‘Waste pickers are not fighting for the right to be on landfill sites, they are fighting to be part of the waste management system,’ said Mr Simon Mbata, representative of the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) at a workshop debate hosted by the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA) in Midrand last week.
Having seen firsthand how effectively waste is being managed by informal waste pickers in Brazil recently, Mbata strongly believes that separation of waste at source (household level) is the way forward for the waste industry.
‘This too is the solution being advocated in the Recycling Industry’s Waste Management Plan that is currently being developed,’ said Mr Andrew Marthinusen of the Packaging Council of South Africa (PACSA). Marthinusen accompanied Mbata on the recent fact finding trip to Brazil.
Waste pickers, as they have been dubbed, are individuals who make an independent living reclaiming recyclable waste from the waste stream, predominantly from landfill sites, and selling it on to recycling companies. An estimated 88,000 South Africans currently earn a living in this way. Waste picking offers individuals a means to make a living regardless of age, level of education or skills set. A basic understanding of what is recyclable is required but this is gained through working experience.
‘The reason that the waste pickers are there is clear,’ says Dr Suzan Oelofse, Chairman of the IWMSA. ‘A lot of recyclable and reuseable waste is entering the waste stream due to South Africa’s current waste disposal strategies. This waste is valuable and if reclaimed, can earn collectors up to R120 per day. Many waste pickers have evolved into entrepreneurs by finding creative ways to re-use waste, such as by building dog kennels out of discarded wood or potting and reselling discarded plants.’
Waste pickers: pros and cons
‘Having waste pickers on a landfill site has it’s pros and cons for the site operator,’ says Mr Frans Dekker, Functional Head of Landfill Management Operations for City of Tshwane. ‘They contribute to waste reduction on the site and can be extra eyes, if trained, to look out for illegal dumping activities and criminal behaviour. They assist the public with offloading waste and can help out during strikes as they did recently.’
‘However, having waste pickers on a landfill site means more people for the site operator to manage and slower turnaround time on waste processing. The personal safety of the waste pickers themselves is also an ongoing risk. Many sites feel that their public image may be tarnished by the presence of waste pickers,’ Dekker explains.
‘But these waste pickers are always going to be there and it is important for landfill sites to have their cooperation as far as possible. Waste pickers also need to be encouraged to manage themselves via a representative committee, a process that has started in City of Tshwane during 2002.’ Dekker continues.
However, the existence of these waste pickers and their prevalence on landfill sites has become an increasing concern for the site operators as landfill sites are a dangerous environment and accidents arising on the site can become the responsibility of the site operator. This was highlighted by Mr Leon Grobbelaar from Interwaste in his presentation that discussed the liabilities that a site could face if something goes wrong. Enviro-Fill, an Interwaste subsidiary, was sued for R5 million by an informal waste picker that was injured accidentally whilst collecting waste informally on an Enviro-Fill operated landfill site.
The legal action was instituted in spite of measures being put in place by Enviro-Fill to reduce the risks to the health and safety of the waste pickers.
‘Recycling should be done before waste reaches the landfill site,’ says Grobbelaar. ‘I don’t believe that a landfill site is the right place for the waste pickers to operate.’
Pickers should be included in plans
Waste pickers may be perceived by the uninformed as poor, dirty, uneducated and dangerous individuals and yet they are hard working, fiercely independent, self motivated people who bring with them a wealth of knowledge about the waste management stream and recyclable products. It is imperative that they be considered and included in future waste management plans and it is encouraging that the waste management industry seems to be doing this.
It is clear that there is room for improvement in the working conditions of waste pickers and in the way waste is currently being managed but it is also clear that the waste management industry is actively tackling this challenge and while there is still a lot of work to be done and discussions to be had the outlook is predominately positive.
The IWMSA have recognised that the forum for more discussions around these issues is necessary and as such will be planning more workshops in the near future. They are a professional, multi disciplinary organisation with voluntary membership established to promote the science and practice of waste management and is a non-profit organisation.