Paper Trails, 2004 – 2009


From an Award-winning documentary series, focusing on informal recyclers in Newtown, Johannesburg.

Every day, a number of men and women sort through unwanted material that accumulates at urban outlets. Outside supermarkets and liquor stores, around factories in outlying industrial areas and in the refuse dumps on the outskirts of cities, informal recyclers, the so-called “trolley people”, load up their makeshift carts with wastepaper and cardboard. They push their cargo to recycling depots, where their collections are sorted and weighed and they are paid a small fee for their labour. From there, the material undergoes recycling processes and is transformed so that it can re-enter the formal economy, until it ends up once again on the refuse heaps of South Africa’s cities, and the process begins anew.

Although their main ambition is to survive, the “trolley people” have for many years been inadvertently helping to raise awareness about recycling possibilities. As such, they are accidental pioneers in the recycling trend in our country. Yet, the more proactive the public becomes about sustainable living, the less opportunity there will be for these informal recyclers to continue exchanging waste for cash to ensure their daily survival.

These photographic images offer a glimpse into the fragile existence and future of recyclers operating in Newtown, Johannesburg and are have been selected from a larger body of work that focuses on informal recycling in South Africa.