Scrap mafia unleashes army of scavengers to pick up recyclables on Dubai landfill

Unauthorised dealers offer spot payment for recyclable items collected from landfill

Image Credit: Faisal Masudi/Gulf News
The illegal trash pickers make about Dh 500 per month from selling recyclable materials, taken from the landfill on Emirates Road, to underground scrap traders in Sharjah.
10 Gulf News

Dubai/Sharjah: Scrap mafia bosses in Sharjah have recruited an army of scavengers to scour a Dubai landfill for waste materials worth a fortune in the global recycling market, Gulf News can reveal.

The illegal recruits collect metal, plastic and paper from the giant landfill — near the Dubai-Sharjah border on Emirates Road — and sell it by weight to underground scrap dealers at hideouts in Sharjah’s industrial areas.

Dealers then offer the materials in bulk to recycling companies locally and overseas at below-market prices to undercut legal competition, industry sources said.

The racket is a public health and safety threat, say officials who are planning stiffer fines and punishments for operators who are not authorised to handle waste materials.

Gangs used to frequent waste bins on Sharjah streets by night after government inspectors finished their shifts, but following a crackdown since last year they have now brazenly taken to the Dubai landfill — a goldmine in terms of recyclable waste materials.

The scavengers say up to a thousand of them raid the landfill on Fridays, making it impossible for the few guards there to patrol the vast facility. “A few of us keep the guards busy with chases, while others collect the stuff. We’ve got our own turfs and teams,” said Zakir, a Bangladeshi man who makes about Dh600 per month from selling trash to dealers.

“I know it’s illegal, but I’m doing this because I’ve got nothing left. My employer made me work for months without pay. I’ve got a family back home to support — the dealers pay me on the spot.”

He added that the dealers have “lookouts and intelligence” on who gets arrested or questioned where and when, making it easier for others to evade action. “We can lie low for weeks, just eating and sleeping in our rooms. When things cool off, we come out again,” he said.

Others said they work for the dealers to supplement income from day jobs or because they cannot work for anybody else, as they entered the UAE illegally or on visit visas.

“Many of us have no passport; we slipped in on cargo ships. We work for a while and go back. We keep our national ID card from our country, so we can return under amnesty programmes for illegal workers in the UAE,” said a young Pakistani who has taken up the trade.

The scavengers refused to give away the dealers’ identity or location details, but said they were mostly Pakistanis with “transport truck” (cargo) operations as front businesses.

Feroz Khan, a recycling expert who works for a large Sharjah-based recycler, also said the dealers were mainly Pakistanis. He explained that some of those involved are licensed scrap traders, but illegally source the material.

Only a handful of professional waste management companies are allowed to collect and handle trash from public areas, gated communities or hotels, Khan added.

“There are standards in the UAE, lab tests, and a proper supply chain in place that everyone — the waste management company, scrap trader, recycler, reseller, or exporter — must follow for safety and quality reasons. But some traders are filling the gap in the huge production demand — 4,000 tonnes a month in recyclable plastic alone — with cheap material delivered right to your doorstep. Some recycling companies don’t always say ‘no’ to that,” Khan said.

“If plastic costs Dh2,000 a tonne from the waste management company, traders will give it to you for only Dh1,500. After recycling it can fetch Dh3,500 a tonne. This varies with market conditions.

“It’s a big business.”

Authorities from various government departments in Dubai are holding high-level meetings to tackle the problem, a top Dubai Municipality official told Gulf News.

Abdul Majeed Saifee, director of the municipality’s waste management department, said: “What these people are doing is not only illegal, it’s dangerous. There’s heavy equipment working there at the landfill, methane gas, other hazards. We’ve handed out Dh1,000-fines for collecting from rubbish bins, but that’s not stopped them. We’re working with police and immigration for bigger punishments — maybe [higher] fines, or even deportation.”

He said the landfill is fenced and guarded but “there’s too many of them [scavengers] on weekends, and the area’s quite big.”

Saifee added: “There are around 20 companies in Dubai licensed properly in waste management services. There are laws and legal action that will be taken against violators. It’s a health and safety issue. We’re talking about their own safety, they have to understand that.”

Many of those in this risky line of business can be spotted trudging back to Sharjah from the Dubai landfill along Ring Road which leads to the industrial areas, with the bags neatly balanced on their heads.




  • Alam

    Sep 19, 2012 3:19

    Well as far i think instead of imposing fine on these poor people,government should think on positive side to employ them to makeeverything legal. I think imposing fines on these people and to deportthem does not make any sense as they came here all the way to earn fortheir poor families back home. Impossing heavy fines will not make anychange and will be continued for ages. best thing is to buy the illegalpeople in a legal way and pay them few extra to make them happy as well tocontrol over ilegal dealers.

  • Rahim

    Sep 19, 2012 2:43

    I appeal to the authorities not to curtail this trend! Legalize it andput some regulations - these people are just proving that there is roomfor efficiency in the market.


    Sep 19, 2012 1:46

    To be honest recycling is a problem all over the world North South East and West. The difference is that in countries like Australia separation is done by the households via bins provided by the Council which makesit easier for the garbage companies to segregate and sell at a huge profit. Whereas other countries it is done at the tip or garbage site. Someone's got to do this dirty job so that the rest of us live clean and healthy life styles. Hence these people are not untouchables. I wouldsuggest that the authorities legalize this business, control it and in the end it is a win-win for the authorities, the residents and the poor garbage pickersby giving them a visa and a decent salary. they are now skilled people. Is that a bad thing to do?

  • prem

    Sep 19, 2012 12:26

    they are doing a good job by clearing up the landfills, the authorities can work together with them and show them what is dangerous and what is to be avoided. they are at least doing some hardwork ... This way people are safe and at the same time they are contributing to the economy and society.

  • S Mehta

    Sep 19, 2012 12:03

    I will go a step further and say that when a developing country like India follows practices of segregating dry and wet garbage right from each home, why can't we do it here? And repeat offenders who trash recyclable products must be fined to ensure compliance.

  • Jameel Ahmad

    Sep 19, 2012 11:04

    You should be allowed selling your plastic bottles and empty containers to the same supermarket from where you bought, not necessary it has to be the same shop. And the rest of unwanted daily trash which you want to dispose, what municipality can do is they should make cage for thetrash bins which we see kept open on the roadside and the residence should be given proper keys to enter and drop the trash. Not only this will stop the illegal peoples entering the cage it will keep the area clean, this will also stop animals like cats from entering and dying inside.

  • Swapnil

    Sep 19, 2012 10:12

    I have seen these poor people getting into dirty waste bins to collect such trash. They do it for a living, not to make millions. The photo provided by you is of one such person. Trash left unattended in land fills is more dangerous and is a health hazard. The authtorities should come up with more recycling units and give employment to such illegal workers and make them legal.

  • Imran

    Sep 19, 2012 9:30

    I agree with Anonymous, Abu Dhabi. There can be sorting centres near landfills which can legally fill the gap and help the authorities, as well as these hard working men who only want to feed their families by risking their health and safety. I feel that the authorities can turn this into a win-win situation as these men are not begging, but are willing to work hard for a living and UAE waste management situation needs that.

  • Mohammad Shakeel Khattak

    Sep 19, 2012 9:29

    This situation may be converted into an opportunity. Collecting used articles for recycling purpose isn't a bad practice. Individuals involved in it require to be well trained and aware about health and safety hazards associated with this practice. The concerned authorities may consider to regularize it. The licensed waste managementcompanies may properly hire the services of those experienced individuals who are already in the field and collecting used articles.

  • Guest

    Sep 19, 2012 8:22

    We all produce large amounts of waste here in the UAE, and there is limited household or business recycling - so it's not surprising that some entrepreneurs are trying to make a business out of it. It would be good (and safer for the men interviewed here) if more recyclable sorting centers were established at landfill sites, with schemes encouragingresidents to sort their recycling and have it collected as in other countries. Then these men could have a chance at legal and safe employment as collectors and sorters, and at least our waste would be useful instead of filling up a landfill.

Latest Comment

Well as far i think instead of imposing fine on these poor people,government should think on positive side to employ them to makeeverything legal. I think imposing fines on these people and to deportthem does not make any sense as they came here all the way to earn fortheir poor families back home. Impossing heavy fines will not make anychange and will be continued for ages. best thing is to buy the illegalpeople in a legal way and pay them few extra to make them happy as well tocontrol over ilegal dealers.


19 September 2012 15:57jump to comments