PRISTINA, Kosovo – As the sun rises over Pristina, the Maksutis and their 6 children fan out across the capital to scour garbage bins for bits of plastic and metal, part of an invisible army doing the dirty work of recycling in Kosovo.
"We start at 7 am and we are out by the containers all day," says Bujar Maksuti, the Roma family's head, as he stands by a bin swarming with wasps.
Kosovo's patchy, haphazard waste management is one of several environmental threats piling up in this impoverished corner of Europe, with illegal dumpsites littering the countryside and hazardous landfills leaking into the groundwater.
Yet the issue gets little attention in the run-up to October 6 elections, where the environment does not top any party's list of priorities.
Similarly forgotten are the poorest of the poor who do the bulk of waste sorting in Kosovo, work that is low-paid, dangerous and thankless.
Most hail from the marginalized Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities who make up around two percent of Kosovo's mainly ethnic Albanian population.
An absence of formal contracts – coupled with discrimination that often locks Roma out of other job opportunities – leaves the scrap collectors open to exploitation by companies who purchase what they collect and export it abroad.
Most collectors earn between 50-100 euros ($55-110) a month, a fifth of the average wage in Kosovo, according to a 2018 survey carried out by the European Centre for Minority Issues Kosovo (ECMI Kosovo).
But in an industry that generates around 40 million euros annually in exports, the recycling firms' profits are much larger, according to the non-governmental organization (NGO), who said at least some of that money could be used to help lift the waste collectors out of poverty.
Dirty and dangerous, the work also keeps Roma and other minorities marginalized.
"Working in recyclables is not an honor job...you work with garbage," said Bashkim Ibishi from the NGO Advancing Together, which advocates for social inclusion in Kosovo.
It also feeds prejudice against the communities, he said.
Many children help their parents, missing out on school and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 17% of Kosovo's Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian children work, 60% live in absolute poverty, and nearly a third of girls do not complete primary education.
The recycling also poses health risks as the workers lack the proper protective gear to handle waste that is sometimes hazardous.
The Maksutis, who spend most of the year in neighbouring Albania but come to Kosovo to work for the summer, send their older children to dig through bins in other locations while their youngest son and daughter trail behind them, watching from a distance.
"We keep the (young) children away so they do not get sick," explained Muksuti, who uses a wheelbarrow to move their scraps home until they have enough to sell.
Like most of their colleagues, the Maksutis don't own a motorized vehicle and must hire a truck to transport their finds to a private recycling firm, which can eat up nearly half of their weekly profits.
'Not a priority'
In its latest 2018 report, Kosovo's Environmental Protection Agency said that "the current solid waste management system in Kosovo is environmentally unsustainable."
It said that with fewer than 60% of homes covered by garbage collection, many households simply burn their waste or discard it illegally, harming "human health, water, air, soil and biodiversity."
Frequently, hazardous waste is also not treated separately, posing a threat to groundwater and soil in landfills around Kosovo that are nearing full occupancy.
"Unfortunately, waste management was not considered a priority," the report said, adding that limited funding only made the situation worse.
Because recycling work was "still only done by the informal sector," it posed "major health risks" for the scrap collectors and their children.
It also means that Kosovo is falling short of its recycling potential, with only 5% of waste currently recycled instead of around one third, according to the Institute for Development Policy, a local think-tank.
Albert Kinolli, a Roma MP in the previous parliament, says many are driven to the work out of desperation.
"Roma have no other choice but to struggle to survive by checking containers and collecting waste," he told Agence France-Presse.
Efforts to tackle the issue were cut short by the collapse of the government this summer, he added.
In the meantime, families like the Maksutis continue to eke out a living, bringing home up to 8 euros on a good day.
"Eight euros is big money. That's a big income for me," said Bujar. – Rappler.com