Plastic Waste Pickers: The Shunned and Scorned Environmental Warriors of Tanzania

Waste pickers play an important role in sanitation in most developing-world cities but they rarely feature in environmental discussions and debates.
Mweha Msemo23 June 2022110 min

Dar es Salaam. Plastic waste is a common sight on many streets of Dar es Salaam. Recklessly disposed of from homes and stores or thrown out of the windows of daladalas and private vehicles – it adds to the unsightliness of this already heavily polluted economic hub of Tanzania.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 315 thousand tonnes of plastic waste were generated in Tanzania in 2018, with 29 thousand tonnes ending up in the ocean and waterways.

As the world continues to increasingly choke on plastic, it is estimated that only four per cent of the plastic waste is collected for recycling in Tanzania. And due to the lack of landfills and incinerators, 96 per cent of the waste generated is improperly disposed of.

Especially in developing countries like Tanzania, where waste management systems are weak recycling relies heavily on the informal sector. Thanks to people like Geoffrey Mateo who earns a penny picking plastic the streets are relieved from the chokehold of these harmful, non-biodegradable products of which 400 million tonnes are produced worldwide each year.

Living in Mbezi Louis, a suburb of Dar es Salaam, the most urbanized city in Tanzania, he wakes up early every day, pondering where his next destination is and preparing to face the brutal scorching sun and scornful stares. He has been doing this work for three and a half years.

A pile of plastic waste at a collection center in Mbezi Loius, Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | MWEHA MSEMO.

Mateo, also referred to as muokota makopo – a Swahili term that is synonymous with mental unsoundness – is heavily reliant on his job to survive in the city. The 41-year-old man is amongst many waste pickers who invisibly fight the city’s over-board littering.

But he thinks he is way too low and insignificant to be noticed – that he’s just another ‘mad man’ who does nothing for his life and, instead, picks trash for a living.

That has been people’s perception of him due to him often being clad in dirt-stained, sweat-soaked clothes, searching for the ‘treasure’ that enables him to feed his family.

He usually picks about fifteen kilograms of plastic waste a day, which earns him Sh6,000 (about $3).

But if he works extra hard, he is likely to make up to Sh60,000 ($25) a week. At the collection centre, a kilogram is bought at Sh400 ($0.17), after the merchandise is well scrutinized for materials that might be intended to add weight deceivingly.

The price doubles when it reaches “Kwa Mchina” (Chinese-owned warehouse) – where it sells from Sh750 ($0.32) to Sh800 ($0.34) per kilogram. But the buying and selling prices vary widely based on the kind of plastic waste and location. On a lucky day, it only takes him eight hours to reach his target. But, usually finding good amounts depends on the weather of the day.

“Sunny days are the best,” he tells me. “The more water people purchase, the more plastic bottles I get.”

Rainy days don’t allow him to go out. When water consumption drops, his economy gets slammed since he mostly searches for plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water which are made from polyethene terephthalate (PET) – the kind of plastic that is most sought after for its high recyclability.

PET is also highly available and among the most common sources of plastic pollution. According to UNEP, around the world, one million of these plastic bottles are purchased every minute.

“Any public event that gathers so many people is always a blessing to me,” Mateo continues. “On days like that, I can make a lot of money in a short time. There are also some people who collect plastic bottles in their homes and offer to me when I show up or call me when it piles up.”

However, every job comes with its fair share of tales – pretty and ugly. For Mateo, being mistreated and mistaken for a deranged man, an alcoholic or a drug addict and sometimes being associated with thievery, largely affects his work. But he must carry on since he doesn’t have other means to earn a living.

Stopped and frisked

“I have been stopped and frisked several times on theft suspicions, but, fortunately, I have never been found with stolen property,” he recounts. “I’m just one lucky man. Some guys suffer terribly, which sometimes makes me consider quitting this job, but with nothing else to do, I guess I just need to keep an eye out.”

“If you are found with something that people assume you can’t afford to own, you may end up being labelled a thief and receive a heavy beating,” he adds. “I can’t carry a smartphone or have big cash with me when at work. A ten-thousand bill could also get me in trouble.”

The father of two blames unscrupulous individuals and mateja (drug addicts) for making the plastic picking work appear to be a hideout for petty theft. He says some drug addicts with no family responsibilities usually seek to earn a little money to fund their next high. But men like himself have responsibilities and a lot to lose.

That earns the support of the man in charge of the collection point where Mateo sells his merchandise, Kigoma-born Msafiri John, whose accent has mistakenly crowned him the moniker Ngosha.

“It’s true,” he tells me during an interview. “There are some crooked individuals who stain our job. It has happened many times that people come here looking for their missing belongings such as buckets, basins or plastic chairs etc. But they hardly find their stuff here.”

Ngosha says most of the plastic waste pickers he works with are family men who treat the yard as their office which makes them smart enough not to ruin their trustworthiness with their buyer. And due to their policy of zero-tolerance, they have managed to always run a clean business.

“I have banned several guys from bringing their merchandise to my yard,” he says. “You know if I tolerate their thievish ways, I might end up losing my business which took me years to build.”

However, not everyone is frisked and left alone; some plastic pickers encounter much worse. Tending to follow the best prices for their products, they are forced to carry out their activities away from where they live. This adds to the challenge of appearing like thieves in those places.

Joshua Kaaya who lives in Kawe has been dealing with plastic waste for four years. He says he’s one of the many victims of assaults that befall plastic waste pickers. Following theft accusations, he was assaulted and left behind half naked as his clothes were torn by the assaulters.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the kind of plastic that is most sought after by for its high recyclability. PHOTO | MWEHA MSEMO.

Beaten severely

“One early Saturday morning,” he began recounting his painful story, “I was gleaning for plastic in the Mwenge area, and I came across a group of men who beat me severely and took me to the police station on suspicion of theft. I told them I hadn’t stolen anything. They went ahead and unloaded my luggage so they could see what was inside. They found nothing. I was later released, but I was already badly hurt.”

In another incident, Kaaya explains that he was mistaken for another person who had stolen in one of the neighbourhoods he frequented the previous day. Consequently, he was beaten up and critically injured. He believes it’s the appearance that attracts so much hate and ridicule towards them.

“The life of a plastic picker is dirty because we deal with waste,” he says. “We sweat all day, scavenging dumps and pits for plastic, but people don’t understand. They want us to look like we work with computers.”

Since society views plastic pickers as criminals, they often feel helpless when they face adversities. For the luckier ones, their cases may simply be settled extra-judicially. But still, that leaves them with physical and psychological scars.

Rajab Shabani remembers being beaten and badly injured after he was accused of having stolen a vehicle’s side mirror. However, after it was established that he had been mistakenly ‘punished,’ his attackers provided him with Sh60,000 (25$) to treat injuries they had inflicted on him. He was lucky to be defended by a woman who had been hiring him to do some manual work at her home.

“After defending me and convincing my assailants, the woman and other people around suggested that I be offered some money for medical treatment,” he remembers. “I took the money but it’s hard to forgive and forget such humiliation.”

Despite the fact that women are more exposed to informal employment in most low- and lower-middle-income countries and are more frequently found in the most vulnerable situations, the number of women engaged in waste picking in Dar es Salaam is thought to be much lower than that of men.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by Libe Green Innovation, a Dar-es-Salaam-based social enterprise dedicated to the development of sustainable solutions to plastic pollution, 89.1 per cent of waste pickers in Ilala, for example, are male, while only 10.9 per cent are female.

However, these women in many areas of the city rely on picking up plastic waste to run their families and keep themselves out of the wrong way of earning money. All that comes along with the job, still cannot prevent the likes of 39-year-old Mary James from boasting about her hard-earned income that “keeps her in town.”

Although she has developed a thick skin for contempt and ridicule, it’s particularly the one thing that breaks her heart. Sexual harassment is her worst fear; she trembles and her blood boils whenever such acts haunt her thoughts.

Sexual harassment 

“I’m used to all put-downs from family, friends and strangers – but that doesn’t shake me one bit,” she says. “The worst is when men think I am the kind of a woman they can just have sex with in exchange for money because I’m doing what they consider to be for mad people. I earn little but cannot exchange my body for money. I’d rather die in poverty.”

It’s the same fear that makes the mother of three to be careful not to wander deeper into the unfamiliar neighbourhoods and, instead, pick plastic in areas where she doesn’t feel threatened.

“I am a woman and that is why I only go to bus stations and other public areas where there are many people around,” she adds. “From the way some filthy men treat me, I am scared I could be raped if I find myself in the wrong spot.”

For Anjela Ndaya, 43, what irks her badly is when unmannered men make offensive sexual jokes or touch her without consent. She tells me: “This job makes me look unworthy of respect. I come across men who call me names and sometimes grab me inappropriately. It feels so humiliating when you tell someone off but they persist and keep pulling and touching.”

Although this work is critical for environmental stewardship, plastic waste pickers face health risks because they come into contact with a variety of contaminants and frequently lack protective equipment. Most are only familiar with plastic bottles but have no idea what they contain – possibly toxic liquids that endanger their health.

In addition, a hazardous environment may force them to spend a large portion of their meagre earnings on illnesses caused by exposure to hazardous materials and other contaminants. Without health insurance, these expenses could seriously damage their already fragile economies.

“This is a very big challenge for me,” says Ndaya. “Sometimes I see a bottle that contains urine, but since I have a goal to accomplish, then I have to pour it out and take the bottle. And remember I do it without any protective equipment.”

“The filth we encounter is excessive,” she adds. “When I come across a bulging bag among the trash, I have to open it to see what is inside, sometimes only to find twenty used diapers and one plastic bottle. But that’s what we do.”

This work can also get exceedingly dangerous for some plastic pickers in low-lying areas, where they risk their lives by submerging themselves in extremely dirty rainwater fishing for plastic during the rainy season.

Not featured in debates

Waste pickers play an important role in sanitation in most developing-world cities where many areas are difficult to access due to poor infrastructure. However, when environmental discussions and debates take place, they rarely include these critical players who are at the basis of reducing the danger of plastic.

Kaaya wants the government and other stakeholders to recognize their work and help them overcome the bullying and contempt they go through in their activities. He believes that plastic picking is not only beneficial to themselves but also a service to the country since what they do would have to be done by municipal authorities instead.

“If possible, they should even provide us with protective equipment to do this job safely,” Kaaya says. “What do you think would happen if we stop removing this garbage on the streets for just a month? It would be chaos.”

Ngosha, whose collection point buys different kinds of plastic wastes, sometimes receives more than 300 kilograms a day, an amount that would be of a huge environmental impact if left improperly disposed of.

He says the job should be respected for its contribution to the protection of the environment, and the few evildoers should not be allowed to stain it.

Mweha Msemo is a freelance journalist based in Dar es Salaam. He has a specific interest in social issues. He is available at mwehahamran@yahoo.com

Mweha Msemo

One comment

  • Frank

    25 June 2022 at 1:47 PM

    Great article and very eye opening
    Twawezaje kusaidia hawa watu with protective equipment

    Reply

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