Tunis, Tunisia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

In the early hours of a Sunday morning, before the city of Tunis wakes up and the sun becomes unbearably hot, Raouf Hayetlili and his neighbour Noureddine Tayara are already pulling trailers of plastic up a hill.

Tayara, a 65-year-old waste picker, started working just after the dawn prayer, when he asked that the day bring him "his share" of goods. Hayetlili, 42, said they needed to get to the bins before the municipality workers started clearing them away.

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Zara Mezrighi walks one-and-a-half hours every morning to reach this pile of litter in Ennasr, Tunisia, where she feels safer as a woman, 22nd June. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Layli Foroudi

Every day, the men gather up plastic bottles, as well as aluminium, bread, and broken plastic.

They live in Ettadhamen, a northern working-class district that has become the centre of Tunis' recycling circuit, but prefer to work in the nearby neighbourhoods of El Menzah and Ennasr, where there are richer pickings.

"Nobody throws anything away in the poorer neighbourhoods. Here, they throw a lot away and everything has value."

Raouf Hayetlili

"Nobody throws anything away in the poorer neighbourhoods," explained Hayetlili, dressed in overalls given to him by a maintenance worker.

"Here, they throw a lot away and everything has value."

The system of plastic recycling in Tunisian cities is largely reliant on an informal workforce of waste pickers, known as 'barbechas', meaning someone who searches, digs or investigates.

And like thousands of other Tunisians who work in the informal sector, barbechas lack an official status and lead a precarious life, carrying out their jobs without workers' rights or health insurance, say human rights activists.

Many waste pickers live in poverty, selling the waste they find to middlemen recyclers who then sell it on for a marked-up price to the national waste collection system or, more often, a private recycling factory.

"There is no legal framework that regulates [this type of] recycling," said Mehdi Barhoumi, Tunis-based project manager for the British non-profit International Alert.

This could change with a proposed law to establish a "social and solidarity economy" which would support collectives and self-governed businesses that both make a profit and have a social objective.

The idea is to create a halfway house between the informal sector and regular employment by giving workers the opportunity to self-organise and register their activity without setting up a company, Barhoumi explained.

He hopes the law will give Tunisia's waste pickers better protection from health risks and exploitation by middlemen. 

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Litter pickers Raouf Hayetlili and Nouredinne Tayara cross paths in Ettadhamen, Tunisia, at 6.30am, a few hours into their working day, on 22nd June. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Layli Foroudi

For now, the law, which was proposed by Tunisia's UGTT union in 2016 and finalised a year ago, is still waiting to be debated by parliament.

But the need for it is only becoming more urgent, Barhoumi stressed.

"The number of barbechas has not stopped rising, because there is an unemployment problem [and] at the same time, there is a problem with waste management," he said.

While there are no official figures, International Alert estimates that there are 15,000 barbechas in Tunisia, who collect two-thirds of the country's recycled plastic waste.

"It is always dangerous [for women], that is why I work with my husband."

- Zara Mezrighi

Waste pickers say the work often puts their safety and wellbeing at risk and earns them between 10 and 40 Tunisian dinars ($US3.50-$US14) a day.

Zara Mezrighi started collecting waste with her husband, an unemployed chef, two years ago.

"It is always dangerous [for women], that is why I work with my husband," said the 54-year-old.

They stay mostly on one rubbish-covered hill in Ennasr, and it takes the couple one hour to walk to this spot every day because they do not make enough to buy a motorcycle.

"I come here because everyone says kind things. When I used to go to the market rubbish bins, men would harass me and say, 'You came here to sell yourself'."

Bassradine Lassar, director of the government's National Waste Management Agency, said that barbechas "play an important role in collecting waste and it is better to find a solution to integrate them into the system".

However, a colleague speaking on condition of anonymity said that "there is no clear vision, no initiative" within the government to find a solution.

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The collection unit run by a collective of Barbechas in Ettadhamen, Tunisia, has been functioning since December, 2018. The price of plastic per kilo is one Tunisian dinar ($US0.35) and they process 600 to 700 kilograms of waste per day, on 17th June. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Layli Foroudi

Mokhtar Hammami, the minister of local affairs and environment, said barbechas are not the state's responsibility.

"They are outside the state [system], they work in the private sector. In most countries it is like this," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Environmentalists say Tunisia needs informal waste pickers to make up for deficiencies in the country's waste and recycling management.

According to a report published in June by the World Wide Fund for Nature, less than five per cent of plastic waste in Tunisia is recycled - a long way off the government's previous goal of recycling 70 per cent of plastic waste by 2016.

About 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste - the equivalent of more than 6,000 double decker buses - end up in Tunisia's environment each year, with much of it flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, according to WWF.

"When decision makers start to see it [waste] like a harvest, they will understand that it means development."

- Jamel Jrijer, marine programme manager at WWF.

Jamel Jrijer, marine programme manager at WWF, said the government should aim to work with and organise waste pickers to help move Tunisia forward in its recycling efforts.

"When decision makers start to see it [waste] like a harvest, they will understand that it means development."

In an attempt to build a support system for Tunisia's waste pickers, the non-profit Environmental Protection and Recycling Association, based in Ettadhamen, provides vaccines as well as protective clothing for its 70 members, and operates its own waste disposal unit.

International Alert help the collective with funds and equipment so that members can sell their collected plastic to the association, which grinds it down and then sells it straight to recycling companies at a fair price.

"We want this so that barbechas are not just alone, like floating entities. [With an association], we are united and support each other," said Mohamed Fakraoui, EPRA president.

The group aims to recruit 120 more barbechas to the collective in the next few weeks, Fakraoui added.

"[It] is going to help a lot of people who do not earn much, including barbechas. It will give us medical protection and that is a big need for our members," he said of the proposed law.

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Given the high concentration of people collecting plastic in Ettadhamen, Tunisia, many barbechas come to places like Ennasr where there is less competition and more waste, on 22nd June. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Layli Foroudi

In the meantime, waste picker Chokri Ayari, who sells his plastic through the EPRA, has to improvise to cover his healthcare needs.

In his 13 years as a barbecha, Ayari has been to hospital for five operations on hernias in his abdomen.

He earns about 30 Tunisian dinars ($US10) a day through the collective, but said one operation with blood tests costs 150 dinars ($US52). So when the time comes for him to be discharged from hospital, he often has no way of paying his bill.

"I go to the hospital, they do the operation, when they say, 'Tomorrow you're leaving', I just run away," he laughed.

"I look left and right and run."