Cycling for recycling in Johannesburg

Charles Mbiza’s bicycle is more than a method of transport. It’s a metaphor for the state of rubbish collection in South Africa’s commercial hub, Johannesburg.

The bike—actually more of a large tricycle—is one of several that were introduced to collect waste such as used paper cups during the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held three years ago in Johannesburg.

That it’s still being used by Mbiza to gather waste shows there is awareness of the need for recycling. But, that he barely manages to make a living doing so speaks volumes about how residents of this city have yet to embrace proper waste management.

Mbiza covers about 185 households in a stretch of Johannesburg between the upmarket suburbs of Rosebank and Parkmore.

His work is part of a project founded by ward councillor Judy Stockill, which has the support of the local community association—and which won an award for sustainability from the provincial government earlier this month.
Earthlife Africa, a non-profit environmental action group, has launched two similar initiatives elsewhere in Johannesburg.

Unlike collectors who scrounge through rubbish bins, Mbiza tries to convince home owners and domestic workers to sort waste material for recycling, rather than simply throw it all into the bin.

Reaching people behind the high walls and electric fences erected by crime-conscious residents is difficult, to say the least. But, Mbiza claims this does not deter him.

“If you come out of your house, I can get you. I can talk very nicely sometimes,” he laughs.

Making ends meet

His determination and the acclaim given the project notwithstanding, Mbiza says he is struggling to make ends meet.

“I’m not earning enough for myself, to tell the honest truth,” he says.

Thandi O’Hagan, an environmental activist who works closely with Mbiza and Stockill, says interviews with informal collectors of recyclable material show they typically earn between about R12 and R82 a day.

According to Stockill, the project was based on the premise that one person could earn a living collecting recyclable material from 200 households. A year after the project started, this has not proven to be the case—as the volume of material is not sufficient.

“The problem with the recycling industry is that it is highly volume-driven,” says Jaco Human, glass-recycling manger for a packaging company, Consol South Africa.

And, the necessary volumes are difficult to obtain if people don’t follow Mbiza’s good advice, and sort their rubbish for recyclable material.

“Only so much can be extracted from the existing waste stream; about 90% of glass is captured in the domestic waste stream and is dropped in landfill. The solution is to separate at source,” says Human.

Similar sentiments are voiced by Ian Gwebu, who has run a centre that buys back material to sell for recycling, for almost a decade.

“There is an opportunity in South Africa to increase the market for recycled material. The reason it has not increased is connected to the collection of recyclable material,” he says.

Instilling a citywide culture of waste sorting presents a substantial challenge, however.

“People think if it is easier to throw something into a bin, why should they recycle?” Mabule Mokhine, also of Earthlife Africa, says.

Apartheid hangover

At least part of the problem seems to relate to the fact that Johannesburg is still grappling with the after-effects of apartheid, which left many black residents without services—or the money to help finance them.

“It is well and fine to say people must start separating at source. Some countries have done this successfully, some have not,” says Gwebu, who employs about 30 people to collect waste, while buying from about 500 more.

“I doubt it will be successful in South Africa. Municipalities are still struggling to get people to pay rates and there is not yet [rubbish] collection in some areas,” he says.

And so, much of the material sold to the buy-back centres is scrounged from rubbish bins and landfill sites. There are more than 100 such centres in Johannesburg.

In 2003, a declaration was signed at a national waste summit that committed South Africa to a 50% reduction in the amount of waste being landfilled by 2012—and zero waste by 2022.

JP Louw, a spokesperson for the Department for Environmental Affairs and Tourism, says the government has already launched a successful drive to reduce the number of plastic bags littering the landscape by making customers pay for many of the bags.

But, there is still a way to go on this issue.

Les Venter, general manager for environmental management at Johannesburg’s waste-collection agency, Pikitup, acknowledges that the organisation’s recycling activities are currently limited to support of outside projects. More concerted efforts are on the horizon to ensure compliance with the waste-summit declaration, he adds.—IPS

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