Life on the Kani Qirzhala landfill site in Iraq

Written by: Elizabeth Fitt | Published:
Photo credit: Elizabeth Fitt

Desperation has ensured there is a recycled plastics industry in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Everywhere as far as the eye can see, piles of rubbish stretch away into the distance. Noxious fumes rise from heaps of household waste and spew from the exhausts of queuing refuse trucks, dampening the clarity of the stark summer sun and whitening some of the blue out of the sky.

Flies rise in clouds, an audible marker for the location of sheep carcasses in varying states of decay. This is Kani Qirzhala, municipal rubbish dump for the City of Erbil, Iraq.

A road with refuse trucks comes in to deposit their load snakes through heaped plastic on both sides. Occasionally the figure of a person, picking through one of the piles, breaks the monotony of the view and a lone tree clings precariously to whatever it has found in lieu of nutrients in this uninspiring depression of a landscape.

Deep amid the refuse mountains of the Kani Qirzhala dump, each new truck that arrives is enthusiastically greeted by a flour-sack-carrying, bent-rebar-wielding crowd of mud-clad figures.

As the rear of the trucks hydraulically groan their way upwards, people rush in underneath, rebar hooks swinging, as several tons of trash and the percolated juices of a hundred dustbins of household waste come cascading out. These are Rubbish Pickers.

Whole families, from children to grandparents, congregate here every day to sort through each new dump load, retrieving anything with the remotest value. As with these end-of-the-line things, they are end-of-the-line people; no-one comes to a place like this unless they have to. And as with the things they select to take out and send on to a new lease of life, they are taking their own rock-bottom situations and using this place as a stepping stone to tomorrow.

A family affair

Ahlam Abdullah, 38, from the nearby town of Kalak, beams a sunny smile as she describes how she has been working at the dump for three years. “I have 10 children, my eldest is 18 and my youngest is two years old. My three boys work at the dump here with me and my husband, Jaffar. Our six girls stay at home” she explains.

“We get paid 140 dinar [9p] per kilogram of low-grade plastic and 300 dinar [19p] per kilogram of high-grade plastic, but we are in a very bad situation – we don’t have enough money to live and it is very hard to have nothing.”

Thirty-two-year-old Baktiar Usman is a skilled tradesman. “I make paving tiles; if I could get even two days work per week doing that, I would not come here. I am also Peshmerga (ground troops for the incumbent Kurdish Democratic Party), but the salary is not even enough for rent.

There is no work, there is no money, there is nothing else for us,” he says forlornly. “We collect 15-20kg of plastic per day each and we get 300 Iraqi dinar per kilogram” – approximately £9.50-12.70 a day.

Struggling to survive they may be, but these people form a surprisingly crucial link in the region’s recycling chain.

“If the people at the dump stopped, we wouldn’t be able to operate,” explains Abdul Qadir, 17, a worker at Salaam’s, one of the many plastic processing plants in the area.

At 4pm every day, a band of pick-ups arrives to purchase and transport the plastic collected by Ahlam, Baktiar and the 60-odd other Rubbish Pickers working the dump. Abdul receives between one and 1.5 tons of plastic back at Salaam’s processing plant in this fashion every day. This is supplemented by around 500kg from local neighbourhood collections in Kalak.

Hard labour

Inside a dark warehouse shed, reverberating with near-deafening sounds from heavy machinery, Abdul oversees each new batch that comes in, diligently writing down everything in his notebook. The environment is dark, hot, dusty and unpleasant, but the men and boys seem cheerful as they sort plastic waste into piles according to quality.

This cheer masks the reality of their situation, however. “Working here is very boring and annoying,” sighs Abdul.“It’s really messy but we have to do everything very carefully to keep the right standard for the machines and the packing.

It’s dangerous sometimes because of burns. We once had a blue drum come in from the dump, it was from the Americans at the airport and my colleague held it up to look inside – some liquid fell onto his face and arms and burned him very badly. We work long hours, sometimes until 1am, and at night when I sleep I still have the sound of the machines in my head.”

Smaller plastic items are fed directly into chipping machines, coming out the other end as colourful confetti. Larger items are cut up on a band saw. (Last year, Abdul was resizing plastic to fit into the chipper when he accidentally cut off two fingers.

One was successfully reattached in surgery; unfortunately, he lost the top two joints of the other to gangrene). Following chipping, the plastic confetti is packed into 38kg sacks and sold on at US$430 [£322] per ton.

“If a ton of high-grade chipped plastic contains just 1kg of low-grade material, the factories in Iraqi Kurdistan are unable to process it effectively, so we sell it to Turkey, which has the technology to turn it into useable material,” explains Abdul. He goes on to relate how all the plastic chipping plants in the Erbil governorate are privately run; there are no government initiatives to recycle plastic.

As far as he is aware, there are a number of private Turkish- and Arab-run companies, and two or three others like Salaam’s that are run by Kurds. He laughs at the idea that rumoured government plans to build an EU-funded waste-processing plant near Erbil will ever be implemented, followed by a resounding “No way!”.

Making profit from desperation

A few kilometres down the road, a row of large industrial sheds house machinery to further refine the plastic from Salaam’s place. Thirty-year-old Khalid Abduli and his brother Esmael, 42, own this plant. They refine plastic chips ready to be manufactured into retail items.

Plastic lies piled in the gloom, in various stages of the cleaning, rinsing, drying and sifting process. It is then regenerated to form polypropylene pellets that can be moulded into durable products.

The refined pellets go straight to another factory, also owned by the brothers, where they are injection-moulded or otherwise formed into irrigation hoses and equipment, crates, water pipes and jerry cans. They manufacture other products as well, but these are the items that utilise recycled plastic collected locally.

“About 30% of our raw material originally comes from the Rubbish Pickers at Kani Qirzhala, the rest is industrial waste from lubrication companies near to here,” explains Esmael.

The brothers are from Syria; they lost their family production business in 2012 during the conflict in Aleppo. They also lost their home, and Khalid lost both legs below the knee in an airstrike. Undaunted, they decided to start afresh. Having researched Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, they opted to begin again in Iraq due to a strong domestic market for irrigation systems and few competitors.

Business is going well for them, they sell all they manufacture domestically and demand outstrips supply. Esmael is proud of his products, smiling broadly as he explains the different fixtures being manufactured for irrigation drip-feed systems and outlines the different heads he uses in one of the many injection-moulding machines that line the wide expanse of factory floor.

“We plan to expand, but we have some challenges,” he says. “In Iraq there is no help for industrial business at all, the government doesn’t make it easy. In a few years we hope we will be able to grow, but for us in the Middle East, for someone to succeed in his business he needs to be up to date and have an excellent grasp of what is going on in politics. If you get it wrong, your business is over. It is like walking in a minefield.”

In their way, the Rubbish Pickers are fulfilling a basic need in the recycling process that government-led public services are falling well short of. It seems likely that recycling initiatives in Iraqi Kurdistan will remain largely private and relatively unregulated for some time to come.

This is something of a double-edged sword for those working at the Kani Qirzhala dump – the meagre hand-to-mouth existence afforded by rubbish-picking is not enough to meet a decent basic standard of life, and the health consequences seem dire.

But demand from the agricultural sector for irrigation systems guarantees, for the time being at least, that there is work to be had, providing these destitute families with a means to survive, albeit barely.

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