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“We are accidental environmental heroes”

Informal waste reclaimers are the backbone of the South African recycling industry.

Photo: Mark Lewis

Informal waste reclaimers are the true heroes of recycling. They collect 80%-90% of post-consumer packaging, and save the government up to 800 million Rand per year in landfill space. All this at zero cost!

While they are the backbone of the South African recycling industry, informal waste reclaimers are not always recognized as valuable players. Suburban residents complain that they go through the trash. Traffic hoots at their trolleys. Police harasses them. Government ignores them at best.

To strengthen their negotiation position, reclaimers from Johannesburg founded the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) in 2017.

Photo: Getty Images, Jonathan Torgovnik

“At our first meeting, we noticed we needed to address the issue of self-esteem. Our people feel as if they’re at the bottom of society. Many don’t even want their picture taken” says Eli Kodisang, coordinator of ARO. “We look at our reclaimers as a whole human being. This means we try to assist with formalization of foreign immigrants, prevent illegal evictions, and take a stance against acts of harassment”.

Photo: The Dutch Embassy, Mariska van den Brink

Efficiency and knowledge

One of the main focus areas of ARO is to integrate the informal waste reclaimers into the value chain. Luyanda Hlatshwayo, organiser for ARO and a reclaimer himself, experiences the challenges every day. “Government wants to pay formal companies to do the work that we do for free and more efficiently. We have knowledge of the materials and their value. We collect unseparated waste, while private companies only take what has been separated.”

Pikitup pays private companies R20 – R25 per household to collect separated waste – even if the household does not separate waste. These companies collect less waste in a year than what informal waste reclaimers collect in only 2 months. Moreover, informal waste reclaimers also collect unseparated waste from rubbish bins.

“We estimate that there are 12,000 informal reclaimers in Johannesburg” says Luyanda. “Each of us collects between 150kgs and 250kgs of recyclable material every day. We are hardworking people who make an honest living, while providing an essential service to society and to the planet.”

“Without informal recyclers, there is no recycling industry”

Eli adds: “instead of paying companies, the government should integrate us into the process. If they would use that money to support us, they would get much better results.”

Building good relations

“We want to build good relations with everyone. We engage with residents’ associations and residential complexes. We have success cases where we collaborate with gated communities to collect all their recyclables. We engage with schools for awareness building. And we keep reaching out to the municipality to work together with us instead of against us.”

Photo: The Dutch Embassy, Mariska van den Brink

Together with other likeminded organisations, ARO contributed to the formulation of the Waste Picker Integration Guidelines, that were adopted by the Department of Environmental Affairs. They hope that this can improve the relations with the municipal waste company Pikitup.

Not even a single plastic bag

Eli and Luyanda agree that it is possible to achieve #ZeroWaste. “It is important to embrace and support what people are already doing for themselves. As long as there is economic value in the waste, we will collect it. If there would be a refund fee on plastic bags – we would collect them: you would not see a single plastic bag in rivers or seas.”

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