Covid-19 has affected many sectors of South Africa’s economy and negatively impacted the livelihoods of many people in the country. The waste sector has been hard hit during this tough period, with many in the waste management value chain feeling the impact, including informal waste pickers. The post Covid-19 economic recovery demands that the waste sector rethink its approach to the protection of human health and the environment and consider the urgent need to protect the livelihoods of those involved in the collection and selling of waste materials.
The visible impacts of poor waste management have taken hold in the imagination of the public in recent years, with images of illegal dumping and marine litter appearing frequently in the media. However, there is a social element of waste management that is also grabbing the attention of the South African public, and rightly so for the role they play in South Africa’s waste economy – the informal waste sector. It is estimated that there are between sixty and ninety thousand informal waste pickers working at the heart of South Africa’s recycling economy, recovering mostly paper and packaging waste from the service chain and introducing these secondary resources into the country’s value chain. Government, industry, and civil society recognize the important role of waste pickers in the diversion of valuable resources away from landfills towards reuse and recycling.
In an effort to improve the working conditions and livelihoods of the informal waste sector and to better integrate pickers into the country’s waste economy, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) developed this guideline document, with the support of the University of Witwatersrand. It fulfills the commitment made by the DEFF in the 2011 National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) to “provide guidance to municipalities and industry on measures to improve the working conditions of waste-pickers.”
This evidence-based guideline emanates from the first social science research grant project awarded under South Africa’s 10-year Waste Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap, managed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on behalf of the national government. The development of the guideline highlights the importance of combining research with the active involvement of waste pickers (represented by the South African Waste Pickers Association and the African Reclaimers Organisation), industry, government, and academia in order to create policy change of benefit to all.
The Chemicals and Waste Phakisa set a goal of a minimum of 50% of households separating waste at source in metropolitan municipalities by 2023. This will, in part, be achieved through the review, amendment, and alignment of cities’ waste management bylaws with national and provincial policies and regulations and the integration of waste pickers through the municipal waste system. The waste sector already contributes 1.6% to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but it could contribute more. With waste picker integration, the waste sector can contribute to the country’s GDP while mainstreaming and ensuring inclusive growth.
Waste pickers are already helping municipalities save landfill space and budgets under the informal and often difficult conditions of waste collection. It is our understanding that waste pickers could collect more good quality materials through separation at source initiatives in municipalities. The guideline provides options on how municipalities could integrate waste pickers through separation at source initiatives.
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