South Africa’s registered waste pickers will be integrated into the formal waste economy. Photo: Marcello Casal Jr

South Africa’s registered waste pickers will be integrated into the formal waste economy. Photo: Marcello Casal Jr

The Department of Environmental Affairs is working to incorporate South Africa’s estimated 62 147 registered waste pickers into the formal waste economy.

Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, made this announcement on Tuesday while tabling the department’s 2016/2017 Budget Vote Policy Statement in Parliament.

Over the next three years, Molewa’s department will be working with the Departments of Science and Technology (DST), Labour, Small Business Development and Cooperatives, CSIR, Municipalities, NGO’s and Waste Pickers and Cooperatives Associations to recognise and integrate waste pickers into the municipal waste management system.

Addressing the issue, Molewa said that waste pickers help to divert recyclables away from landfill and formalising them would help to ensure the safety and protection of these currently vulnerable workers.

“Whilst we acknowledge that we have come a long way, support, capacity and awareness around waste management at a municipal level remains an issue,” said Molewa, who went on to comment some of the achievements in the areas of waste management.


Integration saves money

The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers reports that integrating waste pickers can save municipalities money. This is because even when waste pickers are paid fairly for their labour, the transport and landfill costs decrease as waste pickers perform recycling services at lower rates than those charged by big profit-oriented companies.

“Many cities have realised the benefits of integrating waste pickers into their municipal waste management programmes. Often, it is waste pickers who lead this change by first organising, then advocating for recognition of their important role,” reports the organisation.

Due to the waste pickers’ efforts, many cities in developing countries have higher recycling rates than western, industrialised cities, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions and preserving resources.


The plight of waste pickers

The term “waste picker” was adopted at the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in Bogota, Colombia in 2008 to facilitate global networking.

According to the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, there is growing recognition that waste pickers contribute to the local economy, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. In fact, there are millions of people worldwide who make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that someone else has thrown away. However, they often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions, and little support from local governments.