Joburg’s wastepick­ers are a cen­tral part of the city’s re­cy­cling economy. But a change in pol­icy is threat­en­ing their al­ready mea­gre liveli­hoods

Financial Mail - - FEATURE - Su­nita Menon [email protected]­

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.

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-at­source 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.

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.”

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