The Youth and Waste Scavenging in Nigeria: Implications For Socioeconomic and Health Hazards


Mustapha Muktar, Ph.D.



Throughout the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America , varying number of youths survive by salvaging materials from the waste stream. These people recover the materials to sell for reuse or recycling as well as diverse items for their own consumption. These individuals are generally known as ‘scavengers’ or rag pickers and the activity they undertake is called ‘scavenging’( Medina 1997). Scavenging is a labor process involved in the initial collection, purchase, and processing of recoverable material (Loan 2002). Scavengers are not refuse workers and they are not concerned with waste management, they enter into trade for socioeconomic reasons, and their relationship with waste is as a resource, they only collect those materials for which there is market. Scavenging is a reality in almost all cities of developing countries and in many wealthy nations as well.

In Nigeria, like other developing countries, scavenging among youths begin with the collection of plastic bags, bottles, papers, cardboards and cans, and it mostly takes place in the informal sector. Scavengers provide informal collection, recovering additional materials at the curve, dumps and landfills.

In Kano state, the realization of very large dumps of waste tend to attract local scavengers called “Baban Bola” . These scavengers play an important role in the process of waste recycling. They sort out the useful materials like paper, aluminum, glass etc and sell them to the recycling industries. Unemployed youths engage in activities that earn income for their survival and that of their families. Youths have now begun to ravage the dustbin, courtesy of the economic downstream of the country, they've certainly begun to earn their means of livelihood from the dustbin. In the past, youths were assumed to be leaders of tomorrow and they are still considered to be future leaders, but the uncompromising stance of the economy and government's unfavorable policies towards youths have compelled them to scavenge refuse dumps with the hope of finding scraps of metals, aluminum, rubber and plastics which they could fabricate or sell out in order for them to make ends meet and also to enhance their relevance in the society. It has become a common scene in Kano state to see youth carrying sacks and sticks while they roam garbage dumps. They use sticks for scavenging for any hidden treasure beneath trashes, and any identified material despite its dirt, was quickly stored away in their sacks. Youths who have been scavenging refuse dumps for long, claimed ownership of specific refuse dumps especially those located in highbrow areas, thereby preventing others from trespassing into their territories, while at certain circumstances one sees some of them engaged in waste scavenging over legitimate ownership of a particular piece of broken plastic bowl.

The preoccupations of government on environmental policies are in the areas of environmental sanitation, degradation and pollution control. Hence, one can see that there is no linkage between government formulated policies on environment and the activities of waste scavengers. Government has failed to recognize and formalize scavenging, despite its importance in terms of job creation and income generation to a large number of youths. The article therefore, explores the socioeconomic implications of waste scavenging among youth, with special reference to Kano state.

Waste Scavenging.

The picture of scavenging that emerges from reviewing literature is that of an occupation that provides a livelihood for the poor. Scavenging is an important survival strategy in which impoverished individuals coped with scarcity. Scavengers typically specialize in recovering only one or a few types of materials from waste. To Medina (1997), Scavenging takes place in all stages along the waste management system that is; source separation at household or place generating waste material; here materials are reused, sold or given away, for example, old newspapers are used for packing. During collection, scavengers sort out recyclables for sale. Scavengers also retrieve recyclables at dumps, on the streets or public places, in canals and rivers, at landfills prior to burial and purchased source of separated recyclables from residents. Scavenging is ubiquitous occurrence throughout the developing world. The World Bank has estimated that up to 2% of the population in third world countries survive by recovering materials from waste. Scavengers salvage materials to sell for recycling, as well as repairable and re-usable items that can sell or use themselves. The recovery of materials from waste by scavengers in developing countries takes place in a wide variety of settings; although the circumstances in which materials are recovered in a particular place may be unique. It is obvious that scavengers source their materials from two major ways that is either sorting or collecting freely from dumps and landfills, or by buying the already sorted materials from households.

Poverty is prevalent in most developing countries and this forces the poor to make the most of the resources available to them. Given their very low incomes, scavenging provides them with reusable and sellable materials. In doing so, the poor have developed creative ways in order to satisfy their needs, including the recovery of items not necessarily part of the waste stream: In Mali, many farmers search and dig artifacts produced by ancient Mali Empire in order to sell them to art collectors (Brentt, 1994; French, 1995). In Calcutta, scavengers work along the rail road tracks in order to recover the pieces of coal that fall from the train (Lapierre, 1985). In Cairo, scavengers search ox dung for undigested kernels of corn to eat ( Linden , 1993). In Vietnam scavengers dig on agricultural fields and jungles, searching for scrap metal left over from the war (Donohue, 1994).

Features of waste scavenging

The following features can be generalized for scavengers;
Scavengers are poor relatives to the rest of the society, their incomes are low, scavenging is an informal activity and labor intensive in nature. It can render economic and social benefits (such as; work for the unemployed youths, raw materials for industry etc), on the other hand scavenging generates cost to society such as high health risk associated with the type of labor. Scavenging supplies raw materials largely to either artisans or industries. In dumpsites located near agricultural areas, scavengers recover organic materials to be used as fertilizers as well as food for goats and pigs ( Medina , 1997)

Socioeconomic impacts
Scavenging contributes to reduction of the amount of solid waste to be disposed and also helps to save the natural resources that leads to sustainable development. It creates jobs and extra income for people especially the poor. Scavenging encourages family members to sort out materials from wastes in exchange for money. It supplies raw materials for a lot of recycling enterprises and this creates more jobs for people especially the youths who dominate the profession. Scavenging renders economic and environmental benefits, such as providing income to unemployed individuals, supplying inexpensive raw materials to industries, reducing the demand for collection, transportation and disposal of waste. Further, material recycling has a lower environmental impact that is accelerated by scavengers. Diaz (2000) argued that Scavenging is a process that is well practiced in developing countries, in fact scavenging is a source of employment, that attempts made to abolish the practice in some cities have been met with strong resistance. Scavengers roam the streets looking for items that can be reused; other scavengers conduct their activities at disposal sites. Generally scavengers have an agreement with a middle man, and the middleman is an individual who has contract with end users, who can process, prepare and sell the quantities of materials desired by users and he provides the scavengers with compensation and in some cases a collection vehicle (e.g. a cart). The families and social background of scavengers are such that scavenging is the only option available to them to earn a living. In most developing countries, scavenging played important role on the economic survival of a number of industries (e.g. steel, pulp and paper).

Scavengers have contributed significantly towards the provision and separation of recyclables for the recycling industries; moreover, they are doing their activities in an informal setting. On the average scavengers that buy recyclables from households generate an income that is equivalent to 50% of the cost of purchase (e.g. for each recyclable they bought at N1.00, they would get 50k as profit), besides these scavengers have been responsible for the separation of waste materials and in some cases upgrading it through washing for the recycling industries.

Youth scavengers in Kano state are not organized in any formal way, yet their contribution to economic growth is significant. The scavengers are of two types; the primary and secondary scavengers. The secondary scavenger gave the primary scavenger a token amount of money to buy recyclables from the neighboring areas and in return, the materials are weighed and priced accordingly. A kilogram of rubber shoes or plastic on the average costs N22 – N30, and the companies that recycle these materials include Balley plastic, and Standard plastic. On the average, a secondary scavenger employs 6 primary scavengers or more, by doing this, a lot of youths are employed by the profession. One of the problems facing scavengers is the fact that they do not receive any assistance from the government, and worst of all, the government levy heavy taxes on the secondary scavengers who are mostly salvage dealers. As long as poverty and garbage exist in combination, waste scavenging and recycling are likely to prevail and the reality of these system can be seen as basis for development. Birkbeck (1979) analyzed the labor relations of scavengers using the Marxist perspective. He described the situation in terms of self employed informal sector workers, who like factory laborers, engaged in piece work of which the surplus benefited the middlemen. The relationship between scavengers, the middlemen (salvage dealers) and factories can however, be characterized as patron – client relationship based on mutual trust and cemented by rather stable product delivery and money lending patterns. These relations reduce the vulnerability of the scavengers by guaranteeing a certain security of living, albeit at a low standard, as the middleman uses this dependence to fix prices of the recovered materials at very low levels. Because of this basic survival strategy, the scavenging system was describe by Singular (1992) as hunting and gathering societies, who survive under conditions of common source exploitation. They gather ‘ores’ and hunt for ‘valuables’ in the same way as hunters and gatherers use forests and planes. The exploitation of scavengers by middlemen occurs through market relations and not by means of employment relations as in a capitalist industrial setting. The informal production relations of scavengers are intertwined with the formal sector since they paid various types of taxes to government.

Health hazards
Scavenging has some detrimental effects on the health of the scavengers, who suffer from eye irritation; respiratory diseases, with coughing, sneezing, etc.; skin diseases, especially scabies; minor injuries from stepping on broken bottles or sharp objects in the refuse; headaches from working in the sun; and backaches from bending down most of the time. Other infections associated with waste scavenging includes, skin and blood infections resulting from direct contact with waste and from infected wounds; eye and respiratory infections resulting from exposure to infected dust; zoonoses resulting from bites by wild or stray animals feeding on wastes; and enteric infections transmitted by flies on wastes, chronic diseases like respiratory diseases and cancers resulting from exposure to dust and hazardous compounds, accidental injuries that include skeletal disorders resulting from the handling of heavy containers, infected wounds from contact with sharp items; poisoning and chemical burns resulting from contact with small amounts of hazardous chemical waste mixed with general waste; burns and other injuries from occupational accidents at waste disposal sites or from methane-gas explosions at landfill sites.

Waste scavenging in Kano state.
Waste scavenging in Kano state represents an adaptive response to chronic poverty; however the benchmark appeared to be the structural adjustment programme (SAP), which imposed barn on the importation of some industrial inputs with the objective of making the economy diversified and self reliant. Waste scavenging in Kano state has contributed to the development of the informal sector by providing a labor-intensive, low technology and low paid activities. Scavenging has also rendered economic and environmental benefits such as work for unemployed individuals, supply of cheap raw materials to industries, reduction in the demand and cost of waste collection, transportation and disposal equipment facilities. Waste scavenging also evolves partly due to the prevalence of dump sites and some industries that utilize recyclables as part of their input requirements.

Scavenging in Kano state is not equally divided between male and female youths; male youths have dominated the profession. Only few among the youth scavengers had some knowledge of formal education and they are in many cases primary school drop outs between classes 2 – 5. It is mainly practiced by those with no formal education.

The various reasons that attracted the people to scavenging are due to income and employment it provides to them, as a result of poverty, while some are due to their low social status which includes lack of shelter, education orientation and parental care. Others are engaged in scavenging due to personal interest, by chance and some due to lack of career guidance. Majority of the youth scavengers lived with their families and contributed to household income. It was observed that young children usually accompanied their mothers from an early age.
The major type of materials recovered by scavengers are plastics, metals, glass bottles and others. The materials categorized under others were identified to be old car batteries, used grain bags, papers, rags, wood, and so on. The source where the scavengers got these materials is mainly two; namely open dumps that are considered to be no man’s land and households. In case of materials from the households a token amount is given in exchange for  recyclable materials, sometimes new plastic plate, matches box, are given to the household members in exchange. Most scavengers worked between the hours of 8am to 6pm (10 hours a day).

Salvage dealers are located at specific depots in Kofar Wambai, Sharada, Jakara, Dakata and Tudun Murtala areas all in Kano metropolis. Metals/Iron and Old car battery have a higher value and hence a higher earning potential. Soft drink bottles, though very heavy, have the lowest price. Plastics and used plastic gallons have moderate prices. The average quantity of waste materials collected by a scavenger in a day was estimated to be 15kg. The average daily income of a scavenger was estimated to be N400; it was observed by Muktar (2005) that male scavengers earn more than their female counterparts, and that in some cases scavengers recovered materials and used them for their personal use, these materials include fire wood and clothes.

A lot of factors have contributed in determining the income of youths in scavenging, and they include; hours of work, age of scavengers and the location of dumps. In higher income areas like the government reserve areas (GRA), scavengers found more useful materials in dumps, this is due to the fact that households located in higher income areas do not care to collect useful materials from their waste before discharge, by and large their consumption pattern and nature of the products consumed is another contributing factor. This suggests that scavenging is an unorganized activity that requires little or no skill. Attempt to find the total number of scavengers in Kano state was made by Abubakar (2005) who estimated that about two thousand or more youths are employed scavengers. The average monthly income of youth scavengers is estimated to be N12000. This monthly income is however above the minimum wage paid by the state civil service. Using the figure 2000 for the total youth scavengers in Kano state then, scavengers generate an annual income of 24million Naira.

One problem facing scavengers in the state is the issue of multiple taxes levied against them by both the local governments and the state Ministry of Environment. It was discovered that government officials harass scavengers and claim that they are responsible for littering areas. Taxes are levied directly on the salvage dealers. A salvage dealer was quoted to have said “imagine that they (Ministry of environment) are accusing us of littering the place with junks, where as we are the ones who are assisting them in reducing the massive mountains of refuse in the state (Abubakar, 2005). Due to the low bargaining power and the unorganized nature of scavenging, part or the entire tax burden is passed to the scavengers.

The health of scavengers is however vulnerable to diseases, as garbage dumps contain sharp objects like disposable syringes that were used on patients at home and discarded. This could easily harm any one that is not careful and result in contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis diseases depending on whom it was used for. Razor blades, broken bottles and pieces of metals found in garbage dumps may cause injuries that could also lead to tetanus diseases, which may even result in death. Other diseases which could also be contracted by scavengers include typhoid fever and cholera which may be transmitted to others, while animal and human faeces may cause intestinal worms to those infested. Most youth that engage in waste scavenging are drug addicts and one can see that they are visibly intoxicated, hence they need some counseling. Most of these youths should have been in school rather than collecting refuse in that hour when their colleagues are in school learning.



Waste scavenging among youth arises mainly due to the existence of waste dumps and recycling enterprises on one hand, and the income earned as well as poverty on the other hand. Scavenging as an informal activity has employed a number of youths. The average monthly income earned by a scavenger in Kano , is found to be above the minimum wage paid by Kano state government. The number of children below the age of 15 working as scavengers can be seen as child labor, though poverty is what necessitates them to be engaged. Scavengers have faced problems of informality and vulnerability to diseases, hence they need government assistance.



One major problem facing scavengers is the informality of their profession and lack of bargaining power. It is recommended that scavengers should form cooperatives so that they can pool their efforts and resources together and bargain collectively, Government and non governmental organizations should therefore; enlighten them through seminars, and campaigns. The campaigns should include education and information. Local politicians, policy makers and educational institutions should be the facilitators of these programmes.

Kano state government should train the youth scavengers on how to go about their business in a way that maximizes profit. Attached to this point is the need for the state government to encourage scavenging and make the profession less vulnerable and more efficient, this can take the form of provision of necessary working equipments like hand globes, boots, wheel barrows and capital. The scavengers should receive basic health training (first aid) to learn how to take care of themselves in case of any minor injury. They should also be trained to wear a type of uniform, such as overalls, jungle boots, gloves, helmets, and nose masks, which would further enhance their dignity and health status.