On July 1st 2017, contracts signed between Pikitup, Johannesburg's official waste management service provider, and private recycling companies came into effect, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of informal street reclaimers (waste pickers) . In September 2016, waste pickers learned that a tender was issued to appoint private companies to do separation at source in high-income areas, and with the support of WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) and SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association) wrote letters to Pikitup, asking them to disclose and discuss with them their intentions . However, while Lungile Dlamini, the Managing Director of Pikitup, said the waste management entity had met with the informal workers to discuss their grievances , these meetings were far from being what one would consider genuine engagement. According Eva Mokoena, a waste picker from Orange Farm, “We consulted them as waste pickers, with WIEGO. Then after that they said to us, ‘we’ll come back to you before this thing starts, then we will negotiate everything with you guys.’ Early this year (2017) we met with the City and Pikitup. We discussed about the workshop that they promised. In the workshop, they didn’t discuss anything with us, they just told us that the private sector is starting on the first of July. We were supposed to have a meeting on the 21st of June but they cancelled everything. We have never had a meeting from then until now. We are still waiting for them”.
Lacking a response, the waste pickers organized in the streets and on the landfills. They took to the streets on July 13th, 2017 , and held mass meetings to elect a representative committee that could continue the appeal to the City to suspend the appointment of private companies. They also devised a list of demands that includes a call for their right to work, suspension of private contracts, inclusion of their needs in future planning, and implementation of facilities to effectively carry out their services. The full list of demands follows:
Registration: Waste pickers want to be registered in a database to be recognized and protected against harassment by authorities and the public, who often view them as criminals.
Safety and Security: Personal safety is a concern, as well as the need for safe storage space for their materials.
Dignity and Respect: Waste pickers’ work needs to be valued and respected by all stakeholders.
Transparency: All city projects, programmes, and service provider changes need to be discussed openly.
Sorting and Storage: Facilities with decent infrastructure, such as decent toilets, showers, and clean drinking water, are needed .
Under the separation at source program, all households in the City are required to separate their waste into color-coded plastic bags: one for recyclable materials such as aluminium, plastic, paper and glass; and another for other household waste . Residents are to place the bags beside their usual waste on collection day, where a recycling truck owned by a private company is supposed to pick up the blue bags and transport them to a recycling depot, selling the recyclables at a profit. The rest of the waste is collected by Pikitup trucks . Pikitup said that it will be accelerating [email protected] and similar programs with the goal of recycling and diverting approximately 73,000 tons of recycled waste annually over the next five years, and that current recycling efforts within the Johannesburg are not sufficient such that there are enough recyclable materials for everyone involved in the waste recycling sector, including waste reclaimers . This statement, in addition to the City’s move to position itself as a pioneer of waste minimisation and recycling, shows a complete disregard for the people who have shaped the recycling industry in South Africa into what it is today.
Johannesburg and Pikitup’s move to privatize recycling through separation at source is dismissive of the greater historical role that waste pickers have played in the City’s recycling practices and greater progression towards sustainability. According to University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) human geography senior lecturer Dr. Melanie Samson, it is reclaimers who unofficially started the recycling economy in South Africa by separating valuable materials from waste. Before the Waste Act was established in 2008, everything in trash bins and on landfill sites was considered valueless waste to be buried. Long before it became fashionable for municipalities to think about recycling, it was waste pickers who developed a more sophisticated understanding of waste . In fact, 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 . While the City claims the program is supposed to encourage household recycling and to reduce waste going to landfill sites , in actuality this is leading to a loss of income for thousands of people.
Separation at source is not development, it is displacement . And exclusion of waste pickers from the process of recycling runs counter to national government policy and contradicts commitments made by the City . According to Vanessa Pillay, program officer of WIEGO, “this policy choice is clearly in favor of the private sector as opposed to a public service...A study commissioned by the department of environmental affairs found that there’s an estimated 62,000 waste pickers nationally doing this work, between 6,000-10,000 of those are in Johannesburg...by bringing in private companies on an unequal basis, on an unfair system, the power relations are not equal, the access to facilities are not equal. So now waste pickers, whose livelihood has been this for generations, have to compete against big companies to sustain themselves” .
In areas where separation at source has already been implemented, informal recyclers have reported the negative effect of the programme on their work. 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. Many informal recyclers now work 15-and 16-hour days. Some start as early as 2AM, while others sleep in parks in suburbs to be able to start as early as possible . The effect on their weekly income has been catastrophic. Since the piloting of separation at source began in 2009, some recyclers have reported losing two-thirds of their income where they were already only earning between R1,430 and R2,400 a month . Noticing the changes that have occurred since the separation at source program started, Steven Leeuw, a waste picker and Interim Joburg Reclaimers Committee (IJRC) member from Newton, noted that, “Currently I can’t even make 500 rand a week, seeing that now there are private companies being introduced. Everything has just been very hard recently because when you go to the surrounding suburbs around the inner city, you find that security chases you around saying, ‘no, we don’t want trolley pushers in our area’” .
Instead of displacing thousands of people, informal recyclers must be integrated into the formal waste management system. The City and Pikitup can benefit from informal recyclers’ experience and expertise, and must, at the very least, recognise the contribution these workers have made to the industry and include them in its development . 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, and after the protest by the IJRC in July 2017, Pikitup and the City formed a task team with reclaimers to develop a framework on integrating reclaimers . In the same month, Pikitup’s managing director, Lungile Dhlamini, put a halt to signing any new contracts and acknowledged waste pickers as primary stakeholders in the City’s waste economy. He has also proposed establishing a waste picker forum under Pikitup and scheduled an initial workshop led by the managing director to begin the process of structured engagement . The task team has made progress in collectively designing and implementing a new registration process for waste pickers, and is committed to finding ways to ensure that integration benefits them. Yet, while they are still developing the framework, new contracts are still being implemented without reclaimer involvement and is resulting in significant reductions in waste picker incomes . As more time passes, the City continues to have a contradictory approach to how it treats waste pickers, lauding their recycling efforts and offering resources while simultaneously restricting access to recycling and contributing to displacement.
At a press briefing on June 27th, 2018, Lungile Dhlamini of Pikitup admitted that there had not been meeting with representatives of waste pickers as often as there should have, but promised to make regular meetings mandatory going forward. At the same briefing, completely contradicting Pikitup and the City’s media release prior to the 2017 reclaimer protest (see ), Pikitup’s communication manager, Muzi Mkhwanazi, said that there is a need for waste pickers in the City because 90% of waste is still deposited in landfill sites and only 10% is recycled. He said waste pickers help divert waste away from landfill sites by collecting recyclable materials from households as well as the City’s landfill sites . To top all this off, Nico De Jager, the Mayoral Committee Member for environment, said that the City of Johannesburg would look to provide registered waste pickers with gloves, trolleys and inoculations to ensure they are included in the City’s recycling initiatives . He also said that his office was looking to upgrade Joburg’s dump sites to be able to store waste pickers’ trolleys overnight while also procuring reflective clothing for waste pickers to promote their nighttime and early morning visibility . De Jager urged waste pickers to organise as a collective and register with Pikitup. “We are not forcing them to register but it would make it easier for us to monitor and regulate if there are groups rather than individuals” . While these commitments sound promising and have left many of Joburg’s waste pickers feeling vindicated in their struggle for recognition as waste recycling industry pioneers, the continuation of separation at source has generated renewed skepticism around the City’s true intentions.
Vanessa Pillay of WIEGO is sceptical of the more recent announcements made by Pikitup and the City, and claims that nothing has really been done since the 2017 meetings with Pikitup which were centered on ways to formally include waste pickers. “It has become clear to us that the City is deliberately excluding waste pickers because they don’t recognise waste picking as real work … They seem keen to include the workers but then nothing is done thereafter, so it’s this constant back and forth,” said Pillay. “In the meantime, the City is going ahead with its recycling initiatives without informing or including the waste pickers” . 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 . At each turn, city officials pay lip service to meaningful engagement while simultaneously implementing the program across Johannesburg and continuing to limit informal recyclers’ ability to remain competitive . Waste pickers throughout the City and the country deserve to have their demands met in a real way so that they may continue recycling and have safer and more secure livelihoods.
On September 2nd, 2018, the IJRC, which grew from this ongoing struggle, officially became the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), and introduced itself to the broader public as the first organisation of recyclers that united those who work in landfills and the streets . The reclaimers decided to frame this organisation as african because it incorporates all those who are engaged in the recycling trade regardless of their nationality . Their mission is to: “unite informal recyclers and to improve their livelihoods and relationship with fellow residents, businesses, and municipalities. We also want to foster better understanding about our work and to remove the stigma and social taboos connected with our work” .