from other provinces to come through and help them to organise reclaimers,” he said.

Hlatshwayo, who is from Soweto, studied accounting at university while working towards a degree in banking but could not finish his studies.He found it hard to get employment due to this, he had to quit the restaurant managing job that he found due to his asthma and turned to recycling.

“ Even in the current job that I’m doing right now in the morning it’s very humid, it’s very cold, I have to find a scarf to cover my mouth. It’s very much of a disadvantage but you live with it.”

When asked why he’s stuck with recycling when most people would shy away from this type of arduous work he said: “I think it’s responsibility. I’m a single dad, I have a mother that’s depending on me I can’t sit down and do nothing. I’m one of those reclaimers that don’t even hide myself because I’ve got this mentality that I’m doing this for me and my daughter. I’m not doing it for anyone else, whether someone is saying look at Luyanda he’s busy with bins. There will be a time where you get ashamed by what you do, when I see people I grew up with driving BMWs, it hits you but you realise I can’t let that child down.

Informal recycler Luyanda Hlatshwayo.
Image: Supplied
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"Just because I couldn’t make it at school doesn’t mean that I have to put the same fate on my daughter… I want my daughter to also attend Crawford College, why not?  Right now, my situation won’t allow me but doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to give up on that right now. And that is some of my dreams to make it a point that I’m the person that is responsible for changing the fate of my daughter.”

Hlatswayo states that before the city started awarding contracts to private companies to “take over the business of reclaimers from separation source” the average recycler would earn R3,500 to R4,000 a month, which has now dwindled to R1,200-R2,000 a month.

There are many hazards associated with the job of being a recycler, including road accidents. ARO is trying to get as many reclaimers as possible to wear reflective gear so that they can be visible on the road.

“There are people that generally don’t like reclaimers and they drive into them. It’s happened, we’ve got guys that in wheelchairs right now over things that have been done intentionally.”

Hlatshwayo went on to list that acid products that residents put in their bins are some of the dangers recyclers face and also medical waste, which shouldn’t be in bins to begin with.

“There’s a problem of being worn out; the average reclaimer pulls about 200-250kg of weight a day. I once spoke to one of the doctors that come to see us…he mentioned that one of the biggest risks that we have is the amount of weight that we’re pulling is pumping too much pressure towards our hearts. And it means a huge danger in the future, most of us will have heart problems. We’re actually seeing it from the older guys.”

He went on to say the guys that work at the landfill are also exposed to chemical dangers.

Straws are a major contributor to plastic pollution.
Image: 123 rf

“It’s a shame that the city is acknowledging the fact that we reclaimers are collecting 80-90% of the waste…it’s actually R850m we’re saving the city by diverting the waste from going into the landfill. But they can’t support us in small things that pertain to our health.”

Hlatswayo recommends that residents seek to understand recyclers, he also suggested a few things that residents can do to make their job easier.

“I think the first thing is acknowledging that not all reclaimers are nyaopes, there are people that go out there and work hard to make a living for their children. We’re not looking for food in the bins, we want money and we want money in a proper way.”

Hlatswayo stressed that residents should separate material – for the benefit of the reclaimer’s health and this will minimize them digging through bins. They can also sort and keep recyclebs with them and hand them to reclaimers on sight.   He also said  that municipal support  would be greatly appreciated in terms of making sure they adhered to waste management guidelines.

“We told the the reclaimers not to go towards a particular suburb in Emmarentia, and the guys didn’t go. Normally the service truck takes about two loads  to be able to finish because we do most of the job on that day they had to outsource six more trucks and two days later they were not even finished. So it shows the amount of work that reclaimers are putting in, literally subsidising the city and the residents and no one is even aware of that.” 

Unilever South Africa, the African Reclaimer Organisation (ARO) in partnership with The University of Witwatersrand (WITS)have a pilot project: ‘Building an inclusive circular economy: recycling with reclaimers.’ The Johannesburg-based pilot will formally integrate reclaimers – also known as waste pickers – for the important service they provide and is designed to demonstrate the benefits reclaimers provide with their separation at source.

Big business participates in helping the environment

Pick and Pay's new experimental nude produce wall.
Image: Supplied

With many of South Africa’s big businesses like hotel chains and food outlets banning plastic straws, the war on pollution is stepping into high gear. This week saw the announcement that local grocer Pick n Pay, would on a trial basis test out the benefits of selling fruit and vegetable produce without plastic coverings.

The trial is limited to 13 stores nationwide, the produce is limited to a specific section they’re referring to as a "nude wall". It will include 12 new seasonal loose fruit and vegetables: brown steak mushrooms, portabellini mushrooms, red and green chillies, cocktail tomatoes, sweet Palermo peppers, baby brinjals, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, sweet corn and baby cabbage.

Customers will have access to paper bags to collect their produce and they can also buy  new reusable netted fruit and vegetable fresh produce bag (R7,50) or bring their own transparent and sealable reusable bag for loose selling produce.

This trial was due to customers of the grocer becoming more conscious of their impact on the environment.

PnP nude fruit and vegetable wall - pictured with PnP employee Mirriam Motebele.
Image: Supplied

“Previously our loose produce range wasn’t as popular as our pre-packed products. We believe this is shifting as consumers become increasingly more conscious about the environment. The impact of plastic is now front of mind for customers. We will closely monitor shopping behaviour and if this trial is successful, we can expand the initiative to more stores,” said Paula Disberry, retail executive: commercial at Pick n Pay.

The company has also removed stickers from some of their existing loose range produce like sweet potatoes, gem squash and butternut. The plastic labels have been replaced by laser printing. Disberry added that the top layer of the skin is removed from the thick skinned produce and the company’s logo, supplier code and sell-by date directly onto the individual product.

Pick n Pay’s marketing retailer executive, John Bradshaw, said their trial had been well received.

"Customers are telling us they love the nude produce wall and the new loose fruit and vegetables that form part of it. The early adoption by customers has been great and more than even we were anticipating. This is very encouraging and we’ll closer monitor this in the coming weeks," Bradshaw said.

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