Waste pickers in South Africa

Submitted by: Mark Carras, Wednesday, September 5, 2012

<p>Informal recyclers contribute to higher levels of recycling within cities and help to divert waste from landfills (Image credit: Thomas Ferreira).</p>

Informal recyclers contribute to higher levels of recycling within cities and help to divert waste from landfills (Image credit: Thomas Ferreira).

In South Africa it is estimated that 85,000 people make a living as waste pickers. Internationally research reveals that around 15 million people in developing countries work as waste pickers.  Waste pickers are people who collect, sort, and sell reusable and recyclable materials (such as paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, metal) primarily in an informal capacity.

Average earnings of waste pickers in South Africa

Research by the Institute of Waste Management of South Africa reveals that the average South African waste picker can earn an income of up to R120 per day.  Asiye eTafuleni (AeT), a Durban based NPO working with waste pickers, estimates that waste pickers in Durban earn between R2,400 – R3,360 per month. 

The role of waste pickers in environmental sustainability

“Informal recycling is a low-tech activity with minimal carbon emissions, and therefore plays a critical role towards environmental sustainability” says Tasmi Quazi a researcher for AeT.   In particular waste pickers contribute to higher levels of recycling within cities and towns, and help to divert waste from landfills explains Quazi. 

A source of livelihood

Waste picking “is a source of livelihood for poor workers … that is accessible to the most marginalized individuals in society because of lower barriers to entry in terms of skills, education levels and also limited capital requirements” says Quazi.

Marginalisation of waste pickers

“Waste pickers are often marginalised by society and their work stigmitised as undignified. This is because the nature of their work involves either collecting waste from landfill sites or from urban spaces in cities”, says Quazi, “while waste pickers are clearly linked to the formal sector, their activities are subordinate to and dependent on the formal sector recycling companies, and waste picking is in the bottom of the recycling hierarchy.”

Dangers of waste picking

"If [waste pickers] are working in an unorganized way with no protective gear, then it is a really hazardous occupation. However, as organizations like Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) have shown in India, it can be made into a less hazardous occupation – by integrating their workers into municipal systems, by organizing door-to-door collection, rather than having people work on open landfill sites, and by engaging with local government to provide protective equipment" explains Laura Alfers, a researcher with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

Institutional challenges

A major threat to waste pickers is the trend of privatising municipal solid waste management systems, an act that often results in private companies 'owning' the waste that waste pickers used to sort through themselves.  While in some cases private companies have worked with the waste pickers, as this trend continues there is still the threat of declines in available resources for informal workers.  However, within privatisation some organisations of waste pickers, such as Asociacion de Recicladores de Bogota (ARB) in Columbia, have successfully bid for tenders to perform these privatised waste management functions.

Improving livelihoods of informal recyclers

AeT has worked closely with informal recyclers to help improve the public perception of waste pickers in Durban and to improve their livelihoods. Quazi explains, “Interventions such as the provision of custom-designed trolleys, safety gear equipment and identification cards, organising of the recyclers into a working group ..., marketing/awareness raising strategies such as “the friends of the recyclers” programme, and participation of the waste pickers in public presentations and events, have all contributed to improving the public perception of waste pickers.”

Quazi adds that this “has improved the self-perception of the waste pickers themselves where greater levels of pride, dignity and ownership can be seen in the attitude towards their work.  Ultimately, their increased voice and enhanced visibility has served not only to validate their urban presence but it has enabled greater recognition of their valuable contributions to environmental, social and economic sustainability.”

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Mark Carras