Cash for trash: : A woman drags a bag filled with used two-litre plastic bottles to a recycling shop in Parkside, East London, which buys them. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/ALAN EASON
Cash for trash: : A woman drags a bag filled with used two-litre plastic bottles to a recycling shop in Parkside, East London, which buys them. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/ALAN EASON

While many are applauding Johannesburg’s move towards environmental consciousness, the truth is that "separation at source" sidelines and threatens the livelihoods of thousands of informal recyclers, whose immense contribution to the reduction of solid waste in the city goes unrecognised.

On June 5, World Environment Day, Nico de Jager, the member of the Johannesburg mayoral committee responsible for environment and infrastructure services, announced the mandatory roll-out of a separation at source programme. As of July, all households in the city are required to separate their waste into colour-coded plastic bags: one for recyclable materials such as aluminium, plastic, paper and glass; and another for other household waste.

Residents are asked to place the bags beside their usual waste on collection day. From there, a recycling truck owned by a private company that has won a tender from the city will pick up the blue bags and transport them to a recycling depot, and sell the recyclables at a profit. The rest of the waste will be collected by the usual Pikitup rubbish collection trucks.

The purpose of the programme, according to the city, is to encourage household recycling and to reduce waste going to landfill sites across Johannesburg. On the face of it, the programme looks like a good idea, but in reality it sidelines and threatens the livelihoods of thousands of the urban poor.

Informal recyclers, often referred to as "waste pickers", "trolley pushers" or even "scavengers", have provided the residents of Johannesburg with recycling services for decades.

Daily, these men and women endure harsh weather conditions, the constant threat of getting hit by passing cars and being robbed.

They comb through waste, reclaiming items discarded as rubbish and then selling them to recycling businesses. Recyclables are then repurposed into shoes, furniture, and numerous other items of value.

While they are thought of as a public nuisance, a blight on the image of the city and, like street traders, are harassed and persecuted by authorities, informal recyclers do this work to support their families.

In areas where separation at source has already been implemented, informal recyclers have reported the negative effect of the programme on their work.

Many informal recyclers now work 15-and 16-hour days. Some start as early as 2am, while others sleep in parks in suburbs to be able to start collecting recyclables at the crack of dawn, before the recycling truck arrives.

The effect on their weekly income has been catastrophic. Since the piloting of separation at source began in 2009, some recyclers have reported losing two-thirds of their income where they were already only earning between R1,430 and R2,400 a month.

Why then would the city choose to expand a programme that has proven to further disadvantage an already disadvantaged group of people?

With a national unemployment rate of 26.7%, more people have been forced to turn to informal work than ever before. The informal recycling sector allows people unable to find formal work to earn a living while also providing a valuable service to the city at no cost. Some informal recyclers have stressed that with no skills, collecting goods for recycling is the only thing that has spared them from having to turn to crime to survive.

While informal recycling is seen as menial work, it makes a significant contribution to environmental sustainability.

According to Packaging SA, the country collects recyclables at a rate of 57%, among the highest in the world. Informal recyclers have created a micro-economy that connects them to recycling buy-back centres and large-scale recycling plants. SA’s recycling rates surpass those in Brazil and India, and fall just behind Europe and the US.

With no separation at source programme in place, this industry has been largely developed by informal recyclers. In 2014, their work saved municipalities landfill space worth between R300m and R750m. In some areas Pikitup has noted that informal recyclers diverted twice as much waste from landfills as its own staff.

In its "war against pollution" the city is attempting to position itself as a pioneer in the process of waste minimisation through recycling, showing a complete disregard for the people who have shaped the recycling industry into what it is today.

The city would have residents believe they have to surrender their recyclables to private recycling firms, when in fact they could sell to recycling buy-back centres themselves, or place recyclables in non- Pikitup bags for informal recyclers to collect. Advertently or inadvertently, separation at source legitimises private recycling firms and makes it almost impossible for informal recyclers to earn a living.

The city-wide expansion of the programme, if successful, will probably lead to a loss of income for thousands of people. Separation at source is not development, it is displacement.

Informal recyclers in Johannesburg have attempted to engage the city about the integration of informal recyclers into the separation at source programme. However, the city has shown a complete disregard for people who have been the cornerstone of Johannesburg’s recycling business and acts in bad faith by continuing to exclude informal recyclers from the expansion of recycling activities in the city. At each turn city officials pay lip service to meaningful engagement while simultaneously implementing the programme across Johannesburg and continuing to limit informal recyclers’ ability to remain competitive. By refusing to engage with informal recyclers the city is choosing to steal this work from hard-working men and women who rely on it to feed their families.

Instead of displacing thousands of people, informal recyclers must be integrated into the formal waste management system. The city and Pikitup can benefit from informal recyclers’ experience and expertise, and must, at the very least, recognise the contribution these workers have made to the industry and include them in its development. This is not a novel concept.

In Curitiba, Brazil, the government requires private companies to work with informal recyclers, ensuring they are able to continue to collect and sell recyclable materials.

In Pune, India, informal recyclers work as independent contractors and are entitled to a base salary and health benefits. Recognition of informal recycling as "real" work has allowed recyclers in Pune to access labour law protections and social security benefits; it has also reduced some of the stigma associated with their work.

Encouraging households to separate recyclable materials is good practice, but any development of the sector must not limit informal recyclers’ ability to earn a living. If the city is not willing to include informal recyclers in their expansion plans, they should just maintain the status quo. A pro-poor city would support rather than dismantle a livelihood that poor people have created over decades, and which provides an essential household and environmental service.

• Makwarela is senior researcher and Khunou a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute.


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