After his father died when he was only a teenager, Yassine Mazzout started working nights at the landfill next to his home near Morocco’s capital Rabat, salvaging items that could be recycled or sold from the mountain of filth.
“At 15, I should have spent my evenings playing with other kids,” said Mazzout. “But I spent all of my free time [at the landfill] to make money for my family.”
Mazzout is one of hundreds of residents of the small village of Accreche who relied on the landfill — one of Morocco’s largest — as a source of income. Residents would spend hours working in squalid conditions, often fighting one another over the most valuable materials.
But in 2010, the local municipality decided to shut it down and build a modern waste facility.
That was good news for the environment — landfills can be a big source of water and air pollution — but not so good for the people who depended on the dump for their livelihoods.
But in an unusual twist on a story of misery common to as many as 15 million dump pickers around the world, this one has a happy ending. Instead of leaving the workers without any job, the local government decided to open a recycling center at the new waste site, and to hire all the former trash pickers to run and manage it. Not only do they still have jobs, they have vastly better jobs, including benefits like health insurance, equal salaries, set hours and even free transportation to work.
“Before, I could work up to 13 hours a day in horrible conditions,” said Najat Rabat, who spent 10 years working at the landfill. “Now it’s only six hours, and in much better conditions.”
And they’ve pivoted from the competitive, dog-eat-dog culture of the landfill to working together in a new cooperative. It’s called "At-Tawafouk," which loosely translates from Arabic as "Trust."
But getting to this point wasn’t easy.
“[They] worked at a landfill without any rules,” said Mehdi Guedi, a consultant who helped oversee the transition. “So the state said to them, if you want to keep working, you need to have rules.”
In setting up the cooperative, the workers decided that everyone would make the same salary, work the same hours, and have equal input on any decisions made by the cooperative.
They also chose a president to represent them — Mazzout — who’s now 31 years old, and has been the face of the cooperative since it was founded.
As president, it’s Mazzout’s job not just to organize his colleagues, but to stand up for the cooperative’s interests with management. Everyone credits the cooperative’s success to Mazzout’s calm, intelligent instincts and strength as a leader.
“He’s a superstar,” says one of his coworkers.
Even managers admire him.
“Yassine was not what you would call in French a ‘Benny Oui Oui’ — like a doormat," says former manager Gerard Prenant.
“When you suggested something, he wouldn’t just say yes. He defended the interests of the cooperative. But we always found a compromise, and it allowed us to innovate this kind of relationship.”
Today, most cooperative members say they couldn’t imagine going back to the way things were at the landfill.
And the difference At-Tawafouk has made for the environment is also noteworthy.
In 2016, the cooperative recycled more than 12,000 tons of trash. They hope to double that number this year with a new processing line. That’s only a small slice of Morocco’s waste, and the facility employs only a small number of its waste pickers, but it could be the start of something much bigger.
“Given the success story of At-Tawafouk, I think this is something that can definitely be replicated,” said Maria Sarraf, an environmental economist at the World Bank, which helped fund the cooperative. At-Tawafouk was the first one, but if we come back in a few years there should be many more of them.”
Sarraf says the World Bank is already helping launch 18 similar projects in Morocco, which are expected for create 1,000 formal jobs for waste pickers. Sarraf also believes the model could spread elsewhere, to help transform the lives of some of the millions of trash collectors around the world.
For his part, Mazzout wants to be part of that process of creating more recycling cooperatives in his country. He regularly travels across Morocco to speak to similar communities about the success of At-Tawafouk.
But things move slowly in Morocco, and for now at least, At-Tawafouk remains the only one.
It’s not perfect, Mazzout says, but it’s a huge step forward.
“There’s lot of things we’re missing, but we have a real source of work. … The spirit of the cooperative is work.”
Not to mention dignity, decent working conditions, and a living wage.