For waste pickers, one man's trash becomes another one's treasure

File pciture: Niranjan Shrestha/AP

File pciture: Niranjan Shrestha/AP

Published May 14, 2021


By Dominic Naidoo

Every day in South Africa, thousands of people traverse our neighbourhood streets and municipal landfills in search of trash that is otherwise deemed worthless by most of us.

These dedicated individuals pick through our waste in search of valuable recyclable materials which they collect, clean and sell to recycling companies.

This critical yet thankless profession is vital to waste management systems not only in South Africa but all over the world. This is their livelihood; they are waste pickers.

I stood outside my home in Durban last Tuesday evening, our rubbish was to be collected early the next morning, most of my neighbours place their black bags out the night before.

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I saw a slender man rifling through the bags as he walked down the street, picking out mostly cardboard, the occasional aluminium can and sometimes food. I place any cardboard or cans I have in a separate bag, not with my general waste.

As he got closer, I could make out tattered pants and jacket. I greeted him and he thanked me for not mixing my cardboard and cans with the other waste.

His name is Sandile - who asked to remain anonymous - he is one of Durban’s thousands of homeless citizens who have resorted to informal waste picking to support themselves.

We spoke for a few minutes, Sandile shared that he usually gets around 50c per kilo of cardboard and around R12.50 for a kilo of clean aluminium cans. Considering that it takes an average of 71 cans to make 1kg, I was curious as to how much money can one person possibly make from this?

On a good day, Sandile continues, “I make maybe R30-R40. It keeps me from going hungry”. This might not seem like much for many, but it means the world to those facing absolute poverty.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (Unido) estimates that South Africa has around 60 000 waste pickers from both the formal and informal sectors are responsible for up to 90% of the country’s recycling output.

The South African Plastics Recycling Organization states that 70% of recyclable plastics came from municipal landfills with most of this being sorted by informal waste pickers.

To learn more about the importance of informal waste pickers in South Africa, I spoke to Niven Reddy, Campaigns Researcher at Groundwork who says that “Waste Pickers are critical to recycling in SA.

They divert thousands of tons of recyclable material from municipal landfills and free up landfill airspace and by doing so has reduced the number of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere.

Waste pickers are not seen as heroes by many people, but they are champions in the fight against climate change. Another important aspect to keep in mind is that this is their livelihood.

Money made from waste picking puts food on the table. They work through some of the most difficult situations like being based at a landfill or on the streets.”

Reddy goes on to say that “Municipalities should be doing more to assist these vital cogs of our waste management systems. Pickers should be provided with space where waste can be dropped off and sorted instead of the pickers having to walk kilometres every day in search of recyclables. Any residual waste can then be dropped off at a landfill. Government can compel households to separate waste at home, this would make the recycling process more efficient and safer as recyclables would not be contaminated by the general household or hazardous waste.”

Indeed, the local government should be doing more for these waste warriors, but it seems like they may be doing the opposite.

The City of Johannesburg has come under the spotlight recently for wanting to expand its waste management company Pikitup’s operations whilst excluding informal waste pickers.

Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The city currently picks up the household waste that has been separated at the source, this is then transported and sorted at public-private facilities and sold to recycling companies.

A recent study conducted by Dr Melanie Samson, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at Wits, found that there were several negative consequences to the City’s ambitious waste management program.

This model had the unintended consequence of sidelining Johannesburg’s approximately 8000 waste pickers who rely on this waste for their income. After collection by the city, pickers had fewer and fewer areas where they could obtain recyclables from thus negatively impacting their income.”

“It also led to increased harassment as reclaimers were accused by residents and security of “stealing” Pikitup’s bags. The pilot also made life harder for reclaimers in other ways. They had to start sleeping in suburban parks to get to the materials before the private recycling trucks arrived, as otherwise there would be nothing to collect, and their children would go hungry. Governments do not pay attention to these informal economies, often going into situations like this and acting as if there is no system already in place, creating new systems with private companies. Nobody recognises the impact that this has on the waste reclaimers and their lives. These people do so much and yet they are deeply and profoundly exploited,” says Samson.

Waste pickers were also some of the hardest hit when the country went into lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak last year.

Pickers were not able to move around, and all recycling buy-back centres were closed. In November 2020, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization stepped in to assist waste pickers to get back to work safely by providing personal protective equipment to members of the South African Waste Pickers Association at sites in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape.

Unido states that sixty percent of the waste pickers at the four participating sites are women.

The donation of PPE and equipment was sponsored by the Government of Japan and is part of a larger program to support South Africa to make the transition from plastics to environmentally sustainable alternatives. Simon Mbata, chairman of the South African Waste Pickers Association, said that “the donation of PPE has brought dignity to waste pickers, who now have the respect of their communities as recognised workers in the waste recycling system. It lays the foundation for future development.”

Waste pickers are vital to the functioning of our waste management systems. They stop recyclable waste from entering landfill and provide employment to themselves and indirectly to the recyclers that buy their collected waste.

You can help by not mixing your recyclable materials with your everyday garbage. Keep cardboard and cans clean and dry, place them outside separately on your designated waste collection day.

We can do better. We must do better.

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