Digging for gold in waste bins — what’s our role to change this?
An early morning sight from my balcony on a Friday highlighted an interesting scene. I found a man [with] his head deep inside one of the numerous waste bins placed on the street.
Wondering why he was doing so, I thought of following him. I soon realised what he was up to. When everyone is fast asleep early on a Friday morning, this poor man tries to find gold in waste bins. By gold, I mean all the cans and other recyclable items inside.
He was diligently picking them, crushing or folding them neatly, and separating them into different bags that he carried. Within a few minutes, he proceeded to his next collection point. My quest to discover more about what prompts people to choose this additional source of income introduced me to several other characters in this story. Adjacent to the array of bins is a storage area for empty cartons and old newspapers that are neatly stacked and tied.
I met the caretaker of this property. Venki is from Andhra Pradesh in India, and is one among hundreds of workers from places such as India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, who collect disposed cartons, papers and used items.
The items are gathered by people crushing and processing disposable material on a daily basis. There are about 300 such workers in the city area of Abu Dhabi. [Most] have valid residence visas and papers and are given company accommodation and a wage which equals Dh0.15 per kilogram of reusable items.
I also found out that the payment per kilogram for those in Dubai is a bit higher — Dh0.20 per kilogram, with the argument that companies have to consider transportation costs. Thus, early every morning, a pick-up truck would weigh the collection and take it away for processing in their factories. An average monthly income of about Dh1,200 to Dh1,500 is earned every month.
If ever the company identifies a person earning more from a specific building or probable disposal unit, they introduce an exclusive collection worker there with a yearly contract, thus killing these workers’ efforts to supplement their income.
In order to obtain regular collection, they keep contact with building watchmen and office boys, who inform them if there is a large bounty of such reusable waste in their area of control.
This is mostly a direct-contact activity. However, there is one other group, which circles around each waste bin, either on bicycles or by carrying one or two backpacks. Looking around carefully, they search mostly for tin materials and cans, which they crush, quickly deposit into their backpacks and proceed.
These scenes of pushing one’s head inside the garbage bin and scanning through [unsanitary] items using bare hands made me sad. A discussion with the Centre of Waste Management made me aware of the fact that, with the introduction of the new-age waste disposal units, it would soon become impossible for such scavenging to continue. That is a good sign.
But what can we do now?
Why not individually try and separate plastic cans, bottles, papers in bags or containers? Each building could have one such deposit area to prepare them for collection daily.
Children could take the initiative in this exercise and be encouraged to deposit the waste in such areas every day. From this point, the respective building security guards or cleaners could then call these collection agents and ensure it goes to [the right place].
Perhaps such recyclable waste processing companies could establish contracts with them, and provide workers with neat uniforms and gloves. They could instruct them to collect the waste every day, rather than scavenge from numerous bins around the city.
In turn, the authorities could also give the building security guards the necessary gloves, protective masks and disposal units to handle waste without any hygiene issues involved. This will be the best way to supplement the numerous progressive efforts being carried out by the government to keep our cities neat and clean.
— The reader is a technical officer based in Abu Dhabi.
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