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

In the absence of a formal collection and sorting system for recyclables, waste pickers have provided a valuable, and low cost, solution for moving resources from the service chain to the value chain.

In-depth research conducted by the CSIR on the informal waste sector found that between 60 000 to 90 000 waste pickers earn a livelihood from the recovery of recyclables from municipal waste in South Africa.

Earlier this month Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa announced her department’s plans to incorporate South Africa’s estimated 62 147 registered waste pickers into the formal waste economy.


Integration or formalisation?

South Africa is not the first or the only country to deal with an informal waste sector. However South Africa faces a number of unique socio-economic and political circumstances that may complicate the integration of the informal sector into a formal secondary resources economy, reports the CSIR.

Late last year the CSIR collected information from delegates who participated in one of two regional workshops held in Johannesburg and Cape Town. There was strong support for, and recognition of, the informal sector with 95% of respondents agreeing that the informal sector should be proactively integrated into the formal waste sector.

While general consensus is that the informal sector should be integrated or formalised, the question remains at to how. What model of social inclusion of waste pickers would be most appropriate for South Africa, given the country’s set of social, economic and environmental conditions, that ensure increased recovery of recyclables, compliance with policy and planned EPR, while ensuring protection of livelihoods for informal pickers?

Two opposing schools of thought, regarding integration of the informal sector into MSW Management in South Africa, have emerged:

Option 1: South Africa continues to support the integration of the informal sector and their formalisation through the establishment of co-operatives and SMEs.

Option 2: South Africa drives a formal sector integration approach, by placing the responsibility for integration and employment (labour intensive collection and sorting) on waste and recycling companies contracted to undertake formal kerbside collection programmes.


Noticeable tensions in approach include:

Model: IntegrationFormalisation
Driven by: MunicipalityPrivate sector
Regulation: Regulate, controlNo or self-regulate
Financial support: Give supportRent, incentivise
Recognition: IgnoreRecognised role
Where: LandfillSource separation
Collection systems: CompetingComplementary
Public perception: NuisanceValuable role-player
Role: Exploitation of poorLow cost solution


The CSIR found that there is no single clear, preferred approach. While the majority of participants (44%) support the continued integration of the informal sector through their formalisation as co-operatives or SMEs (Option 1) there remains strong support (33%) for a private sector “employment” model (Option 2).

23% of delegates pushed for a combined model, as an alternative. While this may reflect the limitations of Options 1 and 2, this does run the risk of the sector remaining “on-the-fence” with regards to a practical way forward.


The way forward

As the CSIR conducted its research, four scenarios to “how” the informal sector is integrated into a national EPR scheme for waste streams emerged:

  1. The informal sector is utilised in its current format, as a largely marginalised and unregulated community, recovering value at little to no cost to the value chain.
  2. The informal sector is recognised, but is left largely to operate in its current form, with some level of increased control and monitoring (e.g. registration) and with increased support (e.g. access to recyclables through source separation programmes, and industry-provided buy-back centres to increase the tonnages collected).
  3. Government and business push to formalise the informal sector through the establishment of co-operatives and SMEs, taking on the responsibility for business development support – incubation, mentoring and training. These emerging businesses are assigned geographic areas to “service”.
  4. The formal waste and recycling sector drive a labour intensive collection, sorting and recycling process, based on an employment model of absorbing the informal sector into businesses, as employees. In so doing, the sector also takes on the responsibility for training and capacity building.

In reality it is likely to be a combination of these models, at least in the short- to medium- term, states the CSIR.

However it is clear that the informal sector must be included in the process of designing the EPR scheme as exclusion can result in later conflict between the informal and formal sectors.