Every day, 12-year-old Ali Mustapha and his three older brothers take to Yaounde’s streets in search of scrap metal with little or no idea of what they will excavate from beneath the earth and rubble.
“We never return empty handed,” said the young waste picker. “We pick all sorts of metal, even those that are hidden in electronic machines.”
For Yaounde’s jobless youth, like Mustapha and his brothers, scrap metal is a gold mine. Young wastepickers sift through the city’s dumping grounds, companies’ backyards and workshops for metal that they sell to smelters and dealers.
For three years now, Mustapha has been buying his own food and clothes. The job is difficult but vital for his survival, he said.
“I make at least 2000 francs ($4) daily but my brothers make double and even much more. We don’t have any other activity to do that can easily bring in as much money as this,” he said. “We break machines, electronics, to extract different metals but the most cherished is aluminum because we can easily bind and sell it on the spot to smelters.”
Along the streets of Briketeri neigbourhood in Yaounde, the scrap business is the specialty of many young entrepreneurs. They buy and sell any articles that can be reused or recycled, like home electronics, car batteries, surplus materials, cardboard, plastics, glass, metals, zinc, building supplies and engine spare parts.
People with less means have built houses in Yaounde using building materials bought from these scrap markets, some men working with metals in Briketeri told urbanafrica.
An aluminum dealer, Hamed Ibrahim explained that he buys a kilogram of aluminum from wastepickers for 200 francs ($.40).
Ibrahim owns a smelting workshop. He employs three other young men in the craft of melting aluminum and molding pots and other kitchen utensils.
When the raw material Ibrahim buys from pickers is not suited for his needs he sells it to bigger buyers who take it to smelting companies in Douala city’s industrial zone.
“I also started like a picker before going into the buying, reselling, recycling of aluminum. It is a business that has saved many lives,” said Ibrahim. “Most of us were former street children who discovered where quick and easy money can be made. Although most of us have not attained a basic level in school, this business has enabled me to send my juniors to school.”
Besides providing a livelihood for unemployed youth, many of them living on the street, and keeping them from crime, the informal scrap metal economy is also beneficial to the environment.
Waste pickers help recycle metals, which are not collected by the municipal waste collection company Hysacam. The company collects more than 1,300 and 1,500 tons of domestic waste daily in the cities of Yaounde and Douala, respectively, but this waste does not include heavy metals and solid materials.
The dumping of metal has a large impact on the environment because of the dispersal of metallic particles into the ecosystem. Recycling and recovering metals from the waste stream is vital for protecting the environment.
“Metals are precious natural resources of the Earth. Metal deposits are non-renewable resources that will run out if exploited at the present rate, so the importance of recycling the metal cannot be over emphasized,” said Pierre Bate, a soil mineral expert with the Ministry of Mines.
The work of the scrappers is very important to the ecology of the city, said Bate, since a significant amount of recyclables are separated by the informal pickers and selectors prior to collection by large companies.
Recycling aluminum requires less than five percent of the energy and emits only five percent of the carbon dioxide emissions when compared with primary production, according to the Ministry of Mines. The metal can be recycled indefinitely because reprocessing does not damage its structure. Aluminum is also the most cost-effective material to recycle and reduces the waste going to landfill.
Although Cameroon still lacks sufficient markets for all recyclable materials, a recent countrywide ban on plastic bags and a call for sustainable environmental practices from the Ministry of Environment has seen many companies deriving strategies to pick up their own mess.
A major producer of bottled water in Cameroon, Tangui, has recently entered into an agreement with the waste collection company Hysacam that encourages waste collectors to select used bottles from the company in exchange for new bottles of water.
“We select only bottles from the Tangui Company and 10 bottles is equal to a new bottle of water. It is quite easy because the bottles litter all over the town,” said Hysacam’s Francis Ebene.
Cameroon has undergone rapid urbanization since the 1990s and about 40 percent of its 21 million people now live in urban areas, which has been the case since 2001, Ebene explained. Due to this trend and economic growth the per capita waste generation rate has increased.
The amount of plastics, paper and metal discarded into the environment has increased significantly from about 500 tons per day before 1999 to 2,000 tons today in Yaounde with a population of 3.5 million, he said.
High-income countries use machines to separate waste but in Cameroon the separation and sale of recyclables from mixed waste provides a livelihood to, and affordable goods for, marginalized urban populations, Ebene added.
Recycling is also very profitable for companies and the nation as a whole, according to Bate of the Ministry of Mines.
Each ton of steel that is recycled can save 1.5 tons of iron ore, 5 tons of coal, 40 percent of the water used in production, and 75 percent of the energy needed to make steel from raw material. It also saves 1.28 tons of solid waste and reduces air emissions by 86 percent and water pollution by 76 percent, compared to making steel from raw material.
“Recycling 1 kg of aluminum saves up to 6 kg of bauxite, 4 kg of chemical products and 14 kWh of electricity, enough energy to light many homes for several hours,” said Bate.
Monde Kingsley Nfor is journalist and international development consultant in Cameroon. He is also a correspondent for the Inter Press Service (IPS) and the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN). Monde holds a master’s degree in International Relations and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Headline image: men working with scrap metal in Yaounde’s Briketeri neigbourhood. Monde Nfor.Read older posts from this section