Initiatives to integrate reclaimers, or waste pickers, into Johannesburg’s waste management programme have resulted in new forms of dispossession of reclaimers, says University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) human geography senior lecturer Dr Melanie Samson.
Speaking at a recent seminar hosted by Wits’ Society, Work and Development Institute research organisation, she said that, to date, such initiatives have worsened the lives of reclaimers, as private waste collection companies are increasingly taking over the role previously played by the waste pickers, who rely on waste picking for their income and livelihoods.
Samson noted that reclaimers, in South Africa and around the world, are often harassed, stigmatised, treated like human waste and dispossessed of their livelihoods.
However, it is the reclaimers who unofficially started the recycling economy in South Africa by separating valuable materials from waste.
Samson argued that reclaimers’ work is highly complex, involving epistemological, socio-natural, political, institutional, organisational and economic labour.
Before the Waste Act was established in 2008, everything in a rubbish bin and on landfill sites was considered to be waste to be buried as it was assumed to have no value.
However, long before it became fashionable for municipalities to think about recycling, it was reclaimers who developed a more sophisticated understanding of waste.
This was because before reclaimers could think of looking for reusable and recyclable materials in rubbish bins, they needed to denaturalise waste and differentiate items with potential value from waste.
“As the City and Pikitup did not have any kind of ‘separation at source’ programme before 2009, the city’s street and landfill reclaimers created a ‘separation outside source’ programme, in which they began to separate the valuable materials for the residents, and resultantly transformed Joburg’s trashcans and landfills from commodity cemeteries into resource mines,” explained Samson.
She added that the reclaimers were so successful in establishing the base of a recycling economy that, in 2004, five years before Pikitup entered the terrain of recycling, research found that reclaimers were responsible for the city achieving recycling rates comparable to those of the US and Europe.
Samson noted that between 2012 and 2015, Pikitup’s business plans and policy documents moved recycling to the heart of its mandate, as it adopted a business model dedicated to establishing a recycling economy in the city that prioritises ‘separation at source’ as a flagship programme.
By 2015, Pikitup’s corporate goal had become ensuring the realisation of value throughout the waste value chain, which completed Pikitup’s repositioning to focus on establishing a recycling economy.
There is a lot of confusion about what is meant by integration of reclaimers, and Pikitup is currently working with reclaimers to come with a new definition. However, Samson noted that Pikitup’s 2015 separation at source strategy has a narrow definition of reclaimer integration as “the incorporation of reclaimers into the value chain of separation at source”, which Samson felt ignored the fact that reclaimers are already integrated into global value chains; excludes the political and social aspects of integration; dictates the form recycling should take; and grants primary separation at source as a distinct policy objective over reclaimer integration.
Pikitup has done reclaimer integration by providing them with training and equipment that the City and Pikitup believe should aid them in their work; however, Interim Joburg Reclaimers Committee (IJRC) member Steven Leeuw said this training does not recognise the reclaimers as already knowledgeable people, who have an established, effective manner of going about recycling.
Additionally, other projects by Pikitup to form cooperatives with reclaimers to handle separation at source have failed owing to the reclaimers getting less income than before the cooperative was established and, consequently, leaving the project.
Until now, Pikitup has determined that the only ways for reclaimers to be integrated are to form cooperatives and bid for contracts in low-income areas or to register as individuals and try to get jobs with formal private companies that are involved in separation at source activities.
However, Samson pointed out that many reclaimers have not been aware of these options and reclaimers commented that information is “running faster than them”.
Because private companies and cooperatives of community members are contracted to collect the recyclables, reclaimers have either completely lost access to the materials their livelihoods depend on, or have been forced to start working earlier in the day to try to beat the private company in collecting recyclables from residences.
“Additionally, reclaimers did not feature in Pikitup’s stakeholder engagement plans until the 2015/16 business plan and, in that document, they are the only group in the lowest category of minimal engagement,” lamented reclaimers to Samson.
“We are not integrating into [Pikitup’s] system, but they are integrating into ours,” said Leeuw.
Over the last two to three years, reclaimers across the city have started to organise through the IJRC to challenge Pikitup’s separation at source and integration projects. Reclaimers are demanding that all programmes and policies related to recycling be grounded in recognition that reclaimers are the founders of the city’s recycling system and economy.
Samson reported that after a protest by the IJRC in July 2017, Pikitup and the City formed a task team with reclaimers to develop a framework on integrating reclaimers.
The task team has made great progress in collectively designing and implementing a new registration process for reclaimers, and is committed to finding ways to ensure that integration benefits reclaimers.
“Yet, while they are still developing the framework, new contracts are being implemented without reclaimer involvement. Leeuw stated that reclaimers in these areas are experiencing significant reductions in their income.
Pikitup has not responded to a request for comment sent by Engineering News Online.