Invisible cyclists

Collectors of secondary raw materials set an example of a green economy. However, their socio-economic situation is extremely unstable.

Foto: Bajsologija / Facebook

Text is taken from the magazine LiceUlice no. 34. Authors: Danilo Ćurčić and Damjan Rehm Bogunović

If you attempt to explore what is happening with recycling in Serbia, you will not find encouraging information. According to the data of the Association of Recyclers, only 15% of waste is recycled in Serbia. In comparison, more than 50% of waste is recycled in the European Union, and this number can increase up to 90 % in countries such as Germany. There are many reasons for this situation in Serbia – low awareness of citizens and companies about the benefits and cost-effectiveness of recycling insufficient incentive and the lack of adequate infrastructure.

On the other hand, even the shortest search shows that cycling in Serbia is mostly considered as recreation and – according to some data – in Belgrade, only one percent of citizens use bicycles as means of transport. This is at the same time the cause, as much as it is the reflection of the increasing emissions of urban exhaust gases, increasing traffic congestion, and the lack of parking space (which local authorities are trying to expand, at the expense of green surface and other public properties).

Building the infrastructure for cars is actually encouraging their use. Vehicles, as a rule, quickly “outgrow” the newly established infrastructure, so it is necessary to build new parking facilities which will again become insufficient … and the cycle continues. Based on the experience of other European cities, it is clear that such a situation will last until the urban turnaround is made, and the city begins to make plans according to the needs of its citizens, as a place where sustainability is central and not a car.

Cycling, recycling, green economy

Then, how are cycling, recycling and urban development related?

In Belgrade, there are many “invisible cyclists” who participate in the recycling chain, collect secondary raw materials and contribute to a sustainable life in the city. Linking recycling and cycling, they actually represent an excellent example of a “green economy”.

Roma people, who make up the most of these “invisible cyclists”, most often live in informal settlements on the outskirts of cities, are not registered in registries, have no registered residence or ID cards. Therefore, they are not even able to exercise the rights, that the rest of the population are entitled to – from the right to health care, social protection, the right to adequate housing, to the possibility of employment, and many others.

Housing in these conditions also implies a constant fear of forced evictions, as we have seen in Belgrade since 2009, when at least twenty Roma settlements were forced out for the purpose of allocating space for the development and progress of the city (at the expense of the poorest citizens). After being moved to Jabučkirit, a suburban community of Belgrade, a former inhabitant of an informal settlement from Belville, told one of the writers of this text: “Belville was my bread and butter, I would make two circles around Belville and collect enough to feed my family.” This sentence may not mean much, unless we previously emphasize that this man is collecting secondary raw materials to earn a living. On one hand, the work of collectors of secondary raw materials is very poorly paid, and on the other hand, it is extremely tiring and risky, “dirty” work, connected with many prejudices and stereotypes that are usually directed towards the Roma. According to YUROM data, the average lifespan of collectors of secondary raw materials is only 46 years and the working day lasts about 11 hours, every day, regardless of weather conditions.

Torn between everyday discrimination and ineffective public policies adopted to improve their position, Roma people have decided to take the matter into their own hands through the collection of secondary raw materials by using cargo bicycles and to find a way to earn money for themselves and their households, with little to no startup capital. We can ask ourselves how severe poverty and social exclusion affected the establishment of this revenue-generating system, but the consequences are clear – they are here, and therefore should not be “invisible.” Not for people around them who are not familiar with this business, nor for the state that still does not use recycling as often as it should.

There are several reasons why it is necessary to pay more attention to this topic. First of all, according to data from 2014, the collection of secondary raw materials is a job that allows 8,000 Roma families to survive every month on a bare minimum. Also, it is a job that represents the perfect example of a “green economy”: without any emissions of harmful gases, waste, that would otherwise end up at the landfill, is being collected and thus begins a recycling chain. As such, this model could be replicated or adapted in other environments, but also significantly affect the reduction of detrimental emissions and the promotion of sustainable urban mobility.

How to encourage positive examples

Bearing this in mind, the Heinrich-Bel Foundation in 2014, in cooperation with the association Bajsologija, launched a pilot project dealing with the inclusive mobility of collectors of secondary raw materials. The aim was to, along with the participation of the Roma community, rebuild cargo bicycles for a group of collectors and to start working on finding models for improving the use of cargo bicycles in Belgrade. In this way, the collectors would not necessarily have to be tied to poorly paid and difficult jobs of collecting cartons, plastic and other raw materials that we dispose of every day.

Today, the Roma are still not perceived as cyclists, nor as equal citizens of our society, so they are not recognized even when they obviously cycle more often and harder than most of Belgrade citizens. The fact that they cannot be accepted as cyclists, can determine the future of this “green economy” model in Serbia and affect the incomes of Roma families involved in the recycling chain, as well as the future of recycling in Serbia. The future development of the recycling industry should not leave this informal sector aside: the participation of cargo cyclists in recycling jobs ensures a basic existence for Roma households and promotes a “green economy”, which the whole community benefits from. On every 5 dinars (which is the price of 1 kg of cartons), we must add the reduction of the emission of harmful gases, the increase of the percentage of recyclable waste and a number of other recycling benefits.

The attitude towards this issue is a paradigmatic example of the approach to sustainable development in Belgrade and beyond, as it encompasses the views connected with social and economic issues (poverty, inclusion, entrepreneurship) as well as with the environment (urban mobility, recycling).

The question that all of us need to answer is whether we want to suppress such positive examples, or on the contrary- to nurture and encourage them.