Globally there has never been this much concern about what plastic is doing to us. In Johannesburg this means that from next week households will be required to sort their plastics and other recyclables at source.
But the new regulations have raised alarm among waste reclaimers in the city, who believe that their livelihoods are under threat from private recycling companies and co-operatives that have been contracted by the city. A co-operative is a group of people from a community who form a company, which is owned and jointly run by its members, who then share the profits.
From July 1, the City of Johannesburg will be phasing in compulsory recycling in households. This will begin with sensitising residents to the importance of separating waste at source and providing homes with colour-coded and marked plastic bags, indicating what should be deposited in the bags.
The programme was first introduced nine years ago, in 2009; the city now has three companies and 25 co-operatives operating in certain areas around Johannesburg. Recycling will be compulsory in these areas where separation at source is already under-way; in future the programme will be rolled out to all areas. At this stage there are no penalties for noncompliance.
The informal recyclers, who prefer to be referred to as waste reclaimers, survive by collecting recyclable material from landfills and dustbins in residential and commercial areas. They fear the new programme will sideline them in favour of formal contractors, costing them revenue and making their working conditions worse.
“At first we thought it was a good thing, this separation at source, because it made our work easier, but as time went by we realised that our jobs were being taken [away],” said David Maqolo, who has been a waste reclaimer for 20 years.
“We realised that where we used to work in the long-distance area[s] we had problemswith these people, because we wouldn’t find anything, or you find that someone who used to make R100 now only makes R40.”
Johannesburg member of the mayoral committee for environment and infrastructure services Nico de Jager said the new policy would make it convenient for residents to sort their waste, but would also make it easier for existing recycling companies and co-operatives that are partnered with the city to collect from households.
“The reclaimers in the informal sector also get to access it [recyclables] easier without going through bins and making a mess, as is often the case,” said De Jager.
But a survey conducted in March by Wiego, a nongovernmental organisation that is working with informal reclaimers across Johannesburg, found that, since the introduction ofseparation at source and the introduction of recycling co-operatives, particularly in high-income areas, reclaimers have lost about 60% of their income.
“We found that people who were making about R300 per day are down to about R100 per day; some who were making R200 are making between R50 and R100 a day,” said Eli Kodisang, organiser of the waste integration programme at Wiego.
There are an estimated 8 000 to 10 000 waste reclaimers in the city who collect waste from landfills, residential and commercial areas. They carry their loads on shaky trolleys, which they often have to drag for long distances to the various buyback centres. These are depots where individual waste collectors and reclaimers sell their waste.
“People have started an economy from scratch, they started this recycling issue when no one paid too much attention to it, and now that it’s becoming established, all sorts of people are coming in with the support of many levels of government to get a slice of the pie,” said Kodisang. “But in doing so they are actually displacing the informal recyclers, who are really the backbone of the industry.”
However, De Jager said the market was big enough for all the role players and that the incoming policy would not impact on the informal sector. “Only 10% of our waste is being recycled. Just based on that, I think there’s more than enough space [for everyone],” he said.
Kodisang said the problem was that companies and co-operatives were paid by the city to provide the service of collecting recyclables, and on top of that they were able to sell the collected waste. “In other words, informal people collect for free.”
He said they wanted the city to recognise the reclaimers as workers and pay them for their services. But De Jager said none of the companies or co-operatives are paid by the city. They are merely contracted by the city, but make their money by collecting and selling recyclables.
De Jager said the city had previously asked the waste collectors to form co-operatives so the city would be able to work with them. He added that the majority of the existing co-operatives with which the city has entered into relationships were formed by waste reclaimers.
To say that the city had not tried to assist waste reclaimers was unfair, said De Jager. The relationship between the city and the collectors had improved over the past year, particularly after the formation of a forum that was established to give support to the waste reclaimers.
“There are over 8 000 waste reclaimers in Johannesburg; it was just not feasible to enter into a contract with every single person. The city can’t do business with someone without a bank account, without a physical address, etcetera.
“Most of the waste pickers come from Lesotho and Malawi, so it’s a small number of people who are actually operating legally within the country,” said De Jager.
Steven Leeu, an informal waste reclaimer who used to collect recyclables in the street and now collects for a property company in Doornfontein, said since the introduction of separation at source they also had challenges with residents recognising them as legitimate.
“We don’t get material anymore,” said Leeu, blaming this on the fact that employees who collect for companies and co-operatives have uniforms and travel in branded trucks. When residents see them, they think they come from the municipality.
“You know what the residents do? They prefer to leave the dustbin without recyclables outside and take the one with recyclables into the yard so that you won’t find it, and when the truck arrives they give it to those people,” said Leeu.
“This privatisation has caused a lot of problems. When you go to the suburbs you’ll find that people are staying in the parks who do recycling, and it’s all because of the municipality. These people [private companies and co-operatives] come early,” said Leeu.
“Imagine I travel with a trolley. I have to rather sleep in Northcliff, so that [when] the first bin that comes out I can get it, and eventually I just end up living in the park and it becomes my home.”
De Jager said the city, together with waste management provider Pikitup, was working on several initiatives to benefit waste reclaimers. These include creating a space for them to store their trolleys safely, providing them with protective gear and having mobile buyback centres closer to reclaimers so they have shorter distances to travel and can collect more than one load.
Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial reporter at the Mail & Guardian