Everyday tonnes of waste is generated by shops and supermarkets in the country, most of which end up in landfills. However, a lot of it is collected and recycled thanks to an army of workers who sift through garbage bins and shop storage areas to collect used cartons, soda cans and clothes.
People rummaging through trash bins in search of something worth reselling or transporting piles of used cartons on a handcart is a common sight in Muscat.
While some ragpickers are employed by waste management companies, others resort to it to earn extra money.
Fazal Ahmed (name changed on request), who is employed by a waste management company based in Dubai that has a collection centre in Barka, said, “My colleagues and I used to cover a bigger area earlier. Since I am alone now, I cannot cover the area like before.”
In Ahmed’s estimate, he collects three tonnes of used cartons every week with the support of a few offices and restaurants.
Arranging cartons on his handcart in the parking lot of an office near a juice shop in Ruwi, Ahmed said, “The staff of the juice shop hide the cartons in the parking area. If they leave it in the open, it will be picked up by other collectors.”
Some ragpickers, like Narendra (name changed on request) are employed by waste management companies which have annual contracts with supermarkets and shops to collect their waste for recycling.
Narendra’s company has contracts with two supermarkets in the same area where Ahmed operates. While he needn’t go searching for used cartons
himself, he does so anyhow for a few extra rials. “This part of Ruwi has so many offices and commercial establishments; we are lucky to be posted here as we get a lot of cartons.”
Jehangir, a construction labourer, injured his right leg when he was struck by a brick falling out of the second floor leaving him out of work for three months. The accident compelled him to stay away from strenuous work.
“I looked for some light work and collecting clothes from garbage bins seemed easy and convenient. Also, this work didn’t involve commitment or contractual requirements,” he said.
A firm believer in the dignity of labour, Ahmed feels it is a job like any other, the heat being the only challenge. “My family is aware of what I do to make a living. But since the pandemic started, their only concern is my health. They are afraid I may get infected with the coronavirus.”
Of late, Ahmed has been worrying about some shops that he dealt with closing down during the COVID-19 pandemic leaving him with fewer cartons.
For Narendra too, the heat is the only problem. “I never felt shy of picking through trash bins. I am here to work. If I feel ashamed, how will I survive? Work is work!”
Jehangir, however, thinks differently. “I feel bad at times that I am making a living out of trash. But what should I do? Since my accident, I am unable to do any construction work and I have the responsibility of my mother, my wife and two children.”
Ahmed takes pride in his work for another reason – the environmental aspect of it. “I feel happy that due to my hard work, these cartons are getting recycled into something useful. Otherwise, they would simply go into landfills.”
Jahangir sometimes finds clothes in fairly good condition. These are sold at very low prices. “Many of my friends buy these clothes which gives me a sense of satisfaction. I believe God is going to reward me for helping other poor people like myself.”
Narendra says his service is important to others. “If a small company needs to get rid of its trash, it may cost them. But because of me, they can dispose of their trash for free as I pick it up from their doorstep. I am helping them and the environment, too.”
(Text and photo by Syed Fasiuddin)