Wastepickers. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wastepickers. Picture: SUPPLIED

Weaving in and out of traffic, shaky trolleys precariously stacked with recyclables, wastepickers — or reclaimers, as they’re called in Joburg — have created an entire informal economy out of recycling, and it’s saved the country millions.

It’s a difficult job, any reclaimer will tell you. Each day is a race to beat Pikitup to the black bins that line Joburg’s streets.

Some reclaimers camp out in the neighbourhoods they work in to get a head-start on the waste giant. Others start their days before the sun is up, giving them time to tackle Joburg’s vast landfills to collect waste, or to rustle through the bins before the Pikitup trucks arrive.

They travel about 50km a day, navigating their trolleys through Joburg’s furious traffic.

Then there’s the crime.

"It’s hard, hard, hard work," says Thomas Mudau, 41, who started working as a reclaimer after he lost his job as a gardener in 2011. "I wake up at 5am so I can walk on the streets. I don’t feel safe."

Unlike most reclaimers, who push the ubiquitous wastepickers’ trolleys through the city, Mudau is armed only with packets to fill with recyclables. It limits what he can carry. "I don’t have a trolley any more because some other guys stole it," he says.

For his efforts, Mudau earns about R50 a day.

Some days are better than others. Shaun Kariba, 29, and Junior Mthembu, 28, work together. They start their workday at 4.30am. "The earlier you start, the roads are empty and you can ride your trolleys through the streets," says Kariba.

Mthembu adds: "It gets us here quickly."

While the work is mundane most days, Kariba says they occasionally get lucky: "Sometimes you find a laptop and you can sell it for a lot of money."

Once recyclables have been collected, reclaimers take them to buyback centres, which pay them for their loads. Moses Mbatha, 43, a former construction worker who has worked as a reclaimer since 2005, says the biggest moneymakers are paper, cardboard and plastic cold-drink bottles.

Per kilogram, reclaimers in Johannesburg are paid about R2 for white paper, R1.10 for cardboard and R3.50 for cold-drink bottles, says Eli Kodisang, organiser of the Waste Picker Integration SA project.

This is an economy [that was] created by the poor — until the government and the private sector realised it was lucrative
Eli Kodisang

From the centres, the waste is delivered to major recycling companies, including Mondi, Sappi, Extrupet, Mpact and Consol. They either export it or send it to mills or factories that recycle the waste into new products, says University of the Western Cape professor Rinie Schenck. Paper, for example, is sent to mills, where it is used to produce new paper products.

Mudau and his associates are among the estimated 8,000-10,000 reclaimers working in Joburg and 60,000-90,000 in SA (a conservative figure that could be as high as 215,000), says the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR). Informal recyclers are thought to salvage 80%-90% of the post-consumer packaging and paper materials collected for recycling. In 2014 alone, they saved SA between R309.2m and R748.8m in landfill airspace, at little cost, says the CSIR.

In part due to their efforts, SA is ranked third — behind Sweden and Switzerland — when it comes to recycling rates.

But they have done so with little support from the government. And now their jobs are at risk, with bigger players edging them out of the market.

This year, Joburg introduced a compulsory separation-at-source programme, under which residents separate their waste themselves: in addition to the regular black bin, each of the 490,000 households that are part of the programme is issued with a reusable bag for paper and a clear bag for other types of recyclables.

The programme, piloted by Pikitup at its Waterval depot in 2009, became compulsory in July.

"In 2009, when Pikitup ran its first separation-at-source programme, [it] did not consider or include reclaimers," says Wits University human geography lecturer Melanie Samson. "Since then, instead of seeing reclaimers as central to the recycling system, Pikitup [has taken] a charity approach and [seen] reclaimers as poor marginalised people and said: ‘Let’s give them trolleys and protective gear.’"

But, she says, the company hasn’t engaged with the reclaimers as key stakeholders in the waste management process.

Though the separation-at-source programme should have benefited the city’s reclaimers, this has not been the case — in part because contracted private companies such as Dikala and Phambili often get to the recyclables before the reclaimers do.

"Then the waste is lost to the reclaimers and the effect is negative. Separation at source can work only if the planning is done with the wastepickers so they have access to the recyclable waste," says Schenck.

Samson agrees. "Reclaimers came to work and discovered there were no recyclables, which has had a dramatic effect on their lives and has led to new forms of exclusion and impoverishment … Instead of building on what already exists, [the authorities] created new approaches that contracted private companies. The common thread is that reclaimers have not been included in the process."

The effect has been dramatic: reclaimers’ incomes have declined by more than 60% in areas where private companies have taken over waste reclamation. Ava Mokoena, chair of the African Reclaimers Organisation, estimates that reclaimers’ income has fallen from R250-R500 a week to about R100 since separation-at-source policies were introduced.

Kodisang, whose wastepicker project is part of the Women in Informal Employment Globalising & Organising network, says: "Ironically, this is an economy [that was] created by the poor — until the government and the private sector realised it was lucrative."

The authorities are aware of the problem. Nico de Jager, mayoral committee member for environment & infrastructure services, says the city is doing what it can to support reclaimers by finding safer solutions. It’s in negotiations with the departments of health and social development to inoculate people who work with waste. "We recognise that reclaimers are a reality and perform a critical part of what we are doing. They’re responsible for 10% of what we do [in waste reclamation in the city]," he says.

The department of environmental affairs is also developing national guidelines on wastepicker integration to assist municipalities. And reclaimer organisations have been in negotiations with the Joburg authorities for over a year to agree on a framework for integrating reclaimers into solid waste management programmes.

What it means

Joburg’s move to a separation-at-source household waste policy is putting the livelihoods of wastepickers at risk

That "should have been a simple process", says Kodisang. But Pikitup spokesperson Muzi Mkhwanazi says it has been delayed by the need to register reclaimers in the city database and link them with support programmes.

Kodisang ascribes the delay, in part, to "the attitude of officials to foreigners".

It’s estimated that up to 75% of reclaimers are illegal immigrants. This presents a challenge to integration, as they do not have the necessary personal documentation and status in the country, says Mkhwanazi.

While reclaimers are integral to the separation-at-source project, little can be done until they are registered for the programme. "The [uptake] has not been as good as we hoped," says De Jager. "The foreign nationals are very hesitant to register. They are nervous and scared that they will be pushed out of the city."

Ephraim, a reclaimer on Third Avenue, Linden, is from Lesotho. He gives only his first name, as he’s wary of being recognised. He’s been a reclaimer since 2000, but sometimes works as a bricklayer when the opportunity arises. He pushes a Shoprite trolley through the street, with a careful system in place to separate everything he collects. As he fills up his trolley and heads off, he says: "Don’t put me on Facebook. This isn’t anyone’s dream."

The problem would ultimately seem to be one of process. Mkhwanazi says Pikitup can only contract reclaimers through normal supply chain processes, so reclaimers need to organise themselves into legal entities should they want to participate as service providers.

Because they don’t do so, tenders are often given to private companies instead.

De Jager similarly explains that the city cannot favour one group over another, and reclaimers need a bank account, an address and a tax number if they are to do business with the city. "Salaries are not going to happen. We don’t have the budget to employ people you can’t control because they aren’t registered. This is not even on the cards," he says.

Kodisang disagrees. "You’re asking the reclaimers to apply for tenders, but what you’re doing is taking poor people and telling them to compete against the private sector and then telling them they aren’t ready.

"You can’t just say you can compete against the waste giants when the system is designed to exclude."