Searching Through Joburg’s Trash for a Brighter Future

Cape Town Photographer JUSTIN SULLIVAN recently spent several hours on the streets of Johannesburg, travelling from Informal Settlements to Supreme Suburbia, to document recycling in the area and offer the rest of us a behind-the-scenes understanding of the men and women who search through our trash for goods to recycle. His conclusion is that “we are on the right track, but with so much more to consider…”

Sullivan Photography

“These three images sum up my week in Joburg…

“Most of the people digging in your bins are not criminals, they are doing it for a better future.

“Some like to drink, others like the exercise, most are fed up with the world and many are grateful for the electronics we throw away.

“Some philosophise about life while others rant about politics, a few fight over territory and none of them are proud of what they do.

Sullivan Photography

“All of them have goodness in their heart and all of them matter. All of them have feelings and all have had little to no opportunity to better their future.

“This is their opportunity to create a better future… The same opportunity we have to support, understand and create an environment to facilitate their operations.

“There are many projects and people who are innovating ways in which to legitimise the recycling of our trash, providing jobs and preserving our environment.

“With thousands of people relying on our waste, even whole settlements, we cannot afford to let this opportunity slip.

Sullivan Photography

“We have one world and millions of opportunities to make it better. Let us work together by giving each other our time and understanding – propelling that bond into something sustainable for all.

“The next time you see someone rummaging through your bin – introduce yourself and make them feel welcome. Learn their name and let them inspire you.

“Give them your time and I guarantee if you dig deep enough, you will appreciate this planet and your life that little bit more.”


P.S. In response to one Joburg resident reporting that certain organisations are allegedly trying to scare the bin-diggers away, and “bullying” local residents to not leave their bins out overnight, Justin says: “It is sad to see that already certain areas in Johannesburg are disallowing people in. However there seems to be a push towards getting guys registered and to wear ‘yellow bibs’ to identify themselves.”

P.P.S. Here’s one more photo from Justin’s project, taken on Day 6, that offers insight into a world so many don’t see: “A landfill site on the outskirts of Johannesburg where locals from a neighbouring settlement scavenge through waste dumped by trucks. Working in between heavy machinery and hazardous materials are just many of the risks on this site. Just days before I arrived, a woman had been pushed over and killed by a truck – resulting in men and woman working different days from there on. (Men are stronger and tend to dominate the playground.) The deaths of workers on these sites are a common occurence. Poverty and desperation are at an all time high, forcing people to work in these dangerous conditions.”

Landfill Joburg recyclers
Undisclosed landfill site – Guateng. Photo by Justin Sullivan

All photographs taken with Nikon D750, Tamron 85mm f1.8, Tamron 24-70mm f2.8