For millions of years all waste served as food for some organisms to live off and thrive.
In a circular cycle a leaf dropping off a tree would biodegrade – providing food for micro-organisms, who break the leaf down into its source elements, which would nourish the soil. The tree’s roots, or other plants in the area, would absorb these essential nutrients and so the full circle continues. This was the case with all waste – nothing was ever wasted. This model served as a perfect win-win of every aspect of nature in a continuous dance of nurture and be nurtured in turn.
Until the industrial revolution and organised agriculture, together with the packaging industry arrived as important developments to transport our society into the modern world. Now we could produce more food than we immediately needed, package it safely and hygienically and transport it over long distances, where it could be stored until it was needed, often for long periods of time. More and more people could be fed, allowing specialisation in professions, as we no longer all needed to grow our own food. There were important health benefits and medical science played an important role.
But that was also when waste, as we know it today, came into being. Enter the linear model of extraction of raw materials, transport, manufacture of packaging materials, transport again, packaging some item, transport again, selling this item on a shop shelf, transport again, now we arrive at home, open the packet and discard this seriously carbon intensive material into the rubbish bin. The single use system was seriously out of whack with nature and bound to self-destruct at some point.
Food for the previously unemployed
Now we need to find a way to turn waste into food again, but how? That is what a number of waste minimisation companies are doing very successfully in our country, one of the world leaders in recycling.
One such example is WastePlan, the largest onsite waste minimisation company in the Western Cape and one of the leaders in our country. This important role model is not only concerned with resource protection, saving carbon and protecting our future. Many previously unemployed people are also creating a living, and therefore feeding themselves and their families, by working here.
Let us tell you the stories of a few souls whose lives have been changed from you cleaning and sorting your domestic waste at home and making sure it rejoins the new cyclical model, and turns into new products to keep precious resources in the loop and out of the dump.
At WastePlan there are many great examples of how taking care of the environment can also take care of our people.
Meet some of their employees:
My children are now at school
Thandisa (bottom picture) is a sorter. There are 7 types of plastic to sort your waste into, plus 3 grades of paper, so too different metals and glass. Then there’s the “bad waste” that shouldn’t end up in the material recovery centre in the first place, or the dirty waste, that’s even worse.
‘Since this company has started here I’ve been happy. WastePlan has helped me send my three children to school and pay my bills. I can buy my children school uniforms now and even pay for insurance. They’ve helped me with everything. That makes me happy. Thanks to them I can give my mother money every month. I hope they receive more and more contracts so they can employ more people.
When I started it was hard, because I didn’t know how to do the work. But once you’ve learned, you are very happy. I have to sort through everything here. Every day at 06:30 I get to work and start at 07:00, but I don’t mind, having a job makes me happy.
I have money for treatment
I am HIV positive. Wasteplan gives me money to get treatment. This company looks after me. Derrick gives me vegetables and mama Cynthia will cook them for me for lunch if I tell her that I’m hungry.
Joyce is a sorter too. ‘I am one of the top sorters, I can sort the best. I’m one of the best people at WastePlan because I learn from my mistakes, I guess. Last year October I just stayed at home for about five days. They could have dismissed me if they wanted to, but they didn’t. They gave me a second chance. Now I’m one of the best. Cynthia’s put me on training to become one of the supervisors. I’m very proud of that. I have one child and I look after my family. Every month I earn a salary at WastePlan and send it home. Many people eat now because of my job in recycling.’
I now have the skills
Pieter is a forklift driver. “I’m so happy because I am doing my work and doing things for other people. My supervisor likes it when we work together and do our jobs. I’ve been working on the recycling project since 2008. I’m a forklift driver, but I also clean the streets. I must check that everything is sparkling nicely, so that there can be no complaints.
When I started here, I helped with the machinery and later to clean the building up with the bag carriers. Then finally I was promoted to forklift driver by Ms Cynthia. Bertie from WastePlan gave me the necessary training. Ms Cynthia is very happy with my work. When it comes to cleaning this area, I have no doubt on how to do it. I know how to keep it clean and keep my manager happy. I am the best forklift driver because now I have the skills. Mr Derrick is always happy to see me, because with me he’s sure there won’t be papers and plastics lying around.”
Fred is a truck driver. “I run the informal collections project for WastePlan. An informal collector is the guy pushing his trolley, picking up the recycling on the street. They pick up non-returnable plastic containers like fizzy drinks bottles from the sidewalk where we see it lying around. Or from the bins where those non-participating householders throw their recycling. It otherwise would have ended up on a landfill site.
It’s a very successful enterprise. We collect from these collectors on a regular basis, five days a week. We pay them a fee for what they collect. We weigh the bags, we can do it very fast. We weigh about one to two tons waste in 20 minutes. They don’t have to go into the industrial area to sell them, because we provide that service.”
Street collectors survive better
“We easily collect about 50 ton waste per month from a team of informal collectors as part of their self employment programme. We fill up a whole truckload and trailer load of waste daily. These collectors earn about R300 to R450 a week by just picking up trash. It all depends on how serious they are about it. It means they now have the money to purchase some food and survive better. They are on the street, so they need the money. We’re doing a great service to the public and also creating awareness of conservation.
I’ve been working for WastePlan for almost two years. I make good money, because I get paid per ton. I love my job because I can do sightseeing, I don’t need to sit in an office all day. We live in a throwaway culture, but from a conservation point of view, we are really in trouble. We don’t have enough space in the landfills and we’re doing a good job by recycling.”
Let’s remember that our waste could mean food to those who need it most and ensure it returns to the loop to be recycled and transformed into work and a better future for us all.