We look for metal and wire – anything we can sell to recycling firms, says Vincent. Picture: David Gemmell
We look for metal and wire – anything we can sell to recycling firms, says Vincent. Picture: David Gemmell
The trolleys are strong and its much better than pulling loads uphill, says Bernard. Picture: David Gemmell
The trolleys are strong and its much better than pulling loads uphill, says Bernard. Picture: David Gemmell
Vincent and his mate Bernard about to summit the Nicol Highway. Picture : David Gemmell
Vincent and his mate Bernard about to summit the Nicol Highway. Picture : David Gemmell


Today's piece is the last in the current series and I thought I would list some of the impressions made on me by the street people I interviewed.

The last 12 weeks have been instructive in many ways.

Probably the main lesson I learnt is how wrong first impressions can be. In almost every interview, the subject's story turned out to be different to what I expected.

One aspect that impressed me enormously was how, almost without exception, none of them were bitter or complaining about their lot in life.

Granted, they weren't ecstatic, but they all expressed some sort of gratitude and humility at just being able to survive from day to day.

They also mostly seemed to possess a sense of humour about aspects of their situation. A lot of them were religious.

Lastly, I was amazed at how, despite their being almost at the bottom of the food chain, they still found it in them to be concerned about others. The Knitter taking in stray kittens for example.

Or, after the Juggler and I had been interviewed on TV, we were stopped at some lights when a chap tried to sell me a Homeless Talk. I was a bit street-peopled-out so didn't buy one.

With that, the Juggler called him to his window, scratched in his tatty little purse and gave the guy a five-rand coin.

The whole experience has been quite edifying. I also believe a lot more can be done to assist these people that doesn't involve giving them money.

A lot of the interviewees aspired to quite simple, achievable goals which could, with the appropriate assistance and support, be easily realised. It just needs some like-minded people to get together and make it happen.

The TrashJunkies

When you see them hurtling down steep hills, quietly having a smoke as they nonchalantly steer their indescribably rickety trolleys with absurdly dinky wheels at speeds of up to 60km/* , loaded with massive sacks full of plastic and paper and other scrap; you know instinctively they are a resilient lot. Even more so when you see them hauling mountains of recyclable trash from one end of the city to another.

Because they dress similarly, have the same insouciant attitude towards traffic and are rarely seen on their own, given they always travel in twos or threes, I actually suspect they are a cult

I’m willing to bet, if you ever got into the inner operations of the TrashJunkies, you’d find, like the Freemasons, they have secret handshakes and mystical rituals that distinguish them from everyday street people.

I mean, on any Thursday evening you find them huddled in groups around the city, chatting and no-doubt determining future TrashJunky policies. Given you don’t find other genres of Street People getting together like that, they have to be a cult

So what do they collect and pack in those massive sacks? Paper, it seems, is first prize. White office paper, coloured paper, cardboard boxes, newspapers, magazines, books and cereal boxes all have value. And, of course, plastic - usually bottles.

Despite the presence of so many waste pickers, on average South Africa recovers about 52% of all recoverable paper and 26% of all recoverable plastic.

These figures are low when compared with developed countries where 90% of recoverable paper is recovered and 70% of plastic.

I meet Vincent and his mate Bernard about to summit the Nicol Highway. They are each pulling a massive bag filled with recyclable trash.

“We look for cardboard and paper, also plastic bottles, steel, aluminium cans,” Vincent says, pulling out examples of each as he talks. “But we also look for metal and wire - anything we can sell to the recycling firms.”

He explains how they first fill up their bags and then later they sort the rubbish into types. It appears this is a requirement of the recyclers. They generally only fill their bags up once a day - so try and get as much in as possible.

“We start at about 3am and we work until dark. But if we fill and sort before it gets late, we stop working.”

They don’t eat when they get up, but during the day they buy a cold-drink and usually some bread. In the evening they cook pap and stew.

Vincent comes from Parys in the Free State. He doesn’t have any close family still living. His story echoes that of a lot of Street People - he ended up in Johannesburg looking for work.

It wasn’t long before he noticed the TrashJunkies so he learnt from one of them what stuff to collect, where to find it and how and who to sell it to.

“We always look for the best price for stuff.”

“How do you know where the prices are good?” I ask him.

“Everybody tells each other. So if we go to Strydom Park, but on the way someone says they are paying for plastic better this side,” and he points in the general direction of Sandton, “then we change and go there.”

“Even if it is far away?”

“Yes - we want to get as much as we can for our stuff because it is very little money anyway. Also, we walk all day so we don’t mind if it is far away.”

I try to establish if he understands why the prices of the various materials differ from day to day. He has a vague theory about supply and demand, but mainly seems convinced the recyclers just set the prices at what they want.

As we chat, he makes it clear at any given time he knows exactly what the prices are for everything he has in his bag.

Unfortunately, I don’t really get much out of Bernard as he speaks neither English or Afrikaans. But he sits in on my interview with Vincent and occasionally nods his head in agreement.

I suspect sitting in the back of my car is a lot less tiring than pulling his almost full bag up Nicol highway.

I ask Vincent where they live. He points out a bit of parkland. “Down there,” he says. “We don’t live in anything; we live in the open.” It turns out there are a number of them. “We are about 70 people. They are not all recyclers; they do all kinds of jobs.”

By the sound of things, it is all quite organised. They have elected a few (5) of their number to, “be above us.” Vincent explains these people are in charge of the place and if anyone has a problem they can talk to them.

They work every day of the week. It seems they have developed a routine whereby on most days they know where they will be looking for certain types of rubbish. They also have a few regular calling points which only deal with them.

“If we talk to the security and show we are reliable they only give the stuff to us. It is then our place.”

Vincent says he makes between R50 and R70 a day depending on what they collect. By the sounds of things, it really is back-breaking, tough physical work for pitiful rewards. At 28 he is younger than he looks and has been collecting recyclable rubbish for 8 years. I ask him if he gets nervous when he finds himself going quickly downhill with a full load.

At first he doesn’t fully understand the question, but once he gets it he smiles broadly and shakes his head.

“No,” he says, “the trolleys are strong, and it is much better than pulling them uphill,” he laughs. Obviously.

“There is currently a clip on You Tube of a waste picker careering down a steep hill at just over 60 km per hour.

I spoke to Chris Coombes, CEO of a company called Amalgamated Metal Re-cycling, one of the recyclers, who reckons they have close to 2,000 of the TrashJunkies calling on them every month.

“If we disappeared - effectively there would be a lot of them out work,” he says.

He goes on to explain they are a vital section of the economy. Because if they didn’t collect the recyclable rubbish, it would have to be done formally at huge expense.

However, this is one of the complaints the recyclers get from the waste-pickers says Chris.

“They blame the poor conditions in the industry on the fact it is all so informal and casually regulated.”

At times the trolley pulling TrashJunkies can be very irritating when they disrupt traffic in narrow roads, but when one considers the amount of effort they put into what they do for such paltry returns, and the benefits of having them around to supply the recycling industry, they probably deserve a more sympathetic press.

The Saturday Star