Turning waste into a sustainable income

The Drakenstein Municipality says waste-pickers are minimising the waste filling up landfill sites. All photos by Tandeka Bafo

With some help from the municipality, waste-pickers in Paarl have formed a co-operative to make themselves a living out of collecting material for recycling.

A group of waste-pickers from Mbekweni in Paarl near Cape Town are turning waste into a source of sustainable income and contributing towards a cleaner environment. Most citizens, especially in suburban and township areas, mock the men and women who rattle through the streets on waste collection days to ransack the bins, searching for recyclables.

42-year-old Maditlhare Koena started waste-picking at her previous job where she taught learners from schools in her area how to recycle and how to take care of the environment. “I started working by myself and had a trolley with me all the time. I was rattling through bins and making R60 per load in one day. This was time consuming for some of us and we then decided to come together and form a co-op.” The group met Nompumelelo Njana from Khayelitsha who introduced them to the South African Waste-Pickers Association (SAWPA).

Koena explained that with the formation of the co-operative, Qalabotjha Enterprise, they then decided to approach the Drakenstein Municipality because they wanted a place where they could work from as a group. The municipality came on board and assisted them with a building to work from, fully resourced with machines and, on top of that, the group does not have to pay municipal rates and taxes.

Marius Wüst, the Drakenstein Municipality Executive Director in Engineering Services said that they came on board because they were dealing with “illegal informal waste-pickers” who posed a high risk at the landfill which is meant for “licensed waste-pickers” only.

“To gain better control over the site, the municipality commenced with discussions and meetings onsite with the illegal [sic] informal pickers. After several weeks of discussions between the municipality and the pickers, those pickers interested in being part of the new approach were provided with a separate working surface and recyclable material. In total, 60 informal illegal [sic] pickers became overnight entrepreneurs with the assistance of Drakenstein Municipality. They are working for themselves, under the supervision and conditions of the municipality,” said Wüst

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In September this year, members of the group took a trip to Sweden where they learned about the Swedish model of recycling waste. Sweden has a can and bottle deposit system that gives people money back when they recycle.

Koena is not the only woman who has benefited from being a waste-picker. Nomawethu Sosanti (33), a single mother of three children, was a farm worker before she started waste-picking and joined the co-operative in July this year. “This project has really helped me with being a provider for my family, but there are challenges I face everyday from not having safety glasses to protect my eyesight and rain coats to wear when it is raining,” she said.

Noxolo Mhlontlo (38) only started working with the group in September of this year. She had previously worked at a restaurant in Mitchells Plain. She was recruited by Koena to be part of the group. Noxolo states that “the project has been able to take care of her family and helped understanding how recycling works in making sure that our environment is safe and clean.”

Waste-pickers say that they have been able to put food on the table from collecting and selling recyclables.

Lunga Guza from Workers’ World Media Productions (WWMP) has been with the group since 2012 as part of the organisation’s programme of support to marginalised workers within the labour market.

“A year or two years ago, the waste-pickers within the City of Johannesburg saved the municipality millions of rands in waste, which means they do a great job that benefits the government without it paying them. Waste-pickers in South Africa are still not recognised has workers and are not given clothing to protect themselves,” said Guza.

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WWMP has held workshops for waste-pickers on how to organise themselves and exercise their rights.

Because they start work in the early hours of the day when it is still dark, waste-pickers are prone to criminals who will take the recyclable material that they have already collected or their phones. They are also vulnerable to traffic especially if they do not have reflective gear while pushing their trolleys on the road.

According to Wüst, the Municipality has been asked by the Metsimaholo and Emfuleni municipalities to assist in “in accommodating their illegal informal pickers”. He added that Drakenstein Municipality is currently busy with a process to provide “street trolley people” within its central business districts with street trolleys to assist them with the collection of recyclable material.

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