Recycling Revolution: South Africa’s First Waste Pickers Recycling Gathering!

Wednesday, 01 July 2009 - Under the banner of ‘Recycling Revolution: Don’t Burn Our Livelihoods’, more than 120 waste pickers from more than 50 waste landfill sites from all 9 provinces will be meeting in Johannesburg on the 2nd to the 3rd of July 2009, to work on strategies to ensure that government does not take their means of income away from them and criminalise their legitimate livelihood of waste picking for recycling.

Waste Pickers gathering

groundWork [1] an environmental justice non-government organisation based out of Pietermaritzburg, has lobbied government to recognise people who earn a livelihood from collecting waste off landfill sites throughout South Africa.  As a result, the new National Environmental Management: Waste Act, passed by Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, considers people (salvages) who earn a living from reclaiming waste from landfill sites.

Most waste pickers are not on site for old food collection but mainly for collecting recyclables such as plastic, paper, cupboard and metals. These recyclables are exchanged for money, making these people entrepreneurs.   The recycling of pulp based products such as paper, cardboard results in less water being needed for virgin wood.  In a water scarce society such as South Africa, this is critical.

Visits to various landfill sites in South Africa triggered groundWork’s understanding of the importance of the waste pickers endeavours on landfill sites.   Waste pickers earn a legitimate livelihood from their work, and through this work ensure that fewer resources are wasted by South Africa’s ‘throw away society’, and that South Africa does not run out of waste landfill site space.  Through this understanding groundWork has started working with waste pickers to find mechanisms to strengthen their struggle and to get the work done by waste pickers recognised by the authorities as legitimate and useful to all South Africans.

On a daily basis waste pickers suffer brutality that is inhuman.  They are shot at, beaten by municipal security guards, are forced at times to ‘steal’ from landfill sites and to sell to ‘middle companies’. Municipalities are in most cases the licence holders of these sites and they spend millions of rand trying to keep the waste pickers off the sites.

This first national gathering comes as a resolution from five provincial waste pickers’ meetings hosted by groundWork over the last nine months.

Musa Chamane, groundWork’s Waste Campaign Manager:
‘Waste pickers have noticed the importance of organising so that they can speak in one voice to municipalities and to formal waste recyclers. After groundWork’s visit to the Sasolburg landfill site waste pickers started to talk to each other and have joined forces to form a cooperative of 49 members and they are each earning more then 500 rands per week.’

Waste reclaiming is a recognised practice and employment in countries such as India, Egypt and Brazil. Governments of these countries regard waste picking as a profession. In Columbia, a recent legal judgement found that municipal waste contracts ‘should favour and try to preserve the status of waste pickers as self-employed entrepreneurs’. [2]  

Waste Picker representative from Pietermaritzburg, Douglas Maphumulo, visited India in December 2008 to work with waste pickers in India:
‘Sharing experiences and solidarity is the objective of our gathering. Solidarity with international waste pickers associations will later be developed but this meeting is a starting point. The acceptance of waste pickers on landfills in a formalised manner is a way of developing employment, which is the intention of the new government.’

Meeting venue:
(Press invited to attend)
Ogilvys Lodge and Conference Centre
128 Tonnetti Street


For more information and to speak to participants in meeting contact:

[1] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa and increasingly in Southern Africa on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Pollution, Waste including Health Care Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is a member of Friends of the Earth International ( and the Global Anti Incineration Alliance (

[2] For more information visit ‘The Economist: