Waste collectors at Gauteng's Marie Louise Landfill search for recyclable material. Picture: BAFANA NZIMANDE
Waste collectors at Gauteng's Marie Louise Landfill search for recyclable material. Picture: BAFANA NZIMANDE

Hundreds of thousands of waste pickers and their families have been pushed to the brink of starvation under SA’s Covid-19 lockdown.

A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature SA, International Union for Conservation of Nature and the department of environment, forestry & fisheries shows how the lockdown, which saw recycling facilities across the country shut in levels 4 and 5, placed “unprecedented” and “devastating” pressure on SA’s 215,000 waste collectors.

Released last week, the document reveals that waste reclaimers collect, sort and sell 90% of SA households’ rubbish for recycling.

The report, compiled from a study conducted on the country’s waste sector between March and November, looked at the impact of lockdown on waste collection in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

It revealed that pressures from the lockdown had put the country’s already “overly strained and unsustainable waste services and recycling sector to the test”.

“Exclusion of the informal waste and recycling activities from essential services regulations at the beginning of the lockdown has exacerbated the struggle.

“Throughout the different levels of lockdown, waste generation continued, while the end-of-life systems for proper waste management were inefficient or collapsing. Formal private recycling collection services could only operate with a permit, while informal waste reclaimers were prohibited from operating.”

The document states that while waste collection was limited by lockdown, there was a boom in waste production, especially with plastic production prices dropping dramatically.

“Single-use plastic product consumption increased in line with the necessitated use of personal protective equipment such as single-use masks and gloves, and other safety and packaging items.”

The document reveals that the knock-on effect of the drop in plastic production prices was a decline in the demand for recyclable material.

“While the financial impact on recycling processors was tough, the impact on waste collectors was devastating.”

The report says informal waste reclaimers reported a nearly 50% decline in recyclable material they collected.

“This decline and subsequent loss of earnings was due to temporary shutdowns or permanent closures in the hospitality and commercial sectors, with whom many had recycling collection contracts.

“Some hotels converted into isolation and quarantine sites for [Covid-19] infected persons, which then produced contaminated waste that could not be collected and recycled due to the health risk.

“During the lockdowns, households became the main point of waste generation and waste collection. There has also been an increase in general waste being mixed with contaminated and infectious waste associated with Covid-19 ... with potential contamination from single-use surgical masks, gloves and tissues.

“This increase is due to a lack of separation at source systems, as well as temporary closures of many community recycling drop-off points and recycling centres.”

The authors state that the exclusion of waste collectors as essential services workers had far-reaching economic impacts on livelihoods.

“The impact of the hard lockdown was even more concerning from a livelihood perspective, as the informal waste sector consists of approximately 215,000 reclaimers who survive from their daily earnings. They were forced to go for weeks or more without their usual income, which meant no food for thousands of families.”

Africa Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) chair Eva Mokoena says, on average, each waste picker collects up to 200kg of recyclable material a day. ARO represents 5,500 waste pickers in Gauteng.

She said under the hard lockdown waste pickers had lost all forms of income as they had not been allowed to work because they were not considered essential workers.

“Before the lockdown waste reclaimers were paid about R2.50/kg of recyclable material. When the hard lockdown began that income completely dried up.”

She said even with the easing of lockdown and the introduction of level 3, which saw reclaimers able to work again, they were not earning the same income they did before lockdown began.

“Very few now receive more than R1/kg of waste. Before lockdown a reclaimer could earn maybe R300 a day. They are lucky if they earn R50 a day now. The effect of lockdown devastated thousands of reclaimers and their families. Thousands are facing starvation.”

Mokoena said through several initiatives Gauteng residents were assisting reclaimers by providing them with food parcels and financial donations to their association, which ran a “buddy” support system.

“Through the support system we buy and distribute food to the reclaimers and their families across Gauteng.”

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