Reclaimers have a role to play in the shift to a circular economy | Infrastructure news

It is estimated that over 90 000 reclaimers work in South Africa’s informal waste economy, and they have a significant role to play in the move towards a circular economy.

This is according to a new WWF report titled “Mainstreaming the informal waste sector: Towards an inclusive circular economy in African cities”.

Over the past year, WWF has been engaging with reclaimers in South Africa and informal waste sector representatives from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda to find ways to include them as key stakeholders in the shift towards a more inclusive circular economy.

 The report is an outcome of this work. 

Reclaimers collect materials such as plastic, cardboard, paper, e-waste and metal from various spaces including landfills and illegal dumps, and reintroduce them as secondary raw materials into the economy.

For most, this is their entire livelihood. They have unique knowledge, understanding and experience of waste management and their work fills a widening gap between the formal waste management system and public and private recycling services.

Yet, in many parts of Africa they are currently subject to poor working conditions for little return and remain largely unacknowledged and unrecognised in policy and local mandates.

As a result, they are limited to the periphery of material value chains and formal waste management systems, and are among the most vulnerable members of society.

Among the report’s key recommendations are that:

  • Investment in and inclusion of reclaimers in the mainstream could create more sustainable jobs and grow the African economy. Growing informal waste sector activities provide a livelihood opportunity for many unemployed people in Africa. These activities subsidise the physical and financial responsibility of currently inefficient and unsustainable formal waste management and recycling systems.
  • African cities need to provide efficient support so that reclaimers can organise themselves into recognisable networks of their choice (organisations, unions or co-operatives). Their work should be considered for contractual agreements with formal role players at scale. Minimum workplace health and social security frameworks, training and capacity building on the circular economy would reduce vulnerabilities and dissatisfaction.
  • The informal waste sector’s insights should be considered in proceedings across entire material value chains, from design to the end-of-life stage of products and materials.
  • Mandatory and inclusive policy interventions such as extended producer responsibility and complementary deposit-return schemes and reuse/refill and separation-at-source initiatives can strengthen the role of informal reclaimers in African cities. This will retain products and packaging in the economy and prevent them from becoming waste and pollution while, simultaneously, improving sustainability and livelihoods.

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