The Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA) highlights the significant role waste pickers play in the waste management industry.
At a recent ‘Reclaimers – What are the Risks’ workshop in July, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research principal scientist specialising in pollution and waste governance, Dr Suzan Oelofse, said that, even though waste pickers fall into the informal sector of the South African economy, they were bridging a gap in reducing waste and providing a living for their families.
“I have never come across such disciplined people as waste pickers in my career. Whether it is raining or not, they show up for work and do it with a smile. The average money they make from selling their waste material is R120 a day,” she said.
This is a significant amount of money for someone who does not even have a matric education, as most of them have low levels of formal education. The waste transactions are in cash and are conducted on a daily basis and there is no complicated protocol such as paying taxes.
“Many people in our society and even government to a certain extent label waste pickers as scavengers but what they do not understand is that these people are earning an honest living, while cleaning the environment,” noted Oelofse.
Even though the amount of waste they recycle is not formally recorded, it is believed to range between 5% and 7% of South Africa’s yearly recycled waste.
“There are lot of entrepreneurial opportunities in the waste management sector. “If properly exploited, many jobs could be created, which would lessen the social impacts that unemployment has on poor communities,” she added.
Oelofse stressed the need to formalise the sector and change the name from ‘waste pickers’ to ‘craftsmen’, because most of the waste pickers have skills to fix and repair broken appliances or build kennels from the recycled wood, besides others.
City of Tshwane functional head for landfill management Frank Dekker shares Oelofse’s sentiments. He noted that the work done by reclaimers, as he calls waste pickers, was of great significance.
“If municipalities can support and work with reclaimers on good terms, they tend to be helpful during periods of strikes. They can spot illegal materials disposal at the landfills and report it to officials, while sometimes assisting clients with offloading waste,” he said.
Dekker noted that a medical doctor once approached him, raising issues of health and safety at the Kwaggasrand landfill but, once he understood that the reclaimers were earning an honest living, he apologised. “Reclaimers often wear layers of clothing, an oversized pair of shoes with plastic bags as socks. This is protection even though it is unconventional protection.”
Reclaimers contribute to reducing the country’s carbon dioxide footprint and ensure and promote the culture of waste management in poor communities.
Looking into the future, Dekker proposed that reclaimers need to be self-managed through formal structures and provided with training on how to recycle and have to find ways to formally ensure their safety on landfill sites. This should be supported by a separate-at-source programme.