Every day on the outskirts of the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, around 50 locals come together to comb through piles of municipal waste. Dressed in dirty clothes, wearing masks over their faces, the group searches for anything they can recycle and sell – in particular they’re looking for copper remnants, aluminium or plastics.
It takes bit of effort to talk to these waste pickers. They are afraid if they talk about what they do, then they may be prevented from doing it – every now and then the authorities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan try to stop this business. Additionally a lot of locals look down on this kind of work, considering it dirty and unhealthy.
There is also the danger of sinking into the piles of garbage, adds Nayan, a 30-year-old mother of three.
And recently the economic crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan has meant that even more locals are being driven by money woes to take up scavenging at the dump.
However after some persuasion, one of the men – Ardalan Yusuf, a 24-year-old father of four, agreed to talk about how he makes his living. Yusuf explains that he arrives at the rubbish dump, which is about 50 kilometres square, early every morning and stays here until around 4pm. He sells on the plastic that he is able to collect to small plastic recycling plants and estimates that he makes about IQD10,000 (around US$8) per day.
Hundreds of rubbish trucks visit the dump to make deposits, the authorities say they have 1,500 rubbish collectors working in the province collecting around 1,200 tonnes of rubbish per day and there are six bulldozers operating inside the dump. The scavengers need to be at the dump around the same time as the trucks arrive but they try to leave before the bulldozers and other workers begin compacting the waste.
“It’s not an easy job,” Yusuf told NIQASH. “You always get sick here. And you also worry about being run over by the vehicles or machines that work in the dump.”
“There is also the danger of sinking into the piles of garbage,” adds Nayan, a 30-year-old mother of three, who comes here every day with her husband to scavenge for saleable items.
The local authorities confirm that sometimes the scavengers are hurt or even killed by the vehicles and machinery working in the dump.
“In the 1990s two of the rubbish collectors were killed by bulldozers on the site,” says Rizkah Ahmad, an employee working for the municipality. “We offered the others jobs as official cleaners for the province but they refused because the pay is very low. In the past we tried to prevent people from coming into the dump to scavenge but given the economic conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan at the moment, we can’t really stop them,” he conceded.
The area was chosen as a dumping ground for Sulaymaniyah in 1991 and in 2014 a recycling plant was supposed to be built here, with construction slated to start in 2015. However work was put on hold after the project couldn’t get the right permissions and because of a lack of roading, water supply and power supply into the area.
Another danger the scavengers must deal with is the risk of disease. There is all kinds of potentially lethal rubbish at the dump, says Nayaz Mohammed, a local dermatologist. There is even medical waste left here. “The scavengers are not only risking their own lives but the lives of others as they may spread the diseases they contract,” she told NIQASH.
A few meters away from Yusuf, a young boy names Ari is searching through the rubbish for scraps of copper and iron.
“We always leave here with scratches and bruises,” the 12-year-old explains; Ari is here to try and help support his mother and sister after his father died. “There is also the danger of being run over. But we really don’t have any other choice. This kind of work brings my family about IQD15,000 [around US$10] a day and we can live off that.”