CATHERINE MUMBA, Lusaka
RACHAEL Mwanza, 45, a mother of seven, makes a living through some unorthodox means.
But it pays well for her.
Mrs Mwanza has found a valuable resource in the Chunga dumpsite in Lusaka where she has been picking recyclable waste for the past 18 years.
She picks disposable bottles after they are dumped, cleans them, and then sells them to recycling companies.
“Waste picking has been my occupation for years and I am not even ashamed about it,” she says. “It has really benefited me and my family.”
Mrs Mwanza says she has managed to send all her children to school through scavenging.
“We make good money out of this business such that we are able to pay rent and provide decent meals for our families,” she says.
There is even more.
In the 18 years of scavenging, Mrs Mwanza has managed to buy a plot on which she has built a small but decent apartment.
While the cherry is good, scavenging comes with its own challenges as well.
“Because most of us have been operating without protective clothing, there are times when you find yourself stepping on sharp objects like broken bottles,” she narrates. “We experience very serious injuries sometimes but we still continue working because we need money at the end of the day.”
The challenges do not end there.
They also have to prepare for lean days when recycling companies go on industrial break.
“Recycling companies are our main buyers, so we suffer a huge setback when they close,” Mrs Mwanza says. “We also have a challenge with the fires at the dumpsite, they sometimes destroy our merchandise.”
But that is nothing compared to the challenge they faced on January 8 last month when the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) suspended all waste- picking activities at the Chunga dumpsite.
The measure was taken to stop the spread of cholera, which broke out in Lusaka in October last year and has since claimed over 80 lives although its further spread seems to have been stemmed now.
The ban meant that the livelihoods of over 400 people who depend on waste at the Chunga dumpsite were adversely affected.
Yes, adversely affected is the word.
Waste Recyclers Association of Zambia (WRAZ) chairperson Harrison Musonda admits that the cholera outbreak and subsequent halting of waste-picking activities have adversely affected scavengers.
“Our businesses have gone seriously down since the dumping site was shut,” Mr Musonda says.
He says about 10 women have lost material worth K70 000, which had been collected before scavenging was halted, to fires.
“We’re not happy about the loss and our hope is that some well-wishers can come through to help. We are only hoping for the best as we wait for ZEMA and the Lusaka City Council (LCC) to give us the way forward,” he says.
“I grew up picking waste at the dumpsite until God raised me to another level, so my appeal to ZEMA is that it comes up with some progressive enforcement measures which can help scavengers make money but at the same time protect their health.”
Mr Musonda appreciates the importance of prioritising health and he suggested that perhaps it would be better for scavengers to start separating waste from the source and not at the dumpsite.
ZEMA, as a regulator, gave his suggestion consideration.
The agency also discovered that some big recycling companies were totally reliant on waste pickers at the dumpsite for supplies.
The businesses of these companies were also affected, especially that of some material that was destined for export to countries like South Africa.
Some recycling companies, which included Xing Huo Limited, Adil Investments, San Yvan, Manja Pamodzi and L and M Matrix and the Waste Recyclers Association of Zambia, collaborated with ZEMA to find ways of allowing waste pickers to supply what they had collected before scavenging was halted.
It was agreed that ZEMA and the four companies would provide protective clothing to the scavengers to protect their health before they could be allowed to sell their merchandise.
“The current cholera outbreak has brought out a lot of issues that were overlooked in the past. It’s only now that we have realised that scavengers have actually been risking their lives by operating without protective clothing,” ZEMA corporate affairs manager Irene Chipili says.
Mrs Chipili said this when ZEMA and the recycling companies officially handed over the protective clothing.
“ZEMA has allowed waste pickers at Chunga dumpsite to supply the recyclable material they had collected before scavenging was halted to recycling companies but with protective clothing,” Mrs Chipili said.
The agency is mindful that waste collectors have had their livelihoods affected since their operations were halted.
“And as a regulator, we want to ensure that sustainable waste management is promoted here, so discussions have been held, and the waste collectors have also organised themselves,” she says.
“ZEMA wants to prevent any further damage to the already collected recyclable products in that natural fires occur at the disposal site. However, the suspension of scavenging at Chunga dumpsite still stands until further notice.”
ZEMA will now work very closely with the Lusaka City Council and other companies to ensure that any form of waste picking at Chunga dumpsite is properly coordinated.
“We want to ensure that scavengers are protected health-wise from any hazards that emanate from waste picking,” Mrs Chipili says.
“So, we will continue monitoring the situation until it gets better.”