Bin pickers are often seen as a nuisance to residents but a recent study has found they can save municipalities a whopping R700 million a year.
Maxwell Snell can make R200 to R300 a day by scratching through wheelie bins and funnelling reusable goods to the recycling depots.
Loading a Dstv dish onto his already piled-high trolley, he says he relies on recycling to feed his four children.
He leaves his Lavender Hill home at 5am every day to rifle through rubbish for recyclables which he packs into bags, ties onto his trolley and then drags to the Retreat recycling depot.
Allen Hoffmeyer from Cafda does the same thing every day in areas such as Heathfield and Sasmeer Estate.
Finding it difficult to find employment after he lost his brick laying job years ago, he says it’s the only way he can afford food.
On a good day he makes up to R170 by collecting recycled goods and scrap metal but says the bin-picking competition is fierce.
“I have problems with my feet so I can’t go as fast and far as I used to but I still do this every morning from about 5am because it’s the only way I can feed my family,” he said.
Cecil Davids from Lavender Hill gets up at 4am every morning and has been bin-picking for 10 years to feed his six children. “I was very shy at first to do this because there is a stigma attached to it but I have to ‘skarrel’ to support my family. I am the provider and when my children are hungry, they come to me.
So this is how I provide for them,” he said. The most he’s made for the day is R800 and the least, R25.
Until recently, little was known about the role waste pickers played in the economy and factors that enabled them to make a living.
Academics in the fields of social work, economics and nutrition, affiliated to the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation’s Centre of Excellence in Food Security (COE), found that waste pickers generated R700 million a year.
Under the guidance of the principal investigator, Professor Rinie (Caterina) Schenck, of the University of the Western Cape, the research team’s findings show that in the first quarter of 2014 there were 2.4 million people, or 12.3% of the South African labour force of approximately 20 million, trying to make a living in the informal economy – this excludes the agricultural sector.
Given that South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world (25.2%), more people should theoretically be able to enter the informal economy. In India, for example, about 90% of the population make a living in the informal sector. The research team, therefore, wanted to know if the low number of people in the South African informal economy is an indication of an environment that is not very enabling.
The study shows that most waste pickers do the work to survive. Professor Schenck says waste pickers are here to stay and existing national, provincial and local policy planning priorities should incorporate waste picking as a permanent phenomenon.
Policies need to take into account the voice of the waste pickers themselves and social workers should facilitate the process, she says.
Findings in the report reveal that while collecting recyclables, more than half of the waste pickers collect food as well.
In some cases, the food is brought to the dump in containers and many waste pickers will eat it. Professor Schenck says the pickers reported not getting sick from eating the food, saying they can tell when food is fine to eat by smell, taste and touch.
Rashied Abrahams, a resident from Sasmeer Estate, said he respects bin pickers. “I understand that everyone has to provide for their family and bin pickers have found an honest way of doing so. Before some bin pickers used to scratch in the bins and leave a huge mess but they’re a lot more respectful now. My family and I also separate recyclable goods from waste to make it a bit easier for them,” said Mr Abrahams.
This is one of the ways to prevent bin pickers from making a mess – to put recyclable items on top of the bin – or perhaps have a separate bin for recyclables.
Professor Schenck says waste pickers are essentially offering a free service to remove recyclable items from the landfill sites.
This saves money in terms of landfill space, as well as the indirect costs of recycling and waste management.
They can, she says, be viewed as part of a problem or the solution.
Deciding on the first option, she argues, will be counter-productive and could represent a significant lost opportunity.
Xanthea Limberg, the City of Cape Town’s Mayoral committee member for water, waste services and energy, said the City is well aware of the economic potential of recycled waste.
She said the City offers a weekly door-to-door recyclable collection service called Think Twice to households in several suburbs across the city. “This service is performed by various recycling contractors who then process the materials either at private materials recovery facilities, or the Kraaifontein Integrated Waste Management Facility. The product of this processing is then sold on to companies in the recycling industry. Some of these contractors have worked together with bin pickers in the areas, but this has sometimes been complex because of the informal nature of these individuals,” said Ms Limberg.
She said in areas where Think Twice does not operate, there are bin pickers operating and residents can also make use of the City’s 25 drop-off facilities where recyclable waste materials are accepted.
“Our landfills are quickly running out of space as we throw away more and more items. Our goal is to greatly reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills by changing the way residents and businesses think about waste. Instead of throwing away all the waste we produce, we should start thinking about how to produce less waste in the first place, as well as what can be recycled, composted and reused,” said Ms Limberg.
Although bin pickers and waste salvaging are allowed at landfills sites, due to safety and health concerns and as a result of waste management licence conditions, organised recycling is allowed in the form of contracts at a number of the City’s disposal sites and drop-off sites.
Ms Limberg said bin pickers who do not clean up after scavenging cause more problems because this leads to more resources being deployed by the City to clean up the mess. “Refuse strewn around public spaces constitutes littering which is in contravention of the by-law and makes the work of cleansing staff more difficult, not to mention simply being unsightly and unhygienic. Cleaning up this litter also carries a high cost,” she said. – Additional reporting by Karen Watkins.