The scraper and the trolley

It was the signature image of 2011 on the streets of Athens.  The characteristic figures pushing their carts are hiding behind them a world that you can hardly imagine.

It wasn’t something unheard of, people with tricycles are doing the same job for years (they are collecting the recyclable material from the garbage) but during 2011 the streets of Athens were flooded with scrappers of every race and color pushing supermarket trolleys.

The cart is the new tricycle and digging around in the garbage is, for thousands of people, a new means to earn a good wage.  Parked trolleys are popping out in every corner of downtown Athens, on the sidewalk, chained and locked to trees or fencing.  At the early morning hours Pireos Str.  at the lane to Piraeus is full of parked carts, ready to serve their owners.

At the end of the year the image is even more frantic:  from the early hours of morning until late at night you can see dark-skinned foreigners of every age going about with their loaded carts, covering tens of kilometers per day on foot, until they turn them over to the junk yards.  Upon sunset, the march starts.  Between three o’clock in the noon and half past seven,   the time where the yards receive the materials, tens of carts with their owners are waiting in line for the scale.  Most don’t have a single clue about the prices that the materials reach when sent away from the yard.  Nor about their contribution to the national economy.

The figures are not official because the scrapers –Greeks and foreigners- are literally non-existent as far as the state and the formal governing bodies are concerned, but only in Athens downtown it is estimated that they are circulating over 500 on a daily basis, in two shifts, which means that each cart has two co-owners (who share it).  On their most part they are immigrants from Bangladesh and Africa, but there is no race or nationality that currently isn’t running around with a cart, rummaging through garbage cans to get 20 in-hand, non-taxable euros per day.

 “Most of them are immigrants who lost their jobs and have no other way of making ends meet” says P., “so they shorted a cart from a supermarket parking lot and they hit the streets.  Some of them used to clean the car wind-shields on the traffic lights, but lately the money is zero, Greeks won’t spare a dime, and they had to find a way to survive.”  R. is one of the lucky ones which still have a job; most of the people he knows are moving around all day at the streets in pursuit of metal and paper, that they will sell to junk yards.  Most foreigner scrappers are refusing to talk, they are afraid of giving off information and they are hesitant when you ask them for how long do they do this job, especially the Africans- “do you know why?” R. asks “mostly because they are afraid of being tracked down by the supermarkets they raided for the cart!”

R. is very fluent in his Greek and he’s willing to solve all my questions, although himself had never went out in search of discarded material.  What he commends on is the total lack of any social services for elderly people that are being forced to go out on the streets in order to survive.  He is mostly referring to the Greeks.  There are too many people doing this job lately and their number is constantly rising, mostly pensioners, but also younger people who’ve lost their jobs.  “It’s not a shame to be doing this” he says “but it’s a shame for a state to have so many elderly people that can’t make it through.”

I ask him how much do they get for a kilo.  “It depends on the material and the quality” R. explains, “the metals are sold for 19 cents per kilo, the paper 7 cents, but there is also copper being sold for 2.50 to 2.70 euros per kilo.  One day I found some cables thrown away, I burnt them and from the copper I sold I made 300 euros, there can be some good cases to be found.”  And how much euros can a scrapper earn in a day?  Is the money enough to make a living?

 “From 20 in a bad day, to 30 in a good day –each-, if you come to think that the most of them live in groups of ten in a single apartment, and they share the expenses, the wage is good.  Picking up garbage doesn’t cost them a thing, they don’t get a receipt from the yards (with copper being the sole exclusion), they don’t pay taxes.  We’re talking black money that you get in hand at the time you turn over the materials.”

The transactions are taking place with the tolerance of the Greek authorities and not, of course, because they are unable to intervene.  The situation is such that it’s a win-win.  The scrapers are making their living in the least illegal way (and they don’t have to resort to criminal acts, small-scale thefts, burglaries and whatever these may entail).  What is more, the recyclable materials that used to end up in dumps –the efforts made in order to awaken the ecological conscience of the Athenians were pointless, very few are responding to the calls for recycling- can be made usable again in the most practical way. The metal and the paper, at least.  Finally, there is a million-euro turnover in this industry: a fortune for those on the higher levels of the chain.

The most under-paid are the scrapers, which they can’t even imagine, neither those that go past them on the street thinking they are just a sign of the times, the world concealed behind them.  The wealth they generate is nowhere to be seen, never being documented by any service, it comes with great exploitation, illegal jobs, huge loss of resources; and also behind it all the modern part of recycling is hidden, that although being presented by the media as green, it’s pitch black in practice. 

They are living at the margin of the law and with the rest of us being unaware.  These people don’t have the opportunity of knowing what takes place when they leave the yard, they only care for the money they will get in order to survive.  Their work is devaluated on purpose and they are kept in the dark so that a much more clear-cut image comes out media-wise, that will not get “polluted” by their “filth”.

The hunt for scrap and the miles that these people walk every day to get it, is not shown in any economical transaction, no invoices are kept, no receipts are issued, just warm, black money is flowing not only to the lower levels of the system but also at the later stages of the reselling process.  For the smallest junkyard to the biggest, again no records are being kept, the paperwork is barely typical, while at the same time, there is a million-euro turnover that reaches up to the steel industry.  We are talking about huge sums of money, the material prices skyrocket from the time the collectors turn them over to the moment they reach the industrial melting pot to be further used again in constructions.  The story is not simple at all, and it bears no relation to what comes out as an image.

The people with the trolleys, however, will be happy as long as there is paper or cans of aluminum for them to pick up in the garbage...

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