Twelve-year-old Amer roams the streets of Maarrat al-Nu’man from morning to night, gathering whatever scraps of plastic and metal he can find.
Covered in dust, his hair shaggy and unkempt, the boy stuffs his loot into a sack with the aim of selling it to make a little money for himself and his family.
Like many others in the Idlib countryside, Amer is scratching a living by collecting and selling rubbish. Some scraps go to specialised recycling factories, while other items can be resold if not too damaged.
“My father has been detained for more than three years,” Amer said. “I live with my mother and my brothers. I left school after the bombing of my village, Maasran, and we were displaced to Kafr Nabl. I tried to find a job so as to make some money to support us, but in vain.”
So Amer turned to collecting rubbish, a job that needs no experience or special training. This means it is a popular way for children to earn a few coins. Each day, Amer manages to collect enough rubbish to buy two bags of bread for his family.
The local recycling industry is thriving as a result of the conflict. Not only does collecting and recycling rubbish provide otherwise destitute people with an income, it has reduced waste and kept the streets cleaner.
Scrap dealers drive around the city, announcing their presence through loudspeakers attached to their cars. Children rush over to sell them what they have collected during the day.
Hammoud Hosrum, a 35-year-old rag-and-bone-man, said he usually bought “aluminium containers, leftover doors, broken windows, damaged batteries, plastic tools, copper and old bread” from the children.
Hosrum continued, “I buy a kilo of plastic for 125 Syrian pounds, steel for 50 pounds, copper for 3,500 pounds and dry bread for 100 pounds and then I go to metal smelters to sell them, while dry bread is sold to [animal] feed shops.”
He said that buying and selling scrap had once been more profitable. These days, few people threw away goods or wasted food these days because of the war.
His colleague, Abu Omar, noted that homes destroyed in bombings were now seen as treasure troves, rich in resources such as the iron rods used in building.
Some craftsmen in Maarrat al-Nu’man have developed a method of recycling iron extracted from the rubble of destroyed houses.
Local people are delighted with this new resource. Saloum Qitaz said that he was more than happy to buy recycled iron to use to rebuild his house. The 41-year-old said that new iron would cost double and was not much superior in quality.
Abu Firas, who owns a metal smelting plant, said, “There are many metal smelters and recycling factories in the Idlib countryside. We buy all used and damaged household appliances, in addition to any metal tools, through intermediaries who buy them by travelling around the villages and towns of people who collect them.”
The 41-year-old went on to explain the technique used to extract the metals.
“First we separate the plastic from the metal, then we separately smelt them to form alloys. Then we sell them to local factories, and sometimes they are exported to Turkey,” he said.
Abu Firas employs a large number of young people at his factory, including many who had lost government jobs.
One of the workers, 28-year-old Wael Shaheen, said, “I get paid twice a week, at an average of 1,800 Syrian pounds per day. I work six hours a day and there are more than 40 other workers in the factory.”
Smiling broadly, he continued, “Thank God, we are working. There are people who dream of a job that doesn’t force them to migrate to Turkey or Lebanon.”
Some have voiced concerns over the environmental impact of the methods used by the recycling industry.
“This industry leads to some damage caused by burning of materials to smelt them,” said Ghassan al-Shawaf, 32, an environmental expert, who said that the burning fuel released cancer-producing particles and increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.
Abu Mohammed, a member of Kafr Nabl’s local council, said that the benefits outweighed the potential risks.
“[Recycling] factories are located in remote places far from residential areas,” he said. “The recycling industry has played a positive role in cleaning up the environment from rubbish and the detritus of war. The rubbish would pose a greater danger if it was left scattered everywhere.”
Local councils in Idlib have been supportive of the recycling industry, which has also contributed to falling prices for metal and plastic goods. Previously, traders had had to import raw materials from outside Syria to supply factory owners.
Locals say that they have benefited as a result of the clear difference in price between goods made in these factories and those which are imported.
Um Hassan recently bought a number of plastic chairs for her house.
“For the first time since the beginning of the revolution, I found a salesman telling me that he didn’t buy his goods in dollars, so he didn’t increase the price,” the 54-year-old said. “When I asked him about this, he told me that the chairs were locally made.”
Um Hassan said that she hoped this meant that local industry could return to pre-war levels, when high quality goods were produced at reasonable prices.