International Waste Pickers Day: A struggle for recognition, dignity, and a better waste life-cycle.

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Simon Mbata

Waste Pickers existed before industrialisation, when bones were recovered. The development within industrialisation produced many products and most of them ended up as waste. For many years Waste Pickers found themselves picking up these discarded products for the purpose of re-use, repair and recycling to earn a living.

As a member of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, the South African Waste Pickers Association recognises and celebrates International Waste Pickers Day in remembrance of the struggles waste Pickers around the world face every day at places of work. On 1st of March 1992, 11 waste pickers were brutally killed in Columbia. The incident in Colombia ignited the spark of resistance for waste Pickers around the world, and also the need to organise, fight for recognition and respect of waste Pickers

The South African Waste Pickers Association is one of the formations formed to promote, protect and defend the rights of Waste Pickers. When groundWork set its sights on waste and the management of landfills in South Africa, they found a number of people working on landfills picking recyclable materials, selling them and earning an honest living. In all landfills waste pickers were not allowed to be there, but took the risk anyway to support themselves and their families, and in the process contributing positively towards effective waste management in municipalities around the country. In a number of informal engagements within waste pickers working in landfills, streets, and dump sites, waste pickers were looking for a voice that will represent them, their interests and well-being. It’s through groundWork’s effective implementation of their waste campaign programs that paved the way for waste pickers to organize in South Africa.

It was only in 2009 after workshops and provincial conferences that SAWPA was formed. From its birth SAWPA worked on building alliances with other organizations nationally and international. groundWork, Friends of the Earth, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organising), and GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) became main partners in building and raising funds for SAWPA. Since SAWPA was formed, it has managed to engage the local and national government for recognition of waste pickers as role players and stakeholders in waste management in South Africa. The engagement with government resulted in the draft of the guidelines to integrate waste pickers into waste management system for all municipalities in the country. Industries are also required to consult and engage with waste pickers when drafting the industry waste management plans to be approved by government.

Over the past 12 years since its formation, SAWPA has managed to stop two waste to energy projects proposals in South Africa. Through its ongoing organising program SAWPA managed to assist many waste pickers to organize into local and regional structures. Structures like ROMS in Pretoria, ARO in Johannesburg, and Metsimaholo Recycling Forum in Sasolburg were established, supported and funded.

Research has shown that waste pickers play an important role in waste management, in the recycling economy, alleviating poverty and mitigating emissions. We are yet to see meaningful support towards waste pickers by both government and the private sector. Policies at local level are not favourable to waste pickers and their work. Private sector support is always misdirected to focus and invest funds in business models that are for profit making. Waste Pickers and other environmentalists have been calling for a new approach in waste management and a system that doesn’t see waste at all. A revolution between human and waste – zero waste. The Zero Waste system has shown to be the only approach that values the environment, the people who handle waste and communities that dispose waste. The CORONA virus has shown the world that we need to change how we manage, handle and dispose waste.

As waste pickers, we are calling for zero waste programs to be implemented in all municipalities and separation of waste into organic and inorganic to be mandatory. We calling for waste pickers to be compensated by municipalities for the service that they provide, calling for manufacturers and producers to compensate waste pickers for recovery and recycling of their products. A LUTA CONTINUA!


Simon Mbata is the national coordinator of SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association)

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times, Mercury, and Pretoria News. A stand-alone version of the opinion piece is available here.