A better life for some …

Recycling entrepreneur supervisor, Marilyn Sisi Pieters, and Drakenstein Municipality senior manager solid waste and landfill management, Thys Serfontein, at the waste recycling depot at the Wellington landfill site.

On July 23, a meeting took place between Drakenstein Municipality and the informal recyclers, who were offered the opportunity to become part of a formal recycling programme.

Marilyn Pieters, or Sisi as she is fondly known, who had been buying sorted recyclable waste from the informal recyclers and reselling it, was approached by the recyclers and asked to attend the meeting, and to represent them if need be.

“They asked me if I would go with them to the meeting that they had been invited to, because they didn’t understand what was going to happen at the meeting, or what was required of them,” says Marilyn.

Thys explained his plan to remove informal recyclers from the dump site and to accommodate them at an adjacent site, where they could sort recyclable waste safely and in more comfortable conditions. 

“We said we could accommodate between 50 and 60 of the informal recyclers,” Thys says. “Forty of them were not interested.”

After the meeting, the informal recyclers were successfully moved off the landfill site, provided with personal protective equipment – breeches, boots, gloves T-shirts and reflective bibs – and trained to identify and sort recyclable waste properly. 

Each is an entrepreneur in their own right, earning anything up to R500 a day, depending upon how much effort they put in to their sorting activities.

“I emphasised to the workers that the group may well become smaller; those that wanted to work would work, and those who didn’t want to, would be able to leave of their own choice,” says Marilyn. The group has now shrunk to 40.

Marilyn, who started her recycling home business a few years back when she became unemployed, is the de-facto supervisor of the group, although she does not earn a stipend.

“I buy some of the things from them and then sell them on, so I don’t really get a salary for doing this job,” she says. 

“I live in Greenfield in Paarl. My husband is a community leader and I work alongside him. I am his Xhosa translator into English or Afrikaans. I don’t get paid a salary, I do most of this work out of my heart, with my passion for people; I love people.”

Each day Marilyn arrives at the recycling area at 7.30am. 

“I check that everyone is safe and happy, and if they have any problems or issues we talk about them and sort them out.

I think I have coached them to believe that this is a job so if they’re ill and they go to the clinic, they come back with a note. They can take time off if they’re ill, but it’s a matter of learning responsibility and the rules. It has been a great opportunity for many of these people to move to a better working space, to have better working conditions, and to have a better life.

“They used to live in small shacks (on the dump site), and all sleeping here and there. Since July, I said, no, you have to go home. You can’t live on the site. So now, it’s a job. They live at home, they have left the little shacks. I actually had to force them to do that, but at least now it is safe for them to leave their stuff here and go home (at night).”

The success stories of people who have literally pulled themselves up by the bootstraps are many.

“I live with my mother in Mbekweni now,” says Alex. “I feel at home here and I’m happy in this place. It’s a better place to work. We get along better and we’ve learned to work together. We’ve learned to respect each other when working here on the site.

“It is an easier life now that I work here. It is a whole lot better. It is difficult to describe how exactly, but it’s like a proper job,” says 45-year-old Colin Julius, who lives with his mother in Wellington. 

“I take it like a salary. I work for the whole week and get my money to take home at the end of the week. I am very grateful that Mr Thys (Serfontein) has brought us down here from up there, which was very unsafe. Here we’ve got security at this site.”

Kaelin Johnson is the youngest at 18, and she earns up to R450 a day if she works hard.

“It is safer, no people to threaten you. You have the time, you can get on with your work. We get things for free like our reflective vests and safety shoes. There is a lot more respect working here, it is a really nice place to work. My plan for the future? I’m not sure but I have lots of plans, big plans, oh my word!” and she laughs, adding that she wants to give thanks to her family, to get to buy a car or a house, and to open a bank account. “I’m very excited about my future.”

An integral part of Thys’s waste reduction and waste minimisation plans, the recycling project will be extended to include recycling collection from all of Wellington up to Mbekweni, for sorting by the recycling entrepreneurs. And the project is gaining attention elsewhere. 

“Last year I went to Sasolburg and Vereeniging with Thys, where we told them and showed them what we do here, and how we do things, so that they can maybe remove their people from their dump sites,” says Marilyn.

Reflecting on the success of the programme, Marilyn says: “No one is forced to do anything. They do, though, and everything works according to the rules of the space. I enjoy working here; it’s not really work. It’s enjoyment, and I’m really glad they are away from the awfulness of the site.

“Thys has done everything that he said he was going to do for the programme. He has shown us a lot of love and respect and that is returned. Dit is eintlik lekker! Alles werk lekker hier.”