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Waste reclaimers in Cape Town join forces

A project is underway to establish sector-wide support for creating a collaborative and democratic informal recycling sector in Cape Town.

WWF and the Johannesburg-based African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) have teamed up to work with Cape Town-based waste reclaimers to help them unite and organise. Cape Town informal reclaimers generally work alone whereas in Johannesburg, under ARO, over 5 000 reclaimers have been working together. 

The one-year project, which is being coordinated by WWF, funded by 3M and implemented by ARO, aims to help Cape Town waste reclaimers self-organise. The aim is to reach as many informal reclaimers as possible to be part of the integration process.

In early December 2021, ARO held initial discussions with reclaimers from communities across Cape Town – including Khayelitsha, Makhaza, Gugulethu, Pinelands and Mitchells Plain – to inform them of the intervention and listen to their challenges.

Luyanda Hlatshwayo of ARO explains, ‘‘The Cape Town waste pickers welcomed the initial engagements with open arms. They are excited that they will eventually be recognised and have their say in collecting materials to be recycled around the city."

“The important starting point is to sit around the table and flesh out inconsistencies, acknowledge the existence of each party and identify areas of collaboration. We also need to break down the stigma attached to the "waste picker" name. We do not pick waste but reclaim what others have thrown away. Hence we call ourselves 'reclaimers'."

ARO and WWF also held an introductory meeting with the City of Cape Town’s Solid Waste Minimisation and Cleansing unit and community reclaimer representatives. The municipality supports a few ongoing recycling initiatives and recently commissioned part of its informal waste sector integration mandate to GreenCape.

ARO also met with GreenCape to share the reclaimers’ vision during these initial engagements in Cape Town. In line with these activities, the City of Cape Town, through GreenCape, launched an integration task team in December 2021. The WWF-ARO project will provide input into the proceedings of this task team.
The 2020 Waste Picker Integration Guideline for South Africa stipulates that municipalities must support reclaimers with resources without influencing or taking away their independence.

By coming together and organising under identifiable structures of heir choice, informal waste reclaimers will be able to speak with one voice for proper integration into the city’s formal waste management system. An organised structure will also provide a platform for them to negotiate fair compensation for their services and receive recognition by society for diverting household waste sent to already overburdened landfills.

Currently, the majority of waste collectors in Cape Town work individually with no access to sorting space, transportation, personal protective equipment (PPE) or pre-negotiated buy-back facilities that would fairly purchase their recyclable materials. Stockpiling these recyclable items in homes is a norm, and it is a potential safety and health risk in their communities.

The informal reclaimers also experience price exploitation by middlemen, often with very little monetary compensation and at times, no payment for the materials at all. The prices per kilogram for different materials in Cape Town are much lower than what the reclaimers in Johannesburg receive for selling their reclaimed recyclables.

Through the process of organising into a recognised structure, they will also be able to provide input in sector-wide proceedings around Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), separation at source and negotiations with other stakeholders on issues around infrastructure, logistics, service delivery and fees. Further, they will have representatives who can liaise with authorities on their behalf when necessary.

“I am glad that through 3Mgives, we work to impact communities across the globe and to shift attitudes and awareness around waste – creating strong momentum to address these challenges,” said Laszlo Svinger, 3M Middle East & Africa Vice President & Managing Director.

“3M will continue to work collaboratively with customers, governments, and global partners as well as non-governmental organisations on advancing a global circular economy,” he added.

Vukani Ncinitwa from Makhaza township encouraged his fellow reclaimers in one of the meetings, “We will not succeed if we do not come together and get organised as informal waste pickers in Cape Town. We will remain marginalised and exploited, and we will continue to enrich formal businesses through our hard labour. We need to start now and learn how ARO did it in Johannesburg and how this can help us develop a better vision as waste pickers.”

WWF research officer and project coordinator Lethabo Pholoto said, “We are delighted to collaborate with ARO on this project because of their extensive experience in the space and their ground-breaking pilot projects in Johannesburg. WWF aims to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy for plastics through meaningful collaboration with all stakeholders across the value chain. This intervention contributes to this mandate as we hold a vision of no plastic in nature."

Waste pickers
The representatives from WWF, ARO, the City of Cape Town’s Solid Waste Minimisation and Cleansing unit and reclaimers stand outside the municipal offices in Pinelands after their first meeting.

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