A multi-organisational initiative has secured food for about 4,000 informal waste reclaimers across the country.
The almost R800,000 was raised by Packaging SA, the PET Recycling Company (PETCO), Polyco, the Glass Recycling Company, Fibre Circle, Mpact Recycling, PET recyclers Extrupet, Sen Li Da and Da Fun Ra, the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO), Plastics SA, Metpac SA, Polystyrene SA and the Southern African Vinyls Association (SAVA).
Distribution efforts were facilitated by the department of environment, forestry and fisheries (Deff) and Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa, and involves electronic vouchers being sent to reclaimers’ cellphones, which can be exchanged for food at selected retailers.
South Africa Waste Pickers Association coordinator Simon Mbata said that despite some challenges with incidents of retail stores not accepting vouchers, the initiative has done well to provide for thousands of people.
“One of the challenges was that reclaimers are the most vulnerable, and now they are protected,” Mbata said.
He said the initiative was not a long-term plan, but rather a response to the current challenges facing the industry.
“We really appreciate the support from industry and the role they’ve played with government. We believed it has saved lives, and continue to urge pickers to stay at home.”
The problem with reclaimers returning to work even after lockdown is lifted has more to do with them coming into contact with potentially contaminated masks and gloves.
At this point, the only areas where waste pickers could potentially return to work are those where separation-at-source has been established, so that masks and gloves form part of domestic waste that reclaimers don’t have to sift through.
Mbata said during the 2019 listeriosis outbreak, a similar problem arose, with contaminated products urged to be thrown away.
“At that time, we could have embarked to ensure that mandatory separation at source was instituted. Most waste pickers would be in better positions to work. But I’m afraid to say that waste pickers can return to work – it’s not a good enough system. Pickers risk recycling this virus, and infecting communities,” he explained.
However, Mbata said the decision not to make waste pickers essential services was endorsed by the SA Waste Pickers Association.
“Every life is valuable,” he said, adding that the lack of health and safety measures within the industry would not support this statement.
But waste pickers becoming some of the most vulnerable citizens in the country during the pandemic is not because the sector is informal, Mbata emphasised.
He said the past three years have been productive, and that guidelines have been drafted.
Two issues are involved with the formalisation of waste pickers – the need to formalise versus the want to work independently.
“Picking has two faces – you are a worker in the morning, and by the afternoon, you are a trading entrepreneur. Reclaimers prefer to be independent. Formalisation meant they would have to choose to be either a worker or a business. And they don’t want to lose both opportunities.”
What reclaimers want is to be integrated into a system in order to remain independent when operating within municipalities.
They also need residents to pay their municipal bills to take some financial strain off struggling municipalities. As long as municipalities suffer, so will waste pickers.
Optimistically, at national government level, Mbata enthused that good progress has been made, and definitely more so when compared with other developing nations such as South America and parts of Asia.
This coupled with work in the private sector has seen the country’s reclaimers’ getting one step closer to their wish of being integrated into a unique system while keeping their entrepreneurial skills.
With the informal recycling industry, there is much more than what meets the eye.
Reclaimers are often judged as being poorly educated, but Mbata said many reclaimers are matriculants and university dropouts. These people have families, and are very aware of waste management as well, he said.
Most pickers are constantly thinking of how waste can be better managed, and because they are on the ground and in landfill sites, they have a comprehensive idea of how waste management is currently lacking in the country.
Reclaimers are essentially businesspeople that are willing to get their hands dirty to negotiate the best deal.
The sector has assisted the country with curbing unemployment, and although in its infancy, recycling initiatives and projects are helping South Africa move forward as a country, Mbata said.
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