waste pickers

Photo: Marcello Casal Jr

South Africa’s landfill sites are home to a thriving hidden economy that saves municipalities an estimated R700 million every year.

This is according to a recent study by researchers affiliated to the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE).  The study examined the small communities of ‘waste pickers’ who have created livelihoods by scavenging recyclables, food and other useful items off the rubbish dumps.

An interdisciplinary team of collaborators, under the guidance of the Principal Investigator, Professor Rinie Schenck of the University of the Western Cape, studied these marginalised communities to better understand this informal economy.

According to Professor Schenck waste pickers save South African municipalities an estimated R700 million every year.  “They are essentially offering a free service to remove recyclable items from the landfill sites. This saves money in terms of landfill space, as well as the indirect costs of recycling and waste management.”

Advocating for waste pickers

Despite the service they offer, waste picking is not covered by any type of legislation or policy. South African waste management policies only cover the formal waste sector which means that each municipality has its own way of dealing with waste pickers and conditions are not always good for them.

While the working conditions are often unhealthy and unpleasant the researchers reportedly found a pervasive sense of pride and independence in the waste pickers they spoke to and they hope that through their study they can raise awareness of the waste pickers’ plight and help to protect the livelihoods of this marginalised group.

“Waste pickers are the most important part of this informal waste value chain, but their contribution is unrecognised,” says Professor Schenck. “We don’t want to do anything to take their livelihoods away from them.”

Read more about the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security’s study

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