Waste Warriors of Necessity: Informal Waste Pickers Carving a Livelihood from Scraps

Unrecognized and unrewarded, marginalized waste pickers in Kosovo form the backbone of the country’s makeshift recycling efforts, due to the absence of a functional waste management system.

Since the age of 7, Turkian Iseni’s only job has been collecting garbage in Fushë Kosova. An activity he continues to pursue for want of other opportunities.

“I don’t know what else I would like to do for work, I don’t have dreams. We are only used to these bottles,” laments the 24 year old Roma guy, while putting his hand on a big bag full of plastic waste — the result of a whole day of work. 

In doing this collection work, he follows the example of many poor families in Kosovo, most of which come from marginalized communities [Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians]. They can regularly be seen, rummaging through public containers to find valuable materials: paper, cardboard, plastic, metals, electronic devices.

Turkian Iseni, a 24-year-old Roma, has been collecting waste since he was 7. Photo: Eddie Rabeyrin/Prishtina Insight

Ironically, in modern Kosovo, where almost all household waste ends up being dumped into landfill sites, these waste collectors operating outside of any official status have become the only actors doing separate collection. 

They are not doing this task out of desire and ecological awareness though, but rather out of necessity. They haven’t been able to find jobs in any form due to high unemployment rates and limited education, so they are forced to do this work.

These independent workers have been doing this job for a long time in Kosovo, but their involvement in that job increased even more after the war, as unemployment rose.

Inside a collection center in Fushë Kosova. Photo: Eddie Rabeyrin/Prishtina Insight

First recycle then export

In the absence of a public recycling system, it is the private sector which has invested in this area of waste management. Many recycling companies can be found in the places where collecting communities also live. They partly collect the materials by themselves from industries and partly buy it to the waste pickers. Once processed—that is to say sorted and compressed—the materials are often sold, mostly for export.

In Fushë Kosova for example, where several recycling companies can be found, the biggest one, Rec-kos, which deals mostly with metals, indicates that most of their products are exported to steel factories in Turkey and Greece. “[Waste collectors] bring us metallic scrap: depending on the market, we pay them around 25 cents per kilogram” tells Sevdai Ahmeti, the sales manager of the company. 

At Plastika, another recycling center, purchase prices range from €0,20 to €0,40 per kilo of plastic. When the company started its activity in 2006 they “first had to teach [waste collectors] what kind of materials we needed” explains Ardit Shabani, the CEO of the company. These materials are then used to produce construction foils, packaging, for exports and the national market.  

Ismet Berisha, a 54-years-old Ashkali, on his way to bring what he has collected to the collection center. Photo: Eddie Rabeyrin/Prishtina Insight

Trapped in a cycle to recycle 

It is the early afternoon in neighborhoods 28 and 29 in Fushë Kosova and Ismet Berisha, a 54-years-old Ashkalli, has gathered around 20 kg of plastic bottles as well as some nylon. After weighing his cart, he deposits his collection at the location indicated by Lirian Vatoci, the collection point manager. 

In the street near a recycling center, it is not unusual to come across trailers full of waste, that their owners pull by tillers or push by hand. 

“See, one day of work and I receive 4 euros!” he shows, a bit sour.

Enver Shabani, a 58 years old Askhalli, uses his brother’s trailer to collect materials, with the help of his two sons. Photo: Eddie Rabeyrin/Prishtina Insight

The efficiency of these waste collectors also depends a lot on the means of transport available to them. 

Enver Shabani knows something about it. That day he was driving his brother’s trailer, because he could not afford to buy one for himself.

“I use it when he is not working, but when he needs it, I have to use a handcart, which is very tiring,” says Shabani. 

His daily routine usually starts at 7 every morning and ends around 3 or 4 pm. With the help of his two young sons, the 58-years-old Ashkali collects as much materials as he can, in Fushë Kosova, and also in Prishtina.

“[We gather] around 100 kilograms per day, and get paid 15 euros a day approximately” he indicates. 

Along with some occasional private jobs–when the opportunity arises– collecting waste constitutes the only source of revenue for his family of 8 persons. He started it 20 years ago because he needed money to build his house. 

“I lived in a shack. The diaspora also helped me.”

Like many waste pickers, he also has some health issues. “I am sick due to high blood pressure and diabetes” he says, while showing skin injuries on his leg.

Because it still remains an important component of these minority families’ income, some organizations interested in the fate of minorities in Kosovo have tried to tackle the subject of waste collection. Their focus has mostly been on improving their work conditions, by providing them with better tools and equipment. 

This is for example one aspect of the project Recycling Matters, funded by USAID and implemented in Gracanica by Democracy plus. Since its launch one year ago, it has supported the informal waste collectors of this municipality “with workwear, tools for collecting and processing recyclable materials, training sessions, and equipment for processing and transporting recyclables from where they are collected to the private sector companies that buy them” summarizes Roberta Osmani, the project manager.  

In the meantime, they try to link this to the implementation of separation of waste at source, by providing dedicated containers to households and businesses. The idea there is that waste pickers would then have an easier job collecting, while the public company Pastrimi would take anything that cannot be recycled.

Landfill in Arberia neighborhood, Prishtina. Photo: BIRN.

Cash only 

Since these informal waste pickers capture the most valuable materials, an overhaul of the waste management system in Kosovo does not seem conceivable without involving them. But the attempts to formalize the job of these waste pickers by giving them a legal status have not been successful so far. 

“[In Gjakova], we had a lot of initiatives to employ families from the non-majority communities in businesses. But their first question was about whether they would be paid with cash. And the moment they were told it would be through a bank account, they said no” explains Emrah Cermjani, director of the NGO Roma in Action.  

Registering their business would mean tax responsibilities, possible inspections, and fines for collecting waste in their residential yards, but most importantly, losing their unemployment social security benefits. For this reason, many of them would rather stick with the current way of doing it, which has the advantage of intractability and flexibility.

A poster outside a trash collecting center that reads: We collect: plastic bottles, paper, naylon, different plastics.” Photo: Eddie Rabeyrin/Prishtina Insight

An attempt to organize the community around a collection center 

Adrian Zeqiri, the executive director of the European Center for Minorities Issues does not satisfy himself with this state of affairs. In the past, his organization implemented a project, supported by the EU Office in Kosovo, to provide better equipment to waste collectors. In hindsight, he considers it as not sufficient, “because it did not change the structure of the work that they do, they continue to be informal workers.”

With funds received from USAID, he decided to tackle the issue in a different way in Fushe Kosova. The originality of the project will be its support to a private company doing recycling. 

His “best bet” is a small one already hiring five staff, that would have the capacity to grow if supported. Unlike most recycling companies, which are runned by Albanians, it “is owned by a Roma guy and staffed by Roma” insists Adrian Zeqiri, who wants to take this as an opportunity to promote marginalized communities into management positions, which is very rarely the case. 

The support would be both a technical one, by providing equipment [trucks, etc.] and training on management. The goal is to hire waste pickers, ensuring them in the meantime better working conditions and a monthly wage high enough to cover the loss of their unemployment benefits.

From there to its realization, the road is still long for the implementation of this project. It is still in its first year, with three more to come. But if it works, who knows? 

“If we manage to have this model up and running in Fushë Kosova, then we can replicate it in other municipalities,” concludes Zeqiri.

Eddie Rabeyrin is an intern at Prishtina Insight. After working for several years in the French local press, he resumed studies to do a Master’s degree in international relations at the University of Strasbourg, France.

Antigonë Isufi helped with the translation during the report with waste collectors. 

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