"I am proud of my work," says Hassien Satarien, a 40-year old father of five who has been a bin operator for nine years. "Knowing that I am delivering an important service makes me feel great. I have a fancy title - bin operator - but I am just an ordinary worker."
The garbage truck slowly makes its way down the suburban street. People in council uniforms jump down when it comes to a halt. They run ahead, wheeling the waste bins on the pavements onto a mechanical bin lifter - a special contraption that lifts the bin before tipping it over, spilling the contents into the bowels of the huge truck.
It is a familiar sight across the globe – the people and pick-up trucks that help to keep the suburban and city streets clean. In the process they prevent vermin breeding and the world smelling, well, pretty awful.
Cities running out of space
Hassien Satarien works for the Cape Town City Council in a city that generates 1,8 million tonnes of waste annually. It is estimated that each of the city's residents produces 2 kg of waste per day. Across the country, cities are running out of space as landfill sites are reaching their full capacity. This means that waste departments and private entrepreneurs are facing huge challenges in dealing with the problem.
The importance of waste management and the people that perform this task becomes all the more visible when municipality workers go on strike and sometimes create havoc during industrial action when the contents of rubbish bins are scattered in the streets and piles of waste mount up around the city.
In some parts of the greater Cape Town metropolitan area, householders are requested to separate their waste according to recyclables – tin, paper, glass and plastic – and organic materials. About 1300 tons of recyclable waste is diverted from landfill sites every month. Organic materials end up in the bins that bin operators like Hassien deals with. And while the big guns are looking for solutions to the landfill challenges, people like Hassien makes sure that our cities are not buried under heaps of filth.
Treasures found in bins
Although bin operating is still mainly a male domain, there is a smattering of women working alongside the men.
"I dropped out of school in the eighth grade," says Natasha Carelse (29). In a country where 25% of the population is unemployed, it is even more difficult for an individual without matric to get work.
"I was willing to do any kind of work," says Natasha. "I have been doing this job for about four years and I really love it. I meet interesting people all over town."
She is a member of the trade team which empties bins at hotels, restaurants, shops and fruit markets. "I always scratch in the bin before I load it onto the truck. People often throw away cell phones, clothes and other stuff that I can use."
But sometimes the job really gets dirty. "It has happened a few times that waste spills out of an overfilled bin as it gets lifted into the truck and I get covered in all kinds of horrible stuff. But I just wipe away the worst and take a shower when I get to the office."
She supports her unemployed boyfriend and nine-month-old baby on her monthly salary of R4 700.
Hassien, who is on a domestic team, is studying for his matric. "I wish I had the opportunity when I was younger to further my studies and to become a magistrate. But I know this dream might be unattainable at this stage of my life. I want to continue working for the Council, but I hope to eventually become part of the risk management team. We have so many fires in the townships and I would love to be able to really do something for the people when they have losses."
Like Natasha, Hassien has also found treasures in or around the bins. "Many ratepayers are incredibly good to us. They will leave clothes, food and other usable things that we can use on top of the bin where we can easily find it. One of my colleagues bought a second hand car from a ratepayer, but when he went to pay for it, the owner said he could have it as a Christmas gift."
Respect for everyone
The physical work keeps him fit, says Hassien. "We run around a lot and are quite fit, but I have suddenly started picking up weight. Maybe it is because I am getting older."
The secret of doing his job well is to treat others with respect. "This means that I sometimes pick up bags which are not inside the bins. When people see that you are willing to help them out, they are kind to you. I try to always act in a way that is exemplary. My colleagues and I may work with rubbish, but we are not rubbish."
African Utility Week
In May, challenges around waste will be discussed at African Utility Week where political and business leaders from across the globe will come together to discuss Africa's utility service delivery challenges. Waste - how to manage waste and landfill sites, how to set standards for waste management, how to recycle waste and co-operation between city councils and business - is one of the eight tracks to be scrutinised.
Says Claire Volkwyn, African Utility Week's project director: "we look at local and international best practice case studies to inform our municipalities of the latest developments in waste management. From Brazil and Rwanda, where there are some really forward-thinking things happening, to the City of Johannesburg's hugely successful World Cup 2010 Pikitup campaign as well as how Cape Town decided to master the basics. Other highlights in our programme include the very exciting local waste-to-energy projects and how the private sector can play an important partnership role with their local munis."
African Utility Week will focus on all aspects of the utility service sector on the continent with dedicated tracks on: Metering, Renewables, Water, Large Industry, Infrastructure Investment, Transmission & Distribution/Smart Grids, Generation and Waste Management.
Conference: 22-23 May 2012
Exhibition: 21-23 May 2012
Pre-conference workshops: 21 May 2012
Site visits: 24 May 2012
Event location: Expo Centre, Johannesburg