A sledgehammer swooshes down and crushes old concrete, revealing rusty reinforcement bars. One more swing and the bar loosens enough to remove it from what once used to be part of a factory wall.
Scrap metal is the messy business that earned Georgia $260 million worth of export revenues in 2012; the country’s second-largest export after used cars. But, for many Georgians, desperate to find jobs in an economy with unofficial double-digit unemployment rates, it is simply a way to survive.
Each morning, seven days a week, cars loaded down with a variety of metals creep through neighborhoods in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi; the drivers using loudspeakers to summon residents to donate their old refrigerators, heaters or ovens.
Mamuka Badalian is one of these drivers. In a 30-year-old car, he cruises through Tbilisi to find the scrap metal that will earn him about 20 to 30 lari (roughly $12-$18) to support his family of six. A former garbage-truck driver, Badalian says he is the only breadwinner in his family.
But not all days are perfect for working. “I usually don’t work on a rainy day. It’s becomes muddy, and nobody will let me in with dirty feet,” he said.
Twenty kilometers southeast of Tbilisi, such niceties matter little. The former industrial town of Rustavi, its metallurgical plant once the pride of the Soviet Union, is a scrap-metal scavenger’s dream-come-true.
The younger generation comes equipped with metal detectors. But 58-year-old Badri Tsiklauri, one of the city’s oldest and most experienced scrap-metal workers, depends more on the knowledge gained from 20 years of scavenging in Rustavi’s abandoned factory yards.
Just like many other Georgians looking for jobs amidst the economic chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, Tsiklauri, a former steel factory worker, started gathering and selling scrap metal in the 1990s to support himself and his juvenile son.
For more than a decade, it was mostly non-ferrous metals that drew in the cash. Copper, zinc, and aluminum pipes and machine parts were abundant here, meaning that, in Tsiklauri’s words, “Nobody would even look at the iron.”
But as the amounts of non-ferrous metals decreased, ferrous metals went up in price.
Not all ferrous metals are exported as scrap. Each evening, at the end of the day, rows of trucks loaded with rusty scrap metal line up in front of two steel factories in Rustavi. The factories, among the biggest buyers of local scrap metals, turn it all into steel tubes and construction materials.
Scrap metal yards, apart from the factories, pay around 350 lari ($211.47) per ton of metal.
The cash gives these men – women work less frequently in the trade – a fresh lease on life.
But not necessarily for long, drily commented scrap-metal peddler Badalian.
“It’s a tough job. . . and not very healthy. . .“ he said. “Only if you want to die sooner will you be happy with this job.”
Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.