Scene 1: First Day on the Job

Scene 1: Introduction to Blue Sky RecyclingCast of Characters: John McKerry, Gershwin KohlerBackstory:

Blue Sky Recycling is a programme located within Philippi, in Cape Town, South Africa. It was created in 2004 as a collective effort by a non-government organization (NGO) called Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) in order to promote recycling throughout the communities of Cape Town. There are over four hundred people scattered around Cape Town who scavenge neighbourhoods and the streets to collect recyclables in order to turn them over to Blue Sky for a monetary reimbursement. These workers are called pickers, and for many of them, acquiring these recyclables is their only means of income. Blue Sky will drive to the picker’s house, bag these items, pile them onto their trucks, and pay the pickers for their lot of recyclables. The tons of plastic, glass, and cardboard will then be further sorted at the Blue Sky facility and sold back to manufacturers.

At promptly 9:00 AM, a white van pulled up to the lodge and out jumped a jolly elderly man. Neville introduced himself as our driver for the duration of our time in South Africa. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at Blue Sky Recycling. The office coordinator, Thando, introduced us to Gershwin Kohler and John McKerry. Gershwin has been with Blue Sky since its origination in 2004 and John has been with the programme for six years. John is the details partner while Gershwin is the big-picture type. John does much of the hands-on work and communication with the truck drivers and pickers, while Gershwin handles the business aspects of the paperwork.



As we drove to Blue Sky, we didn’t quite know what to expect. The signs for Philippi flickered past as we slowly drove along a long road arcing off to the left. Goats meandered around alongside a gated area as hoards of colourfully dressed people crowded around the many small stalls set up in a street market. Singing and car horns made up the background as cars inched through the throng of people. Neville was unsure where to go, so he pulled over by a gate and asked a security guard if he knew Gershwin. The security guard broke into a big grin and he directed us across the street with a pointed finger. Our team was still unsure that we were in the right place, for the guard had sent us to a fenced-in area full of bags that sat behind a fruit stand and an array of clothing displayed on the sidewalk.


As we bumped over the curb and edged down the fence-lined dirt driveway, we saw five small huts were aligned behind the fence on our left side and a long one-story house stretched along our right side. As Neville put the van in park, a young woman with short-cropped hair came out of the house to greet us. She introduced herself as Thando, telling us that her name meant “the loveable one” with a smile that opened up her whole face. We bade Neville farewell as he steered back onto the road. Our team followed Thando inside a house with bright murals along the outside depicting women and children happily embracing.



Once inside, we were asked to sit as we waited a few minutes for Gershwin to finish up a meeting. A small crowd of people left his office and he brought up the rear; a huge personality built into his 5’ 4” stature. He welcomed us with emphatic arms, shaking all of our hands and introducing us to the other women in his office. He ushered us to the back corner of the house where we found ourselves in his meeting room. John McKerry soon joined and Gershwin started off by asking us about ourselves: our names, our area of study, and where we were from.


We hoped that we would gain some insight to the preliminary questions we had:

  • What main things would you like to see us help you with while we are here?
  • What are your current business processes?
  • How can these current processes be improved?
  • What is the history of Blue Sky?
  • Is there a future for permanent buyback centres?
  • How are your relationships with your workers and pickers?
  • Are there other recycling programmes in Cape Town?
  • How do these other programmes work?
  • How is the community involved?

Actions and Observations:

Gershwin opened up with a discussion about the houses surrounding the office we were currently sitting in. Sizakuyenza is both the name of the area and also an absolutely vital mantra for the people living in Philippi. It translates to “we will do it despite what you say”; a phrase overflowing with a fierce independence. Gershwin spoke with such a passion as he explained the variety of programs within Sizakuyenza, including the HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, blood pressure testing centre, and the abused woman centre. He explained that CORC was the “mother body” and that throughout our work here, we must always consider the question “how is this linked to CORC?”

Gershwin began to tell us how Blue Sky originated and as the story unfolded, John sprinkled in the necessary details. CORC had been promoting cleanup campaigns throughout the settlements and from this, Blue Sky was initiated as an environmental programme in 2004. There was mention of the past men who were in charge and how they did not run a trustworthy business. Both Gershwin and John vehemently disapproved of this behavior and began to discuss their goals with us. They want to reach a 100% profit margin by means of creating more incentives for pickers and being better than their competition. Gershwin explained that Blue Sky was considered a social enterprise as opposed to a company, where any profit they make is put directly back into the business. John and Gershwin look at recycling as an opportunity and a livelihood for the community and believe that their social conscience is what separates them from other companies.


Our team toured the outside facility with John as he led us through a space in the fence and zigzagged between the small huts. We found ourselves surrounded by mountains of materials while John showed us the different containers and mountains of enormous thick bags full to bursting with sorted and unsorted recyclables. He explained how the process worked and how he wanted to reorganize the containers to improve the flow of materials. For the next two hours, John walked us through many of his ideas for improvement of the facility. We were shown the many categories of recyclables, the pricing theories, the trucks used, and the five containers where the recyclables were kept. As the trucks were displayed, John emphasized the importance of the trucks for the business to continue to run smoothly and that any and all repairs were costly but necessary. A truck mounted hoist would greatly decrease the loading and unloading time while branding for the doors would be hugely beneficial for an advertising standpoint. John quickly debated the pros and cons of getting another bigger truck with us. It was made quite clear that a hoist would be a very important tangible aspect to this project if we could make that a priority.

Reflection and Learning:

Throughout his tour, John discussed many of the social aspects that are involved with his job. It was truly eye-opening to realize just how much the social connection plays a part within the business. The personal connections, the hoist, and the business strategies will be key improvement points for our project and our main themes. After meeting with John and Gershwin, it was clear that what our team had pictured for this project was not what was to occur. Instead of focusing mainly on the engineering aspect, the project will be split much more between a business and social aspect with a bit of engineering and design added in. Having Sid as a co-advisor will be a vital component due to his experience in such a business-oriented career.

Coming into the first day, our team was unsure of what to expect. We were certainly shocked by the lack of Blue Sky’s branding and facility identity due to their large base of pickers. The openness and friendliness of the Sizakuyenza community and Blue Sky employees was pleasantly surprising as well. It was a slight shock how quickly they embraced our partnership and began to share many inner workings of their business. Gershwin and John made it very clear that they would not keep information from us or sugar coat any answer that we felt was necessary to advance their facilities. This blunt honesty put us much more at ease and built a strong base for our relationship with our liaisons, for we felt that we could approach them with any subject. Due to the fact that this was our first impression with the friendly South African community, it made us feel more comfortable approaching other community members and Blue Sky workers.

Overall, the day was very helpful in allowing us to understand the needs and desires of Blue Sky while being able to see things from their perspective on current procedures. The information given to us revealed the methods by which we will be able to go about helping Blue Sky achieve their sustainability goals. By talking to Gershwin and John, we are more aware of the situation at Blue Sky and will be able to make a larger contribution through better comprehension of the system in place.

Notes For Future Scenes:

We have a much better understanding of Blue Sky’s facility and general process organization. From touring the sorting area, we can begin to brainstorm different ways to rearrange in order to create the most fluid, effective means to place the bins and bags.