Lockdown bins wheelie business

The introduction of wheelie bins in Soweto did not only mean the end of the zinc bins; it brought with it a source of income for many unemployed people.

The business of washing wheelie bins — just like car washes — became a new way of making money. Because these bins do not come cheap, many residents make sure that they keep them in good condition.

In 2013, Pikitup — an entity of the City of Johannesburg — announced that it would cost residents R385 to replace a stolen or damaged bin. Pikitup said the 8500 bins it replaced  for free in the 2011-2012 financial year had cost it R3-million and that replacing them was not sustainable.

This made wheelie bins a precious possession. The cleaning service not only ensures the wheelie bins are clean, it also guarantees they will not be damaged or stolen from the street.Once washed, the bin cleaners return the bins safely to the owners’ yards.

Nokuthula Phatsima is one of the many young people in Soweto who has been making a living from washing wheelie bins.


She passed grade 12 in 2008 and in 2010 she got into a learnership, but didn’t get a job when it ended. Since then she has participated in a number of learnerships but could not find work afterwards.

In 2016 her brother — who Phatsima says is business minded — suggested that she might want to try out the business of washing bins instead of waiting for handouts.

But some family members discouraged her from going into the business. “My sister said ‘abantu bazothi ngiyalamba [people will say your are poor]’.”

Phatsima says this initially discouraged her. But after talking to her friend about the idea she got the motivation to go on with the plan. Her friend had told her that no one was offering a bin cleaning service at Protea Glen extension 13 — where Phatsima lived at the time — and that people would welcome her business.

She went door to door marketing her bin cleaning services to the residents. But she was not prepared for what lay ahead. Rejection.

“I must have gone to 30 houses but I only got two houses that said yes, I could wash their dustbin. I was discouraged. I knocked on every door and people told me ‘no, we are fine’ and that really got me discouraged,” she says.

Phatsima went home and prayed and asked God to help get her business off the ground. The following day, after praying, she went knocking again. She got three more nods.

She started her business washing five dustbins and charged R60 a month.

More people started approaching her to wash their bins when they saw her in action. Her business grew.

Phatsima was now washing 12 dustbins. And even though she had increased her price to R80, some people still paid her R60 while others said they could only afford R50. She says she made about R1060 a month.

“I was fine with even those who paid me R50. As long as they were supporting me I allowed them to pay me what they could afford,” she says.

Her mother is the only breadwinner at home and from what she made from washing the bins, Phatsima contributed R500 towards groceries. She was able to buy herself toiletries with some of the money and used the rest for her other needs.

“The money really helped a lot. A lot,” she emphasised.

March 26 — the day the country went on lockdown from midnight — was the last time Phatsima washed wheelie bins.

“Now I can feel that I do not have an income. I am unable to assist my mother now and she is really struggling on her own.”

Last month the government announced that the country was moving to level 4 lockdown and that regulations will be eased to allow some industries to open in a bid to get the economy functioning. Thus on May 1 about 1.5-million people returned to work and restaurants opened for deliveries.

But Phatsima does not fall under any of the categories of people that can start working again.

She is scared of taking chances by resuming her business without a permit.

“I am desperate for my income but I am scared of being arrested.”

She had moved to Mofolo and travelled to Protea Glen.

“I can get into a taxi and go to Glen. But what if it is stopped by police and they ask me where I am going and I tell them I am going to work and they ask for my permit and I tell them I do not have it because I wash dustbins and then they arrest me. That is my biggest worry,” she said.

In its plans the government has not made provisions for people working in the informal sector — as Phatsima does. Only the most brave have returned to the side of the road to sell items, to entrances of malls and to their car washes in an attempt to make a living.

Phatsima says she is also toying with the idea of taking a chance and resuming her wheelie bin cleaning business in Protea Glen, because she needs the money. She has also said she will go to the police station to see how they can assist her because she does not want to break the law.

Unfortunately for her, she cannot even offer the bin cleaning service in Mofolo because there are already people washing wheelie bins there.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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