Mercy Ncube (29) makes a living by collecting what many of us would consider demeaning garbage, sorts it into recyclables and resells it as scrap. Rising as early as 4am on weekdays she joins dozens of waste reclaimers in any one of the dumpsites in the sprawling township to find material that is recyclable so that she could take her children to school and put food on the table.

On the one hand, the people who pick waste in the townships are keenly looking for a way to beat poverty and cater for their basic needs, they are also providing a solution to the garbage menace facing the urban areas. Thanks to Ncube and her colleagues who are usually looked down upon by the affluent in society, many townships are emerging as a systematic waste collection system, with teams of collectors and sorters who ensure that the waste is responsibly recycled and not dumped in a land-fill.

However, there sometimes are tensions with residents who feel that the waste pickers encourage the spread of vermin like rats and cockroaches in their neighbourhoods due to the pile up of waste before it is sent to the scrap buyers. “I occasionally have to buy pest control products for the residents to use and that takes away from the little that I make per month,” Ncube says. “However, there are efforts to bring in some order and to have checks and balances. Once a month we meet at the police station to discuss matters affecting our business. We are also involved in crime prevention efforts, especially against the peddling of stolen goods,” Ncube says she makes between R1, 500 to R2, 000 a month.

An estimated 88 000 South Africans currently earn a living in this way, according to Infrastructure News. “Waste picking offers individuals a means to make a living regardless of age, level of education or skills set.
A basic understanding of what is recyclable is required but this is gained through working experience. Waste pickers may be perceived by the uninformed as poor, dirty, uneducated and dangerous individuals and yet they are hard working, fiercely independent, self motivated people who bring with them a wealth of knowledge about the waste management stream and recyclable products.

It is imperative that they be considered and included in future waste management plans and it is encouraging that the waste management industry seems to be doing this,” it is reported.

Pikitup Programme Manager: Separation at Source Nelly Rampete points out that the waste generated within the City of Johannesburg is currently over 2 million tons of waste per year and as a result, the city’s four landfill sites aredesperately running out of space.

“We are involved in efforts to foster partnerships with residents, businesses and waste reclaimers formore assistance to divert as much waste as possible,” She says. Pikitup continues to make major strides in influencing a paradigm shift in the way people relate to waste by promoting the Separation at Source (S@S) programme. Central to this is diverting recyclable waste away from landfills and encouraging people to see waste as a resource.

Some of the benefits of S@S include:
• Recyclables remain clean as they are not contaminated by other waste
• Collection of waste is easier and efficient.
• Recyclables are clean thus cannot be rejected by recyclers.
• The recycling economy leading to job creation is encouraged. The authorities in several townships have began to engage in talks with waste pickers like Ncube to see how they can best be part of the broader waste management system as they perform a very important function.

In Johannesburg for instance, the city is currently working with the task team to see how, going into the future, they can work together to design models of waste minimisation that can integrate waste reclaimers meaningfully. She states that as an entity, Pikitup places a premium on good working relationships with all stakeholders
including reclaimers.

Representatives of the waste reclaimers Justine Molefe and David Maqolo say they welcome the platform that has been opened by Pikitup for dialogue and engagement on the way forward. “We support this structure as a way to discuss issues of mutual interest and together with Pikitup find lasting solutions,” says Molefe who has been collecting recyclable waste from landfills for23 years. Maqolo says the two parties need each other thus it is important that they work together in order to ensure their mutual benefit. Vanessa Pillay, Organisation and

Representation Programme Officer at Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO), emphasizes the importance of a good working relationship with local authorities. “We should recognise and appreciate the work that waste reclaimers do and work together to integrate their activities into the national waste management system. The move towards meaningful dialogue is welcome as we all need each other as equal partners with equally important responsibilities,” says Pillay.

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