Andreas Späth

Human trash or treasures?

2010-07-28 07:30

South Africa has been a global leader in green jobs for decades. While the rest of the world was still grappling with the concept, hundreds of local men and women were already delivering valuable environmental services in every town and city of this country on a daily basis. What’s more, these pioneering eco-preneurs do their jobs voluntarily and for free.

Considering that the green economy is supposedly all the rage with government and industry these days you’d expect these dedicated workers to make clean sweeps of green award ceremonies everywhere and be heavily decorated with honorary medals for outstanding service to the community. Alas, most of us simply ignore them and their efforts. At best we think of them as a nuisance, at worst we regard them as thieving petty-criminals who deserve to be chased away and harangued.

Of course I’m talking about the waste pickers we all regularly encounter half-submerged in our wheelie bins on suburban “rubbish days”. The archetypal recyclers, they basically mine our household refuse for items they can eat, use, trade or sell - the stuff we are too lazy to separate from genuinely useless garbage. They might be the only people in the country to have negative environmental footprints, yet on a social level, the average family pet gets more respect than they do.

Their colleagues who eke out a living by salvaging things from municipal landfill sites don’t fare much better. They work with dangerous, toxic and infectious liquid, gaseous and solid waste, recovering anything from plastics, paper, cardboard and glass to metals, cloth cut-offs and computer components from which they can expect to make as little as R20 a day. At many landfill sites they are under constant threat of harassment and eviction.

Waste pickers contribute to the greater good by:

- conserving scarce resources, including energy and water through recycling;
- preventing soil, air and water pollution;
- creating secondary employment opportunities for recyclers and people converting their pickings into usable goods;
- prolonging the lifespan of landfills by saving space;
- preventing the loss of biodiversity and valuable land to expanding landfills; and
- mitigating climate change from greenhouse gas emitting landfill sites.

So why aren’t we treating them better? It’s our rubbish they’re saving us from after all!

Things are improving a little bit, mind you, but ever so slowly. Several NGOs, especially the KZN-based organisation groundWork, have played a leading role in helping landfill waste pickers to get organized, by doing research, hosting provincial waste pickers’ meetings, getting municipalities to engage with and recognise waste pickers and incorporating them in their waste management strategies. The Waste Act of 2008 legally recognises salvaging activities at landfill sites as well as the valuable role played by waste reclaimers themselves.

Last year saw the launch of the South African Wastepickers’ Association and a number of municipalities from Emfuleni in Gauteng and Mafikeng in the North West Province to Mpofana in KZN have granted waste pickers permission to do their jobs without harassment and as part of an integrated waste management plan. We need more of that kind of thing. Much more. On a national, provincial and municipal level.

Green jobs aren’t just about high-tech engineering, manufacturing solar water heaters and installing wind turbines and photovoltaic panels – although it would be nice if we finally got a good start on those, too. If government is really serious about establishing a green economy it’s high time that we empower waste pickers to improve their lot in life. They may be part of the most informal sector of the economy, but they are a well-established national group with a wealth of practical skills and experience who would benefit greatly from legal recognition and a more secure way of earning a livelihood.

I can think of few more affordable, effective and eco-friendly job creation opportunities than training waste pickers, providing them with protective gear, establishing recycling depots, waste-sorting centres and secondary recycling industries and projects throughout the country.

For the rest of us, it’s time to start treating waste pickers with more dignity and the respect they deserve.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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