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Booming waste scavenging business, its perils

JACQUELIN Phiri sorting plastic bottles at Chunga dumpsite. PICTURE: VIOLET MENGO

VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
JACQUELIN Phiri, a mother of five, wakes up as early as 04:00 hours every morning to do house chores and prepare breakfast for her children.
When the children leave for school, Ms Phiri leaves her house in the SOS area to Chunga dumpsite in Lusaka to join dozens of other jobless women who sieve through piles of garbage to collect plastic bags and plastic containers for sale.
“I ventured into plastic collection because I used to struggle to make ends meet for my family. I had no money to start any form of business,” Ms Phiri says.
She picks high and low-density plastics and plastic bottles which she sells to recycling companies to earn a living. She works three days in a week.
A bundle of plastics fetches K20, while a sack of plastic bottles sells for K15.
“This has been my job since 2006. I do nothing besides collecting plastic wastes. The job has its own thrills and challenges, and it is obviously not for the faint-hearted,” Ms Phiri says while seated on a heap of garbage at the Chunga dumpsite.
Where an ordinary eye sees trash, Ms Phiri sees treasure.
She is a member of a group called Waste Recyclers Association of Zambia (WRAZ) comprising more than 500 people, mainly women, who collect waste materials for a living.
Most WRAP members have been surviving on plastic and other waste products since the dumpsite was opened in 2005.
There are, however, numerous hazards that hover around the dedicated people who sort out garbage to get plastics for sale.
Besides, the dumpsite is an eyesore and raises concern for concerned people, including environmentalists.
Nevertheless, waste collectors who eke out a living from trash are adamant to accept that fact. As far as they are concerned, the dumpsite is a goldmine that should be left intact.
Ms Phiri is one of those determined to carry on with the job despite the many risks involved.
“I am able to meet the needs of my family such as paying house rentals, my children’s school fees and daily needs at home through this business,” Ms Phiri shares.
As the local authority struggles to find better ways of waste management, scavengers like Ms Phiri will continue to make a living out of the garbage.
Chunga landfill is the only official dumpsite engineered in 2005. However, due to poor management, the site is not functioning as a landfill but dumpsite.
A Lusaka City Council (LCC) engineer at the dumpsite, Kalumba Kalumba, says the landfill was constructed with a sanitary engineered cell which is currently not functioning.
“The area now operates as a typical dumpsite. The whole dumpsite covers an area of about 22 hectares, while the engineered cell is only five hectares.
On a daily basis, LCC receives between 600 and 1,000 kilogrammes of waste.
LCC cleansing superintendent Moses Mulenga says Lusaka has different types of collection systems of waste.
There are private companies under the franchise of LCC collect waste and dispose it at the Chunga dumpsite. There are also individuals who do door-to-door collection of waste.
Mr Mulenga said the council also has its own collection points. However, in all garbage collection centres, there is no recycling of waste at the source, which is a major challenge in waste management.
He said waste management is expensive for an average person in the communities, the reason why many of them dispose of garbage indiscriminately, usually at night.
“We are trying to put in place systems so that people can start separating waste at source to enhance the waste collection business,” he said.
The Chunga dumpsite is normally crowded by scavengers and their clients because waste collection has become a lucrative business.
“In the past there was no market for garbage. However, today there are many Chinese and Lebanese companies that are recycling various forms of garbage,” Mr Mulenga said.
For waste collectors to work at the dumpsite, they need to wear protective clothing and also belong to a working group.
WRAZ chairperson Timothy Luhanga says because of the increase in the number of waste collectors, scavengers were divided into groups and given days when they could work at the dumpsite.
He said waste collectors pick different kinds of waste materials for sale such as scrap metal, plastic bottles and sacks.
“Our appeal is for recycling companies to consider adjusting the prices for the different waste products because what we are getting currently is very low,” he said.
The demand for recyclable waste has gone up because of the emergence of recycling companies in Lusaka’s industrial area that normally buy plastic materials.
Environmentalist Reuben Lifuka, however, says waste collectors are an important component of the waste management value chain.
He noted that waste collectors supply materials for the purposes of re-use or recycling.
However, in the case of the Chunga dumpsite, Mr Lifuka says access to the site and the collection of waste for recycling is unregulated. The danger with this is that there is no regulation against the recovery of waste with little market value.
He said the LCC needs to deal with registered and well-trained waste collectors.
Further, the council should ensure that waste collectors observe the necessary health and safety measures.
“It is, however, challenging for the waste pickers to work on a site that receives all sorts of waste as there is a possibility of these people getting into contact with hazardous waste,” Mr Lifuka says.
Waste collection, if well-regulated proved is a good basis for building community entrepreneurship. Much as it has provoked to be a good business for Ms Phiri and other scavengers, it needs to be regulated to ensure the safety of every player and beneficiary.

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