The “invisible recyclers”: Syrian refugees seek a living in Jordan’s informal waste sector


December 14, 2020

AMMAN – On the littered ground of al-Husseiniyat landfill, a dozen bicycles are parked among shreds of plastic. Their owners, day workers from the nearby village of Zaatari and the eponymous refugee camp, scurry around searching for recyclables. Their daily wage will depend on the quantity they manage to collect on this large landfill located in Mafraq province, in the north of Jordan.

In Jordan, 6,000 to 7,000 people work informally in waste recovery and recycling. At the bottom level of this industry are thousands of waste pickers scouting the streets and landfills for scrap metal and packaging bought by larger brokers and exported to be recycled. Despite economic hardship and social stigma, this work brings an income to many of Jordan’s most vulnerable, including a growing share of Syrian refugees. 

The last refuge?

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, many Syrians fled to neighboring Jordan, which now hosts around 660,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. This sudden population growth led to a mechanical increase in waste quantities produced, aggravating strains on existing solid waste management services. 

In parallel, according to a 2015 assessment, “Syrian refugees actively contributed to the expansion of the informal [waste management] sector.” In Mafraq, they represent the vast majority of the province’s estimated 1,000 informal waste collectors

Due to the difficulty of obtaining a work permit, it is in practice “very difficult for refugees to access formal and decent jobs [outside the camps],” Eiman Zarrug from Oxfam Jordan told Syria Direct. “The work opportunities open for Syrians around the camp are limited largely to manufacturing and seasonal work on farms.”

Therefore, many refugees entered the waste sector out of necessity, like Salma (a pseudonym), who started working on the landfill when her husband (who was the primary income provider) became ill. Salma is among the estimated 200 women who work as waste pickers in Mafraq and Irbid provinces. She works alongside her three sons, the oldest of whom is 18 years old. The proximity of refugee camps led to an increased number of women and an estimated 20 to 30% of children on certain landfills.

Ali (a pseudonym) was already working in the waste sector in Syria due to the lack of other opportunities. “In Jordan, I tried to work on vegetable farms, but waste picking makes better money,” he told Syria Direct. Salma also tried to work on tomato farms near the camp, but she found the work too exhausting physically. Agriculture is highly seasonal and does not provide a stable income, say the waste pickers. At the landfill, they work from dawn to mid-afternoon every day of the year.

Treasures in the trash

Recyclable waste from al-Husseiniyah landfill is sorted by the women waste pickers and set aside in large canvas bags, 1/12/2020 (Syria Direct)

Many pickers collect waste directly from the street before it reaches the landfill.  “They say you can find treasures in the streets of West Amman because people [living there] are rich; they buy a lot of things, and they throw a lot away,” Amal Madanat, the founder of Towards Zero Waste, told Syria Direct. Through her initiative to promote the reduction and recycling of waste, she has worked with street pickers for years and has invited some into a school to teach children about recycling. 

While some are lucky to find “treasures,” the majority struggle to earn a living. Aluminum is sold at half a Jordanian dinar per kilo, while other metals are only worth 15 piasters per kilo, according to Adnan, a retired waste picker from Amman. “After working for ten hours, I would make around five dinars per day,” he told Syria Direct.

“We face a lot of challenges: the smell, the pollution. We hurt our hands all the time on broken glass in the bins. Our days are long and tiring.” 

According to Madanat, “families throw everything away in one black bag, in which you find toilet paper, blood, broken glass, needles for medicine… I have seen so many injured hands.” To protect the workers, she encourages people to sort their metal waste and throw it away in separate, transparent bags.

Due to their refugee status, Syrian waste pickers who work in the streets face additional challenges. According to Ali and Salma, Syrians prefer to work inside the refugee camps and in nearby landfills because leaving the camp is difficult without a work permit. A 2015 report revealed  that Syrian street waste pickers “will not work in broad daylight, and will stop any collection activity when the police are most active.” As a result, they collect less waste than their Jordanian counterparts. 

The invisible recyclers

A street picker shows aluminum cans he collected in Amman, 15/12/2014 (Amal J. Madanat)

Jordan generates around 33 million tons of waste per year, of which only 7% is recycled. The rest ends up in one of the country’s twenty formal and informal dumpsites, where it often sits on open ground, contaminating the air, soil and water around. Only around half of the household waste ends up in Jordan’s engineered landfill, al-Ghabawi.

Thanks to the unrecognized work of waste pickers, some recyclables find a second life outside the landfills. “They are ‘the invisible recycling experts of Jordan’: they are invisible, but they are the ones doing most of the recycling,” Madanat said.

Oxfam, a confederation of charitable organizations, runs three waste sorting facilities in Jordan, including two in Zaatari Refugee Camp, which collected over 655 tonnes of recyclables in 2019. All facilities employ Syrian refugees.

“Our data shows Syrian refugees, without a doubt, have the skills and expertise that have been an incredible asset to the advancement of our work in the recycling sector,” Zarrug said. “In fact, our work in the solid waste management sector was born from an idea initially provided by a Syrian refugee who ran a recycling business back in Syria before being forcibly displaced.”

Obstacles remain, including access to formal employment and work permits in the waste management industry. To join the sector, Syrian refugees have to apply for a costly permit for foreign laborers, which is difficult to access. As a result, most pickers work informally with no legal status or health coverage, often lacking the most basic protective equipment such as gloves and boots. Most lost their source of income during lockdowns linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the right support, the “invisible recyclers” of Jordan could play an even more positive role in the country’s waste sector, fulfilling Oxfam’s belief that “refugees can be an economic resource rather than [being] viewed as a burden,” as stated by Zarrug.

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