Turning trash into CA$H

For the ordinary Zimbabwean an empty plastic bottle is nothing more than a piece of trash that needs to be disposed in a dustbin if it can’t find any other use in the home. However, for the majority of women in Hopley and its environs, empty plastic bottles are an opportunity to make money, change their lives for the better and escape the high levels of poverty in this informal settlement situated on the outskirts of Harare on the road to Masvingo

Scavenging escapades that started off as random trips down to Mukuvisi to “pick up” a few items for personal use, have begun to pay yields for a group of women in the area, who are now earning money from patronising dumpsites.

Picking empty plastics has become a form of entrepreneurship for this group of women, which though unnamed, is growing on a daily basis. Scavenging, reclaiming, trash picking – the terminology might vary which each geographical location, but the trade exists all over the world, from the Cape, Europe, Asia, with some parts of Zimbabwe warming up to the idea.

“We used to go around the neighbourhood, particularly along Mukuvisi, where we would rummage through dumpsites, looking for usable items, which we could wash and use in our homes,” said Ms Rose Kwela, one of the members of the unnamed group.

Some of the items they picked up included broken but usable chinaware, clothing and sometimes even food.

However, during these trips, they often came across hordes of young men, dragging big sacks, containing empty plastic bottles .

“On one occasion, we asked one of the young men where they were taking the plastic bottles and they gave us an address,” said Ms Kwela.

The enquiry proved to be fruitful and in less than a month, they started scavenging for plastic bottles or materials of similar nature, they could pick up for resale and different recycling and bottling companies in and around Harare.

The transition from being casual trash pickers to serious “traders” meant that the group now had to patronise dumpsites and other hotspots on a daily basis to ensure that they met buyers’ weekly requirements of at least 2 000 empty plastic containers.

“The first week, we only managed to get 500 empty plastic containers which were not enough. We sat down and strategised how we would pick up the trash from different places around the city,” said Ms Mandy Karakati.

They started going around restaurants, food courts and upmarket bars, which they say presents them with neat finds, and sometimes unopened different beverages. It becomes a case of someone’s trash becoming another person’s treasure.

Once they pick different types of plastic containers, they take them home for washing and prepare them for the market in anticipation of a good price. In an informal settlement, where hundreds of people live in poverty and on less than one dollar a day, the women say everything has a value and nothing can be put to waste.

“A lot of people secretly admire our bravery in rummaging through dumpsites, but not many are keen to openly talk about it, let alone do it. We are, however, encouraged and motivated by our circumstances, we need to eat, and the rest is immaterial,” said 25-year-old Maud, who said in a good week, she earns between $35 and $60.

While the proceeds from scavenging, ensure they can now put food on the table while affording them other basic necessities of life, they however concede that rummaging through dumpsites throughout the year is no mean task.

Dark clouds of flies hovering over decaying matter, broken glasses, obsolete objects in various forms, greasy and undistinguishable grey matter has become part of their lives, as they rummage through various dumpsites across the city.

Sometimes they risk being molested by deranged men, who frequent dumpsites in search of food and other trinkets.

“Last year in December, we were held hostage for about 20 minutes by a mentally challenged man who demanded food or money from us, saying he was hungry,” recalled Ms Karakati.

Police have on several occasions descended on them, accusing them of theft and disrupting peace in the neighbourhood. They also have to endure the stigma associated with scavenging for a living, a practice normally associated with mentally challenged persons.

The work is also taxing, involving long hours of rummaging through dirt. But after one year of doing the job, the majority of women in the group say they have developed stamina and resilience.

“We know the benefits that come with it, so we are prepared to go the extra mile.

“With the money that we get, we are able to send our children to school as well as buy food,” said Ms Karakati.

An employee with a recycling company in Graniteside, said most of their clients were women coming from various high- density suburbs in and around Harare.

World over picking trash is big business, with several organisations involved in providing protective clothing and healthcare for trash pickers