Twelve-year-old Resmije is too short to reach into the skip, so she climbs over the side and jumps right in.
Tearing open bags of household waste and rotting food, she plucks out anything of value: plastic bottles, soft drink cans, electric cables. It all goes into a wooden cart pushed by her uncle.
The two of them have been at it since dawn, picking over other people’s garbage on the streets of Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje, a town just south of Pristina known as the centre of Kosovo’s recycling industry.
“I can earn six or seven euros a day,” Resmije says, beaming proudly. She sports a crooked black bob and a pink and grey shirt that says “Love Fashion”.
For thousands of informal workers in Kosovo’s booming trade in recyclable materials, a handful of euros is all they can expect for a full day’s work sifting through bins or landfills.
They sell the metal, plastic, nylon and paper they salvage to middlemen at neighbourhood collection points, where it is sorted before being resold to companies for export. Kosovo has no public recycling programme.
What is rescued from rubbish bins ends up reincarnated in products all over the world: synthetic fabrics for clothing, plastic straps for shipping boxes, steel rods used to reinforce concrete, to name just a few uses. Everything from polythene to cast iron and steel alloy is in demand.
Worth on average more than 40 million euros a year, scrap material for recycling is Kosovo’s number one export, according to customs data obtained by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.
It is an industry built on the backs of desperately poor communities — especially marginalised RAE — Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian — minorities.
Discrimination, illiteracy, joblessness and limited social security mean the scrap collectors have little choice but to do the dirty, dangerous work.
And like Resmije, many are children forced to drop out of school.
Elizabeth Gowing, head of the Ideas Partnership, a Pristina-based minority rights group, described the scrap trade as a vicious circle that ensnares generations.
“Uneducated parents go to the bins to eke out a living while their children remain uneducated, so the same fate awaits them as well,” she said.
Hilmi Jashari, Kosovo’s independent ombudsman, said the plight of child scrap collectors poses serious human rights challenges.
“They live in unacceptable physical, social and psychological conditions,” he told BIRN. “They don’t go to school and often are subject to different forms of violence, abuse and exploitation.”
He added: “The Kosovo authorities should have done more to handle this problem”.
As dawn breaks over ramshackle houses in the RAE neighbourhood in central Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje, the daily commute begins.
Men, women, boys and girls head out onto the streets holding empty sacks. Some push wheelbarrows or pull rickety carts. A few pedal bicycle trailers or chug along on mini tractors.
They head to places where they know the pickings are rich. Bins near big apartment blocks in Pristina, six kilometres to the north, are best. Copper, aluminium and batteries are welcome finds.
Mother-of-three Vahide Dibrani rides a tractor with her husband while her eight-year-old son stays home with his younger siblings. Some days are better than others. Today’s haul includes soggy carpets and a plastic baby doll.
“You fill one of these big bags and you get five or six euros,” she said. “What can you do with that?”
Dibrani had a bruise on her head from a recent accident. She had been reaching so far into a skip to grab bottles and nylon tights that she tumbled right in, she said. Such hazards come with the territory.
Mustafa Bajrami, a man in his fifties with a salt and pepper beard who has been collecting scrap for 30 years, showed off a scar on his right hand.
He got it when he was rooting around in garbage for cola cans. A shard of glass gashed the flesh under the ball of his thumb. He bound it up with rags and it healed like a jagged smile.
As far as accidents go, these are minor scrapes.
Last year, Elbasan Isufi, a 24-year-old scrap collector, died after he was hit by a bulldozer while trespassing on a landfill site in eastern Kosovo, local media reported.
In Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje, a seven-year-old Roma boy named Driton Jashari was mauled to death by a dog while collecting cans in 2014.
Across the border in Albania, news sites report similar tragedies.
A man holds hazardous medical waste at arm’s length in a landfill near the eastern Kosovo town of Gjilan. Photo by Arben Llapashtica
In July, Dashamir Jahja, 22, and Drilon Lamaj, 27, were killed after a wall collapsed on them while they were gathering scrap metal at a former superphosphate factory in the north-western Albanian town of Lac.
A year earlier, an earth mover crushed 17-year-old Ardit Gjoklaj at the Sharra Waste Dump Site in Tirana.
Then there are the disease risks.
“If you work all day in garbage, there’s no way you can stay healthy,” said Driton Kovaqi, a waste comber from the north-eastern Kosovo city of Podujeva/Besiana.
Once a month, Kovaqi takes time off searching rubbish sites for clothes and furniture to go to hospital for a blood transfusion to treat jaundice, he said.
Most scrap collectors work long hours without gloves, masks or protective equipment as they handle everything from used diapers and rusty iron to putrid meat.
Dile Rrusta, a general doctor with an interest in public health in the central Kosovo town of Drenas, said waste collectors risked infections including gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, Salmonella and cholera.
“Garbage bins are frequented by insects that feed on waste and spread infections in the surroundings,” she said. “What’s more, they deliver their larvae there.”
Experts say it is not only the collectors who are exposed to danger. Their families are also vulnerable, especially in poor communities where many dwellings have limited running water.
“About a third of Roma women give birth to children in their homes,” said Gowing from the Ideas Partnership. “So you can imagine a man who has just come out of a [garbage] container and his wife who delivers in the same room, in a small house where everything happens in the same space. It’s not surprising there might be infection.”
The ministry of labour and welfare did not respond to interview requests or emailed questions about working conditions for scrap collectors.
In a vacant lot surrounded by a cinder block wall in the heart of the RAE neighbourhood in Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje, scrap collectors were selling their daily haul for euros and cents.
A dealer punched a calculator with large pink buttons and scrawled sums in a notepad. Another man operated a machine to crush plastic bottles.
Collection points like these are unlicensed — and therefore illegal.
Under Kosovo’s Law on Waste, penalties for running waste management facilities without a licence include fines of up to 500,000 euros.
Everybody involved in the transactions declined to comment but street scavengers say a kilogram of iron typically fetches 16 cents while the same amount of plastic gets 12 cents. Cans go for four cents a kilogram.
Scrap collectors say the unlicensed collection points dotted around Fushe Kosova/Kosovo Polje are the only ones in the country run by RAE operators.
RAE minorities make up two per cent of Kosovo’s population — roughly 36,000 people, according to a 2011 census.
A survey of marginalised Roma communities last year by the UN Development Programme, UNDP, found that 78 per cent of Roma were not in formal employment, education or training. That compared with 47 per cent of their non-Roma peers. The figure was higher for young Roma women — 88 per cent.
Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of Roma over the age of 16 had access to health insurance.
As of May, around 2,600 RAE families were receiving social assistance benefits of between 60 and 180 euros a month, depending on family size, according to figures from the ministry of labour and social welfare.
All of which means many RAE families have little or no safety net, making informal work in the scrap trade their sole means of survival, rights activists say.
Children often help out, although it is illegal for children under 15 to work.
“The failure of our institutions to take adequate measures to halt the continuous practice of using child labour for collecting waste is a direct violation of children’s right to be free from exploitation, their right to education, their right to social welfare as well as other rights and freedoms,” said Rina Kika, a Pristina-based human rights lawyer.
Toiling day in, day out for the same collection points — without contracts or job security — scrap salvagers of all ages are at the mercy of fickle operators.
“They change the prices every day,” said Egzon, a teenager from Pristina’s Dardania neighbourhood who has been rummaging through bins since he dropped out of primary school aged eight. Wearing a baseball cap and Nike sneakers, he declined to give his full name.
Twenty-three business are licensed for scrap collection and treatment in Kosovo, according to the environment ministry.
A ministry spokesperson told BIRN it had identified 58 illegal collection points around the country and taken their operators to misdemeanour court.
However it is collected, much of the waste ends up at export companies keen to cash in on the thriving international trade in recyclables — especially metals.
“Exports of base unprocessed metals and mineral products are major exports for Kosovo, comprising up to 55 per cent of all exports in 2017,” Zef Dedaj, head of the trade policy division of the ministry of trade and industry, told BIRN in an interview in Pristina.
Dedaj conceded that some of the exported material comes from unregistered collection points that do business with individual street scavengers.
“We’ve seen the gardens of homes being used for collecting scrap metal,” he said.
Customs data obtained by BIRN through a freedom-of-information request showed the scale of Kosovo’s scrap industry.
Between 2010 and 2017, the country exported almost 820,000 tonnes of scrap material — mainly metal and plastic — worth an average of just under 43 million euros a year.
The biggest consumers of Kosovo scrap are Albania, Macedonia, Italy, India and Turkey.
The customs data did not include the names of exporting companies due to rules on trade secrets, but a 2015 investigation by Preportr, a publication of the Kosovo Center for Investigative Journalism, identified more than 60 firms involved in shipping scrap abroad.
The biggest is a company called Nderimi, which alone exported almost 22 million euros worth of scrap between 2010 and 2015, according to customs data cited by Preportr.
Nderimi did not respond to BIRN’s requests for an interview, although a spokesman did confirm on the phone that the company buys scrap from both individual scavengers and collection points.
According to Nderimi’s website, the company sells scrap to Kurum International, a Turkish maker of steel and iron products for the construction industry that is based in Albania. Kurum did not respond to questions or interview requests about its use of scrap from Kosovo.
All across the Balkans, experts say the poorest of the poor are engaged in the scrap trade, with lax regulation and poverty fuelling widespread exploitation.
In Macedonia, a recent study by non-governmental organisation Macedonia Without Waste estimated that up to 5,000 informal collectors of plastic, paper and other materials handled around 80 per cent of all recycled waste.
But Kosovo punches above its weight in terms of supplying scrap to the international recycling market.
Last year, Kosovo exported six times more scrap than neighbouring Albania — 108,000 tonnes versus almost 18,000 tonnes, according to data from Albanian customs.
Life on a landfill
Not everybody who scours Kosovo’s trash sites is from marginalised minorities.
Around a third of people in Kosovo live below the poverty line, subsisting on less than one euro and 72 cents a day, according to 2016 government statistics (in Albanian). Some of them also rely on scrap to get by.
About 10 minutes from the town of Gjilan in eastern Kosovo, dozens of figures crisscrossed a landfill site as big as two football pitches.
They were ethnic Albanians from villages nearby, according to Abdullah Haxhiu, director of the public company that runs the site, the Kosovo Landfill Management Company.
As the air shimmered over a sea of rubbish in the noonday sun, the stench was overwhelming. Here and there, chimneys poked out from the dirt. Installed to allow methane gas to escape from under the surface, they prevent explosions.
All the scrap collectors pouring over the site were men or boys who had wormed their way through holes in the wire fence, ignoring signs forbidding entry. On one afternoon, BIRN counted around 80 people combing the landfill.
As dump trucks arrived to disgorge their loads, the collectors scrambled to be the first to pick over the fresh garbage. From a distance, some of the boys looked so small that their silhouettes were almost lost in the glare of sunlight on glass and metal.
Haxhiu said he had tried repeatedly to keep the collectors out, asking for help from police, the environment ministry and local authorities — but to no avail.
“Since other institutions don’t act, we have to continue our operations despite the dangers [to people] in Gjilan landfill,” he said.
Gjilan police told BIRN they had files on 11 cases related to illegal activity at the landfill, with five proceeding to prosecution.
There’s no such thing as easy work, but this is the worst
Salihu, a 54-year-old scrap collector at the Gjilan landfill
Ismet Hashani, a Gjilan police lieutenant, said local officers had identified “a collection point for various types of waste” 200 metres from the dump and submitted a report on it to municipal authorities “since it operates without any valid documents”.
“Related to the same waste plant, units from the Gjilan police station have received many complaints from people living in the area due to the bad smell from the waste and also the unpleasant sight,” he said.
Outside the main gate of the landfill, BIRN saw scrap collectors hard at work in a makeshift sorting area. Others ate or napped under tarpaulins.
“There’s no such thing as easy work, but this is the worst,” said Salihu, 54, as he divided the day’s haul into piles: plastic bottles, paper plates, torn fabrics.
Like all the informal workers at the landfill, he declined to give his full name. Some were afraid of harassment from police. Others worried about stigma.
“I’ll go out for a coffee with friends, but I don’t tell them where I work,” one teenager said.
A green truck drove up to the sorting area and men started loading carefully bundled sacks of materials for recycling. Money changed hands and the truck drove away.
Many scrap collectors say they dream of moving abroad to start new lives far from the nauseating stench of the dump. But to emigrate takes money — and the loose change they make from scavenging barely puts food on the table.
“It is precisely the lack of basic social welfare that forces these people to go to the waste landfills every day and endanger their lives in an effort to ensure their basic needs,” lawyer Kika said.
“I believe that permitting the collection of waste in an uncontrolled, unsupervised manner without any preventive measures to ensure safe conditions for those who collect the waste is a continuous violation of human rights and a failure to protect and ensure human rights of the people collecting scrap from the waste landfills.”
Gowing from the Ideas Partnership said people who toil in the waste sector should get the same rights and protections as anybody else who provides a vital public service.
“The fact is that the informal waste recyclers are those who serve us as citizens because there is no public recycling in Kosovo, so they are the ones who recover recyclable waste and turn it into reusable things,” she said.
Leonida Molliqaj is a journalist at the Kosovo Center for Investigative Journalism. Editing by Timothy Large. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.