23 March 2012

Treasure in the trash

Our cities are groaning under millions of tons of garbage, say those who work at collecting it, yet people still throw away re-usables like cell phones and clothes.


Our cities are groaning under millions of tons of garbage, say those who work at collecting it, yet people still throw away re-usables like cell phones and clothes.

“I am proud of my work,” says Hassien Satarien, a 40-year-old father of five who has been a bin operator for nine years. “Knowing that I am delivering an important service makes me feel great. I have a fancy title - bin operator - but I am just an ordinary worker.”

The garbage truck slowly makes its way down the suburban street. People in council uniforms jump down when it comes to a halt. They run ahead, wheeling the waste bins on pavements onto a mechanical bin lifter - a special contraption that lifts the bin before tipping it over, spilling the contents into the bowels of the huge truck.

It is a familiar sight across the globe – the people and pick-up trucks that help keep suburban and city streets clean. In the process they prevent vermin breeding and the world smelling, well, pretty awful.

Cities running out of space
Hassien Satarien works for the Cape Town City Council in a city that generates 1,8 million tons of waste annually. It is estimated that each of the city’s residents produces 2 kg of waste per day.

Across the country, cities are running out of space as landfill sites are reaching full capacity, posing a huge challenge to waste departments and private entrepreneurs.

The importance of waste management and the people who perform this task become all the more visible when municipality workers go on strike and sometimes create havoc during industrial action when the contents of rubbish bins are scattered in the streets and piles of waste mount up.

Recyclables make a big dent
In some parts of the greater Cape Town metropolitan area, householders are requested to separate their waste according to recyclables – tin, paper, glass and plastic – and organic materials.

About 1300 tons of recyclable waste is diverted from landfill sites every month.

Organic materials end up in the bins that bin operators like Hassien deals with.

And while the big guns are looking for solutions to the landfill challenges, people like Hassien make sure our cities are not buried under heaps of filth.

Treasures found in bins
Although bin operating is still mainly a male domain, there is a smattering of women working alongside the men. 

 “I dropped out of school in the eighth grade,” says Natasha Carelse (29). In a country where 25% of the population is unemployed, it is even more difficult for an individual without matric to get work.

“I was willing to do any kind of work,” says Natasha. “I have been doing this job for about four years and I really love it. I meet interesting people all over town.” 

She is a member of the trade team which empties bins at hotels, restaurants, shops and fruit markets.  “I always scratch in the bin before I load it onto the truck. People often throw away cell phones, clothes and other stuff that I can use.”

But sometimes the job really gets dirty. “It has happened a few times that waste spills out of an overfilled bin as it gets lifted into the truckand I get covered in all kinds of horrible stuff. But I just wipe away the worst and take a shower when I get to the office.”

She supports her unemployed boyfriend and nine-month-old baby on her monthly salary of R4 700.

Hassien, who is on a domestic team, is studying for his matric. “I wish I had the opportunity when I was younger to further my studies and to become a magistrate. But I know this dream might be unattainable at this stage of my life. I want to continue working for the Council, but I hope to eventually become part of the risk management team. We have so many fires in the townships and I would love to be able to really do something for the people when they have losses.”

Like Natasha, Hassien has also found treasures in or around the bins. “Many ratepayers are incredibly good to us. They will leave clothes, food and other usable things that we can use on top of the bin where we can easily find it.”

“One of my colleagues bought a second hand car from a ratepayer, but when he went to pay for it, the owner said he could have it as a Christmas gift.”

Respect for everyone
The physical work keeps him fit, says Hassien. “We run around a lot and are quite fit, but I have suddenly started picking up weight. Maybe it is because I am getting older.”

The secret of doing his job well is to treat others with respect. “This means that I sometimes pick up bags which are not inside the bins. When people see that you are willing to help them out, they are kind to you. I try to always act in a way that is exemplary. My colleagues and I may work with rubbish, but we are not rubbish.”

- Adapted for Health24 from a press release by African Utility Week, March 2012  


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