We must value SA’s waste-pickers

Most authorities in South Africa do not understand the economics of waste.

And most citizens, especially in suburban areas, disparage the men and women who trundle through the streets on waste-collection days to rifle through bins, scavenging recyclables.

In fact, police – municipal and national – continue to harass the waste pickers. Yet they are the people who are the true ecowarriors of the throw-away age. And they are the harbingers of a system that can play a part in alleviating poverty, hunger and pollution — even aid failing education, and create jobs, if the political will existed to adopt sane, holistic policies.

As the economic crisis has deepened, more and more people have found themselves discarded from an increasingly wealthy formal economy; a global economy thriving largely on built-in obsolescence and the fickle demands of fashion.

As such it is an economy that has spawned huge landfill rubbish dumps and polluted rivers, dams, streams and the oceans with the detritus of the 21st century. But much of that rubbish is not rubbish: it comprises usable matter, from plastics and glass to metals and other materials.

There is an old English saying: Where there’s muck there’s brass (money). And in the muck — the rubbish — of the throw-away society there is much potential wealth that can be mined to the benefit of society as a whole.

Yet, for all the talk at an official level of recycling, very little is done. And that, says Simon Mbata, Sasolburg-based chair of the SA Waste Pickers’ Association (Sawpa), is partly a legacy of the apartheid days.

Curfews, regulations and cheap labour kept the streets clean and kept the poor away from the landfills and the bins of the wealthy. Recycling was not seen by either side of the racial divide to have much benefit. And there was a degree of social stigma to “picking up rubbish”.

A former worker in the industrial cleaning sector, Mbata turned to waste-picking — as did so many others — after he was retrenched, working initially on a landfill site. It is hard, dirty and often dangerous work, salvaging what amounts to riches cast out by a throw-away society.

“And it’s not like in Latin American or Asia, where there is a family tradition of waste picking,” he says. So it was not surprising that the first organised groups of waste-pickers emerged in countries such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

With the assistance of groups, such as the Women in Informal Employment: Globalisation and Organisation and philanthropic associations, the Global Alliance of Waste-Pickers came into being in 2005. Four years later South African pickers launched their movement.

Now they are fighting, not only for recognition, but also for assistance to end their dependence on a series of “middlemen” companies that buy salvaged material to sell on to large corporations. There are constant grumbles about the prices paid by an estimate “more than 200” buying companies, all of them owned by previously advantaged groups and individuals.

“What we want is to have an area where we can bring our waste, sort it, store it and then sell it on to the big companies like Nampak,” says Mbata. He and other Sawpa members have already “had discussions” with companies buying bulk waste “and they will do business with us”.

“What we are talking about is cooperatives of workers, so we can benefit from our labour,” says Western Cape Sawpa coordinator Nompumelelo Njanja.

All that is missing, the pickers say, is political will on the part of the authorities.

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