It’s 6 a.m on a chilly Johannesburg morning, and Luyanda Hlatshwayo is elbow-deep in a trash can, pulling out milk bottles, soda cans, the lid of a pot, a broken blender. His eyes light up as he hits pay dirt: a tranche of used white paper.
Hlatshwayo, who is 35, has spent nine years sorting through Johannesburg’s trash cans, making him a master of turning trash into treasure. He’s one of the city’s 9,000 “reclaimers” — an informal network of workers who collect and sell recyclables.
The mental math
From the outside, his job looks simple. His tools are his hands and a homemade plastic dolly. But in his head, he keeps a complex agenda of which neighborhoods put out trash on which day; which roads to avoid if he doesn’t want to get hit by a car in the pre-dawn darkness; and a stockbroker’s mental ledger of what a recyclable item can sell for in the ever-fluctuating market. It suits his thought process, he says — he was studying banking at a local university before he ran out of money and had to drop out.
Hlatshwayo's job has a big impact: Academics estimate that reclaimers collect and recycle up to 90% of South Africa’s post-consumer packaging and paper. In doing so, they save municipalities up to 750 million rand in landfill space annually.
As a result, South Africa has a recycling rate of just under 60%, according to industry studies — a statistic that puts it on par with some European nations.
"We are literally subsidizing the community and the municipalities, actually," he told VOA as he made his rounds this month. "Because an average reclaimer would collect about 200 kilograms of waste a day. You multiply that by 9,000 reclaimers, takes it to about 2 million tons or something. That's in a day. That's redirecting a lot of material out of the landfills.”
Melanie Samson, a researcher in human geography at the University of the Witwatersrand, has spent years studying this complex informal system, which is present, she says, in many developing nations. However, she says, reclamation is becoming a global trend.
“We find reclaimers in just about every postcolonial city across the world," she said. "Reclamation exists in contexts of high income inequality, so that you have people who are wealthy enough that they're buying things and throwing them away when they still have value or can be reused. And you have people who are so poor that they are willing to go through other people's trash to extract these materials to make a living. So, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe — we're starting to see a lot more reclaimers working in the global north.”
WATCH: Recycling in South Africa
It’s grueling, messy, sometimes dangerous, work.
And sometimes, Hlatshwayo says, reclaimers find unwelcome surprises.
“I found a thumb," he said, adding that he believed it was a human thumb, but he didn't look too closely. "I just opened a plastic bag normally, in a rush, and just jumped. And it just killed my day. I just closed the bin, took my trolley, and then I went home. “
Flying the flag, changing the framework
In Johannesburg, reclaimers are trying to organize and lobby for recognition through groups such as the African Reclaimers Organization. Chairwoman Eva Mokoena learned the job from her mother and has been doing it, with great pride, for most of her life.
“My area is clean because of me," said the mother of three. "The environment, it's clean. Like, the work that I do, makes me to be more proud. Even people, they try to put me down, but I keep on flying this flag of being a reclaimer.”
Samson says her research has been eye-opening.
“One of the things that I've learned from the reclaimers is what the South African economy actually looks like," she said. "Because when we analyze the economy, we're usually looking at just the formal sector, private companies, formal jobs. And yet, a significant and growing number of people are generating their own income through informal work. And what I learned from them is how that informal work, particularly in the case of recycling, underpins an entire very large profitable industry. And so, what it makes me realize is that we need to change the way we think about the economy.”
And that, reclaimers say, is what it’s all about — a different way of looking at the world. The job may look rudimentary, or even quaint, in this technology-driven world.
But that is the reclaimers' core ethos — where many see a collector pushing a handmade cart, they see a carbon-free vehicle.
And where most people see trash, they see opportunity, and a chance to make their world a little cleaner.