A voice for the waste-picker

Dump community: The small community next to the Randfontein Waste Disposal Site goes into surrounding suburbs to reclaim recyclables. (Photo: Mandi Smallhorne)

Dump community: The small community next to the Randfontein Waste Disposal Site goes into surrounding suburbs to reclaim recyclables. (Photo: Mandi Smallhorne)

All it took to upend Sibusiso Mazibuko’s ideas about recycling was an encounter with a small boy. “I met a kid one day who was rummaging through the trash,” says Mazibuko. “He was about my son’s age, nine or so. I asked him why he was not at school, and a conversation grew from that.” Mazibuko visited the child’s home in Bophelong, one of the five large townships in the Vaal Triangle.

“I discovered his mother had gone Awol and his father had passed away. He was living with five older siblings and his grandmother, who was supporting them all by collecting recyclables.”

Most of us are aware of waste-pickers or recyclable collectors — the anonymous people who appear on our streets on garbage collection day to trawl through our rubbish bins, picking out plastic, glass, paper, anything that can be recycled and thus sold. Many of us will have cursed their unwieldy trolleys in rush-hour traffic. But who speaks for this half-invisible community, wondered Mazibuko?

Millions saved

The informal waste industry may be dealing in the filthy cast-offs of our consumer society, but it is astoundingly valuable to municipalities and the country as a whole. The value of the landfill space they saved the country in 2014 alone was between R310-million and R750-million, noted Professor Linda Godfrey, lead researcher for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in a recently published study into integrating this sector into the formal waste sector.

Mazibuko was already part of a co-operative established to work in the green economy, specifically in recycling, but he’d never seen the industry through this lens — from the bottom up. It was obvious, he said, that the collectors needed some kind of representation, a voice of advocacy. “They get exploited by the buy-back agencies to whom they take their recyclables,” he says. “These middlemen add no value to the trash, as they simply bale it up and sell it on, but they often offer very low prices.”

With a few like-minded friends, Mazibuko formed a non-profit organisation, which was registered as the Sedibeng Recyclers Association (Sera) with the department of social development in December 2015.

A first priority was to recruit members, so Mazibuko used his contacts to approach waste-picker communities in the Vaal Triangle. For a minimal annual subscription of R15, each member gets a reflective vest branded with the association’s logo, free latex gloves, and a membership card with photo ID and the areas in which the member collects, and in some cases, the type of waste collected.

“The vest provides visibility on the roads, which is a concern among motorists. Many of our members get up for work as early as 2am and knock off at 6pm,” says Mazibuko, so they are often on the roads when visibility is at its poorest. The vest and ID reassure residents and law enforcement officials that each collector is legitimate.

The association also negotiated with the buy-back agencies, using the power of numbers to leverage better prices, and already a number of members have commented on the improvement in their livelihoods.

In addition, Sera runs workshops — such as one recently held in Boipatong — at which relevant people (from the traffic department, public health and safety and financial institutions, for example) provide soft skills, more understanding of their industry and informs them about what they’re achieving.

Transparent bags: win-win

Sera approaches ratepayers’ associations, residents’ organisations and community policing forums to explain the value of the collectors to the people of the suburbs, who create the waste stream which generates collectors’ income. “Residents benefit from having collectors on the streets who work there regularly and know the area — they can report any suspicious activities.” Sera has key contact numbers; collectors can call the organisation to report concerns immediately.

Sera explains to residents the importance of recycling and of separating waste into recyclables and other waste, such as nappies and food waste.

Early on, it developed a proposal to make waste separation easier for both householder and waste-picker, using a transparent plastic bag for recyclable waste such as paper and plastic, which generates income for the waste-pickers. “We wanted the manufacturers to create packs of rubbish bags containing a 50/50 split of normal coloured bags and transparent bags. The transparent bags can then be picked up by the collectors without tearing open your black bags — it’s cleaner and more dignified for the collector, too.

“We sent proposals to a handful of plastics manufacturers, and received a positive response from one,” says Mazibuko. Together, they created the #recycleready bags. These are sold through a local “mom and pop” store for the normal price (meaning no additional cost), and profit is split 50/50 with any residents’ or ratepayers’ associations involved.

Sera operates in the Vaal Triangle and Soweto, where waste-pickers live on the dumps, as they do on most waste disposal sites. Aside from areas like Pimville and Zola, this community collects recyclables from Mondeor, Winchester Hills and other parts of Jo’burg South. “We’re working on a model to grow Sera and reach other areas,” says Mazibuko.

Follow Sera on #recycleready.

Waste facts

·      There are between 60 000 and 90 000 waste-pickers in South Africa.

·      They divert 16-24 tonnes of recyclable waste from landfills per picker per annum.

·      52.6% of paper and packaging waste was recycled in South Africa during 2014. 80-90% (by weight) of packaging waste was recovered by the informal sector.

·      Between 76% and 97% of waste-pickers worldwide say they suffer from social exclusion due to the nature of their work.

The term “waste-picker” was adopted at the First World Conference of Waste-pickers in Bogota, Colombia in 2008, in preference to more derogatory terms such as “scavenger” or “bin-scratcher”.