Waste Pickers have become an integral part of contributing towards South Africa’s economy. While many may view their homemade carts as a road hazard, these informal workers play a positive role and contribute in more ways than we could have guessed to the plastic industries and our environment.
Their efforts have become incredibly beneficial to our local economy and has created informal employment in the context of South Africa’s unemployed. The number of workers in this sector has increased by an estimated 245 000. It is also estimated that these workers earn between R50 to R200 a day, depending on which province they are in. The waste sector in South Africa is estimated to be worth around R18-billion.
Yet, Waste Pickers are rarely acknowledged for their efforts. So, how do they contribute to South Africa’s circular economy?
Waste Pickers will either work independently or in groups. They collect, classify, and reinsert a wide range of discarded materials back into our economy.
These workers have accumulated valuable knowledge and offer innovative perspectives on handling waste, pollution, and plastics from their everyday experiences.
Despite these working and living conditions, Waste Pickers also provide a specialised workforce that is proven to be efficient in wasted materials, helping municipalities and plastics industries.
SO, WHAT DO WASTE PICKERS ACTUALLY DO?
Waste Pickers will collect, sort, recycle, re-purpose and sell these materials to recycling industries. They also are collectors of recyclable materials, diverters, or informal recyclers. They have created their own employment.
IS BEING A WASTE PICKER IN SOUTH AFRICA CONSIDERED BEING EMPLOYED?
As most of these workers do not have access to any kind of state sponsorship and social protection, they are not formally employed. In order to survive they expose themselves to hazards and risks to get valuable materials to sort and sell. Unfortunately, Waste Pickers also receive the lowest pay in the recycling chain and often face social stigma and economic exploitation.
Although a lot of their contribution isn’t formally recognized, partnerships with non-profit organisations and academic centres exist, and the indirect contribution of their knowledge is appreciated. In these organisations, they are accepted as legitimate workers in the waste management system. Their daily work gives them knowledge on waste disposal and resource recovery.
By formalising an arrangement with the community, when entering landfill sites, there are only 80 Waste Pickers at a site for about six hours a day. They are given gloves, safety shoes, a dust mask and a reflective vest to protect them. Unfortunately, waste picking hasn’t been formalised as employment.
HOW DO WASTE PICKERS TRANSPORT COLLECTED RECYCLABLES?
For street Waste Pickers, trolleys are the best mode of transport to get to the buy-back centres. Those who collect with trollies earn more than those who collect with bags because more can be loaded onto a trolley. So, street Waste Pickers earn more than those who collect with bags because they work more efficiently.
Street Waste Pickers also modify trolleys to transport the waste so that they can prevent the trollies from being confiscated by security companies taken from grocery shops. The trolley is also the same reason why many Waste Pickers sleep on the street or landfill sites to protect the trollies and collected waste.
HOW DO WASTE PICKERS HELP OUR ENVIRONMENT?
Most recyclables are not separated at the source which means recyclable materials get dumped and often end up in landfills. This not only takes up a lot of space but also means that chemicals like methane and carbon dioxide impact climate change. Waste Pickers help to clean and clear contaminated spaces while making a positive and significant impact on the environment.
Recycling plastics creates jobs and Waste Pickers play a huge role in creating employment opportunities for themselves. By informally collecting and selling waste to the plastics industry sectors, which in turn sell to recycling companies, together they contribute towards waste reduction.