Making money from a one-legged garden chair

2011-04-18 00:00

THE top half of a plastic garden chair, only one leg still attached. The empty square of a vodka bottle with half the label missing. The right foot of a pair of white-and-black takkies. Surrounded by walls of refuse, at least two metres high, Sbisuso­ Dladla makes his living from finding treasures like these at the Mooi River landfill site.

Dladla is a waste picker, a member of that small group of society able to turn other people’s waste into rands and cents. He runs a co-operative of 10 formerly unemployed people, called Mooi River Waste Reclaiming. The co-operative collects recyclable materials out of the rubbish at the landfill site, which includes cardboard and paper, plastic and glass.

Musa Chamane, Waste Campaign manager of the environmental justice organisation, groundWork, explains.

“Waste picking involves waste reclaiming from either the landfill, businesses or homes, or street bins. It involves materials that that have value and are picked by ordinary people who happen to be unemployed and they have created a livelihood strategy for themselves.”

It was with groundWork’s help that Mooi River Waste Reclaiming was awarded a SEED award for entrepreneurship in sustainable development at the end of last month. According to the SEED initiative, the awards aim to find the most promising, innovative and locally led startup social and environmental entrepreneurs in developing countries. SEED, established at the 2002 Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, asks an international panel of experts to select­ an enterprise which will make a difference in eradicating poverty and contribute to a greener economy in an environmentally sustainable way.

South Africans households send between 20 and 25 million tons of refuse to dumps every year, according to David Hallowes and Victor Munnik in their 2008 paper titled “Wasting the Nation: Making Trash of People and Places” for groundWork. That is the equivalent of five million average sized African elephants — a number 10 times the world’s current population of the mammals. According to a September 2010 study by Friends of the Earth, one of the world’s largest grassroots environmental networks, in Europe alone around 40% of all waste is still sent to landfills. Recycling this would save the equivalent of 40 million cars’ worth of emissions.

Dladla’s project recycles around 15 tons of plastic and paper and 10 tons of glass every month. From this, each person makes around R1 000 a month. In Dladla’s case, it goes towards caring for his grandmother and three-year-old child.

“If we could improve our methods, it could be more,” says Dladla of his salary. He became involved in recycling after he heard that consumers would have to start paying for plastic bags at supermarkets.

“I realised that plastic had value,” says the entrepreneur. Once he had researched further, the 28-year-old decided that the landfill site needed a recycling system.

Since 2007, Dladla and the Mooi River Waste Reclaiming workers have been sifting through the tons of compacted refuse dumped at the site by the Mpofana Municipality. Dladla and his colleagues unpack the refuse and remove the recyclable materials. Glass bottles are then crushed into small pieces by Dladla and a helper, and sorted, before being packed into bags and taken to a recycling company. The cardboard and plastic collected at the landfill are flattened and secured­ into bundles, as well as the plastic products. “It is hard work,” said Dladla, “but we are saving the landfill and making money.”

The co-operative employs only locals­ from the nearby townships and communities. Dladla explains that with living­ so close to the landfill site, there is the benefit of reducing the smell and dirt coming from the waste, as well as creating employment. Each person working on the landfill site is assigned to a type of refuse, says Dladla­. One will take out all the cardboard boxes and paper, another will look for one of the different types of plastic, such as cool drink bottles, and another collects glass bottles, while some package the waste in bales for easy transport. The project has just received a baling machine from the Mpofana Municipality, which has made it easier to create bails of refuse. However, Dladla says they will have to start paying for the electricity from June, as per their agreement with the municipality.

“We need funding,” he says.

Funding is not the only obstacle faced by Mooi River Waste Reclaiming.

They work every day from 8 am to 4 pm, in all weather, says Dladla, looking up at the dreary grey sky, slowly spitting raindrops onto him.

The women who work with him are forced to carry heavy loads because they have no equipment at the site, and a single bag of bottles can weigh between 10 and 15 kilograms.

Dladla says that they are also only able to recycle around 10% of the waste because of the way it is compacted, and a lack of equipment means they have to unpack it by hand.

However, Dladla remains confident in his work. “The impact of our business is huge. Let Mooi River [landfill] be an example of zero waste,” he says.



THE SEED initiative is a global partnership for action on sustainable development and the green economy­. Founded by the United Nations environment programme, the United Nations Development Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, SEED supports innovative small-scale and locally driven entrepreneurships around the globe, which integrate social and environmental benefits into their business model.


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