Waste reclaimers are unappreciated and unprotected

Pickers stop South Africa from drowning in its own garbage, rescuing tons of recycling from landfills full to bursting. Nonetheless, they endure stigma, neglect and exploitation.

Thulani Mathonsi, a 38-year-old father of nine who lives in the coal mining town of Ermelo in Mpumalanga, has been a waste picker for a year. 

He collects polypropylene found in bottles and other plastic containers, and polyethylene, which is in clear plastic products. “I am not ashamed of my job because I really enjoy cleaning my community,” Mathonsi says. “The waste you see has been here since last year July and the municipality has not come to pick it up, so can you see the significance of our job.”

He has collected 15 tonnes, or 15 000kg, of waste in a year. “All of this waste comes from Everest, Phumula, Tembisa and extension two townships. The waste truck from [the] municipality does come but the issue is that people do not know the actual day when the truck comes, and if someone has already taken out their dustbin and the truck does not come, they will not return the waste back to the house. Instead, they will throw it in the streets,” he says.

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Not long ago his recycling was almost lost when sewerage pipes burst and effluent poured all over it. He had to rummage through his salvaged material to save it. While he was busy with this, the municipality warned him that he was polluting, ignoring the fact that what he collected was ruined by a sewerage system under its care.

Waste pickers often do not get support from the government, despite playing an essential role in minimising waste in communities. Where the municipalities are efficient in collecting waste from the townships, it goes to landfill sites. But the lifespan of these sites is vastly expanded through the efforts of pickers, whose aim is to remove and recycle usable waste. This also creates employment. 

A lack of proper infrastructure for waste pickers based at landfill sites means what they collect is sometimes stolen. They also do not have personal protective equipment and are exposed to hazardous pathogens and viruses from the recyclables they pick out of the general waste with their bare hands.

8 January 2021: Thulani Mathonsi, 38, collects bottles from Ermelo townships. “I am not ashamed of my job because I really enjoy cleaning my community,” he says.

No municipal support 

The Ermelo landfill site is one of the busiest in Mpumalanga. Piet Bonginkosi Sibeko, who is based there, is the Mpumalanga coordinator of the South African Waste Pickers Association and chairperson of the Missing Piece Waste Cooperative. The cooperative was founded last year to organise pickers and be a mouthpiece for them, as well as to create employment and help the government minimise waste.

But Sibeko says neglect makes their working conditions precarious. “We work with the municipality but [it] does not take us seriously. Let’s look at our working conditions. It is summer now, when heavy rains come, where do all these people [take cover]? We don’t have a shelter, water taps or toilets. We are in a desert,” Sibeko says.

8 January 2021: Pickers at Ermelo landfill site often do not get support from the government, despite playing an essential role in minimising waste from communities.

In Barberton, a town formerly under the defunct Umjindi Local Municipality and now part of the City of Mbombela Local Municipality, the majority of waste pickers are women. They face similar issues of neglect, saying they relieve themselves in the bushes as they do not have access to the bathrooms built for them at the landfill site. The construction company that took over the site also took over the toilets and allegedly will not allow the pickers to use them. 

“[The] municipality does not support the ladies and they are not taken seriously … Waste pickers were supposed to be allocated areas to store their recyclables in an orderly fashion, to be given baling machines and … personal protective equipment,” says Bernard Gololo, senior cleansing supervisor for Barberton. “The municipality always complains about financial constraints. I can admit that there is a lack of service and this issue needs someone who [is] passionate about recycling, and seemingly, there is no one passionate about recycling from the municipality.”

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The Ermelo waste pickers not only minimise waste, they also foster green growth. Sibeko has started a nursery for the flowers, plants and trees he rescues from the landfill. He has expanded his nursery to include spinach, beetroot, cauliflower and tomato seedlings. While rummaging through recently offloaded waste, someone picks up a seemingly lifeless plant and hands it to Sibeko. All ailing vegetation goes to him for resuscitation at his nursery.

Banele Malinga, 28, who has been a picker for 11 years, says he appreciates Sibeko’s efforts in creating a nursery in the landfill site because it contributes to creating a clean atmosphere, since they “breathe polluted air from the waste”. Apart from collecting waste or tending to greenery, pickers also engage in handicraft made from what they salvage onsite. Using copper wire fished out of the general waste, Sibeko and Malinga created a magnificent timberland tree. It took them four days to craft.

The exploitation of pickers

There are two ways to sell usable waste: the picker at the landfill site will sell their collection to someone employed to buy the recycling at low prices. These intermediaries have baling machines and connections with the big companies they supply. “It is not nice to sell to middlemen because they fluctuate the prices as they please,” says Sibeko. As pickers are at the bottom of the recycling value chain, they are easily exploited. 

If pickers work as a pair or in a group, they can sell the recycling in bulk in Johannesburg. But this method is expensive. First, someone is paid to sort the different types of plastic and other material into tonnes. This person charges R100 per tonne. Once the minimum number of tonnes has been reached, there are usually four men who load the bale into the truck, each charging R200. Transportation costs R4 500. This leaves the picker with little profit, and often not enough to survive the month. These costs mean most pickers resort to using the exploitative intermediaries.

Nkosingiphile Nzima, 25, has been a picker for eight years. His day starts at 6am and ends at 6pm. Nzima explains that metals often yield better income than other types of recycling. He collects polypropylene, which is found in high-density plastic such as yoghurt containers and detergents bottles; white paper; and scrap metals, including stainless steel, non-magnetic materials, subgrade metal such as corrugated iron, metalloids, and gun metal, which is also known as red brass.

8 January 2021: Nkosingiphile Nzima, 25, has been a picker for eight years. He works from 6am to 6pm, mostly collecting high-density plastic and metal.

“On a good day I make about R600 and sometimes it’s possible to make R1 500. And when it is a rough day, I make about R300,” says Nzima, who is able to send some money home. With some of his income he has managed to buy six live chickens and keeps them in Wesselton where he lives.

Waste pickers are often stigmatised for the work they do. But Sibeko says people should make an effort to understand the value pickers create. “Sometimes some community members think people that work with waste are mad people, and because of this stigma, some of the pickers hide from the community that this is the kind of work that they do. They keep it … a secret,” says Sibeko.

Jackson Majola from Barberton, who declined to give his age, has been a picker since 2013. He says people in his community do not know he works as a waste picker. Only his wife and a handful of his closest friends know. Although the majority of the women in Barberton were proud of being abagerezi [hustlers] as they call themselves, some of them prefer to hide what they do because of the stigma associated with this type of work. Other pickers, though, are satisfied that they provide an essential service to the community.

“We are very proud of our job and we respect it. All I want to see is better services, and to be honest, I am content with this job,” says Nzima.

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