Johannesburg is threatening to sideline informal waste pickers. Why this is a bad idea

Like all cities in the world, Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, has a waste management problem. In 2018/19, more than 290 000 tons of waste was illegally dumped in neighbourhoods across the city. Illegal dumping will likely increase, as the four legal landfills will be full in less than three years. Various efforts have been made over the years to try and manage the problems better. A contentious, and politically sensitive issue in all of these efforts has been the role of waste reclaimers, the informal actors who earn a living by salvaging and selling recyclables.

Like their counterparts across the country, reclaimers in Johannesburg play a crucial role in waste management and recycling. According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, reclaimers collect 80%-90% of all used packaging and paper that is recycled. They also save municipalities up to R748 million a year in landfill space. Without them, South Africa’s recycling economy would not exist, and Johannesburg’s landfills would have closed long ago.

Pikitup, the private company created by the City to provide municipal waste management services, only started promoting recycling just over a decade ago. Instead of partnering with the real recycling experts, reclaimers, Pikitup designs charity-style projects for them and gives the official recycling work to unemployed people with no experience in the sector and private companies.

In mid-2018, Pikitup started a separation at source pilot project that pays two private companies to collect recyclables separated from trash by residents in some suburbs.

Now the city wants “affluent” households to pay a new R50 monthly recycling levy to extend the pilot.

But evidence from my three-year research project shows that Pikitup’s pilot has failed to collect significant amounts of recyclables. It has also been far from cost-effective. And it has profoundly negative consequences for reclaimers.

Unintended consequences

There are approximately 8000 reclaimers in Johannesburg. Some have been collecting recyclables for more than 30 years and there are families with several generations of reclaimers.

Working with 13 post-graduate students, my research project interviewed and surveyed reclaimers, residents and officials to see how they were affected by Pikitup’s recycling programmes between 2016 and 2019.

We found that Pikitup’s pilot had a number of negative consequences.

As the contracted companies started collecting the same materials that reclaimers depended on, reclaimers struggled to access recyclables, which decreased their incomes. It also led to increased harassment as reclaimers were accused by residents and security of “stealing” Pikitup’s bags.

The pilot also made life harder for reclaimers in other ways. They had to start sleeping in suburban parks to get to the materials before the private recycling trucks arrived, as otherwise there would be nothing to collect and their children would go hungry.

Poor track record

Pikitup’s approach to recycling has a poor track record.

In 2018/2019, the most recent year for which Pikitup has released complete data, Pikitup planned to collect 50 000 tonnesof recyclables. It then lowered the goal to 32 550 tonnes, but still missed this new target by about 6500 tonnes.

In the first 12 months of Pikitup’s separation at source pilot – which the levy is set to expand – an internal Pikitup presentation reported that Pikitup diverted only 27 277 tonnes of recyclables.

This is only a fraction of what reclaimers divert in a year. Data from a “resident-reclaimer” recycling pilot project led by the African Reclaimers Organisation in two Johannesburg suburbs shows that participating reclaimers collect an average of 128.18 kgs per day. If the City’s approximately 8000 reclaimers salvage similar amounts, they need a mere 27 days to divert as many tonnes of recyclables as Pikitup did in the first year of the City’s pilot.

While the companies in Pikitup’s pilot only collect bags of separated materials, reclaimers in the African Reclaimers Organisation pilot do the same, but also continue to salvage recyclables from rubbish bins. They do this because many residents still throw away recyclables. As a result, reclaimers provide a more effective service, because they ensure that recyclables that residents put in the trash don’t end up at landfills. And they do it for free.

Pikitup’s pilot has a number of inbuilt inefficiencies. For example, Pikitup pays the private contractors between approximately R20 – R25 per household per month to collect separated recyclables. The companies are paid even if a household does not put out a bag of recyclables or a reclaimer collects the bag. The reclaimer is not paid anything.

As Pikitup expands its pilot, the private companies will get the cleanest materials. More reclaimers will lose access to bins, and the recyclables in those bins will end up at landfills.

This is not just bad for reclaimers. It is bad for the environment as landfills will fill up faster and more virgin materials will be used to produce new products. While the companies use trucks to collect recyclables, reclaimers’ trolleys are a low carbon alternative.

A more sensible approach

It makes more sense to pay reclaimers to collect recyclables as is done in cities in ColombiaIndia, and Brazil. The African Reclaimers Organisation pilot has shown that reclaimers can provide an efficient, effective, low-carbon service that positively transforms relationships between residents and reclaimers.

Prior to the pandemic, reclaimers in this pilot were paid a service fee based on the kilograms of recyclables collected.

More than 2 400 residents have signed the African Reclaimers Organisation’s petition that calls on the municipality to stop the R50 levy and create a reclaimer-based recycling system through consultation with reclaimers.

It is time the city recognised reclaimers’ central role in Johannesburg’s recycling economy and work with reclaimers to build on what exists to create a recycling system appropriate for the South African context. Expanding African Reclaimers Organisation’s pilot would be a great way to start.

Courtesy: The Conversation

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SA could cut planned infrastructure budget by addressing billions of litres of wasted water

Water waste, leaks, and the use of drinking water for manufacturing is resulting in billions of litres of potable water going to waste, which – if addressed – could reduce the water infrastructure spend that is necessary.

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Circular economy businesses outperform traditional competitors

With the concept of ‘circular business model’ still new, many are asking if it is necessary? And how does it differ from a linear economy?

Research undertaken by global consultancy Kearney has revealed that leaders who applied the same circular initiatives into their business models are outperforming traditional rivals.

“Is it necessary? Short answer is yes,” explains Prashaen Reddy, energy and process industries specialist partner at Kearney. “Our demand and needs are starting to outweigh our current resources. Circular economy comes down to the way we transform the way we do business, create goods and services to preserve the world around us.”

A linear economy is characterized by unsustainable processes, excessive pollution and resource scarcity as raw materials are mined, processed into a product, and then thrown away. To help ensure a future where there are enough raw materials and other necessities, all businesses will need to shift and create an economy that becomes circular. In this kind of practice, circular economy redefines economic growth moving away from a ‘take-make-waste model to one that aims at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

The South African government has implemented this new movement into different sectors of our economy, for example the introduction of the South African (SA) Renewable energy IPP Procurement programme. This tender process was designed and implemented to facilitate private sector investment into grid-connected renewable energy generation in SA.

In the budget speech delivered in February this year, government spoke to three energy projects that have been gazetted which will be supported through private sector investment to the value of R52.4-billion.

In September last year, the second big circular economy initiative saw cabinet approve the National Waste Management Strategy 2020 which aims at promoting the waste hierarchy and circular economy principles while achieving both socio-economic benefits and the reduction of negative environmental impacts.

Simply put, a circular economy is achieved by implementing the 3R approach: reduce, reuse, and recycle which is built on three key principles:

1. Design out waste and pollution.

2. Keep products and materials in use.

3. Regenerate natural systems.

Reddy continues, stating that the data from their survey comes at a critical time when the world is facing a rising resource scarcity and waste problem. Currently, over 100-billion tons of materials are processed every year and over 91% of these materials are newly extracted from the ground.

Applying such models has shown it can improve and increase our natural resources and help to decrease waste, plus have a positive effect on business output and profits.

The survey of 150 companies across the globe reveals the benefits of those who are engaging with circular economy models, with 34% of those surveyed, defined by Kearney as circular leaders, reporting a 5% or more improvement in core KPIs as a result of switching to circular products and business models.

In this group, 32% of respondents reported revenue increases, 38% reported cost savings benefits, 50% reported improvement in customer loyalty metrics and 70% an improvement in brand recognition. The survey also shows that it is possible to successfully implement circular strategies irrespective of industry and company size.

“We (Kearney) started measuring our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and offset unavoidable emissions over 10 years ago, supporting projects like hydropower and waste gas recovery. We have also prioritized the increase in the use of renewable energy in our offices and have set a goal to be at 80 percent renewable energy by 2025 and at 100 percent by 2030,” adds Reddy.

In the Fourth Industrial Age, it pays to be sustainable, and those who persist with the unsustainable “take-make-waste” economy will inevitably start to lag behind.

“Any business that is going to make the move from a linear to a circular economy requires a reconfiguration of nearly all business structures, which is where a comprehensive circular business strategy comes into play,” says Reddy.

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​Paper Recycling 101 for Global Recycling Day

One of the planet’s most pressing problems is the incorrect disposal of waste.

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Key appointments and promotions made at waste management company Averda

Waste management company Averda has appointed two rising stars, Mariam Ansari and Brindha Roberts, as Director of Plastics Recycling and Group Director of Sustainability, respectively.

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VIDEO | What really happens to the plastic you throw away?

Emma Bryce | Ted-Ed

We’ve all been told that we should recycle plastic bottles and containers. But what actually happens to the plastic if we just throw it away? Emma Bryce traces the life cycles of three different plastic bottles, shedding light on the dangers these disposables present to our world. [Directed by Sharon Colman, narrated by Addison Anderson, music by Peter Gosling].

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  • What does circular economy mean, exactly?
  • How does the thinking overlap/dovetail with related topics like ‘recycling’, ‘zero waste’, ‘materials recovery’, ‘resource efficiency, etc?
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SA urged to support responsible waste management efforts

The holiday season is here and while many of us are starting our holiday shopping, wrapping gifts for family and friends, or finalising our travel plans, the waste sector is preparing for an increase in the amount of both waste and recycling material.

South Africa alone produces approximately 95-million tonnes of waste per year, of which less than 40% is recycled. In an industry currently worth over R25 billion[i] – local businesses, homeowners and the general public can help to not only demonstrate corporate social responsibility but also assist with giving back to an already struggling economy. In addition to generating income, for example, the creation of jobs, recycling also saves money by reducing fees spent at landfills, which charge tipping fees and require significant amounts of land.

“Although the necessity to recycle has been around for some time many are still not well informed about which items can be reused and understand the different waste streams that are created,” says Joey Barnard, operation manager at waste management company Averda.

There is also a lack of understanding amongst the general public on recycling correctly and how they could be assisting around 300 recycling companies which vary in the size and scope of the facilities they operate. The recyclability of an item, Barnard further explains, is dependent on its ability to reacquire the properties it had in its original state before it entered the process of recycling.

“Even though we receive materials from residents and commercial enterprises at a number of specialised facilities that use a combination of equipment and manual labour to sort and densify materials, we still require the assistance of all waste generators,” says Barnard.

Averda has two ‘Materials Recovery Facilities’ (MRF) that operate from 07h00 to 23h00 in two shifts. At the Cape Town facility Barnard oversees 46 employees who all come from local communities. The site receives on average 700 tonnes of waste a month, from this 80% is recovered and prepared for shipment downstream to recyclers.

The role of these facilities is to sort as much waste as possible and reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill sites. M

More waste ending up at landfills means more methane and carbon dioxide released into the air, resulting in higher temperatures and a likelihood of natural disasters globally.

How can businesses and the public help these MRF’s in the long run?

Both sectors need to dispose of their waste correctly so that more can be recycled and less is discarded. For example, items such as bubble wrap, holiday ribbons and bows, cellophane, and foam packaging cannot be recycled at MRF’s but can be reused or repurposed at home and in business spaces. Cardboard packaging that contains plastic can only be recycled once it has been separated, if not they pose a potential hazard to the recycling equipment and an increased health risk to employees.

“We have seen some interesting items come through on our conveyor belt from used needles, medical waste, disposable nappies to dead pets and live snakes,” adds Barnard. He also advised that cigarette butts are not recyclable and food containers need to be cleaned out before they are placed in one’s recycling bin.

“We all need to take waste prevention into consideration, with an emphasises on avoiding and reducing waste before substances, materials and products are discarded.”

Barnard says all South Africans must start engaging in responsible waste disposal and management practices. “We are optimistic that MRFs are already receiving great support from local businesses, residential estates, and municipal authorities around South Africa, but we believe more can be done. The benefits to the environment and to the economy are many, and this can be further amplified if more industry players make use of MRFs.”

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4IR and its positive impact on waste sector

Covid-19 has spearheaded the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) during 2020. This transformation has become essential to not only help businesses be at the forefront of global trends but is being used to help them expand and retain clients within all sectors and at the end of the day to support with economic transformation.

“This is evident as South Africa’s newly formed Presidential Commission on the 4IR hopes to increase the influence of digital on the economy by working on infrastructure and resources, research, technology and innovation, capital and industrialisation to name a few,” says Ablé van der Merwe, National Logistics Manager at waste management company Averda.

“We realised that there is no better time to implement change and prioritise digital transformation to ensure growth and safety within the waste sector and that we keep moving forward,” he says.

Being the first in the industry, Averda South Africa has been rolling out their new Delivery Management System (DMS), which entails equipping each of their vehicles with onboard mobile technology, and each crew member with their own digital log-in. This means that Averda knows the exact location and the real-time progress in service of all vehicles and of all staff on the ground.

This kind of digitisation within the waste management industry has been around for two years with Averda having deployed ‘TruTrak’ which specialised in medical waste services.

Averda’s healthcare clients have benefited from end-to-end visibility in the collection, transportation, and disposal of potentially infectious medical waste with every container of medical waste traceable from collection through to final safe disposal.

“From our years of experience, we are aware that not only medical waste can be hazardous, and now want to give all our clients the same level of assurance that their waste is being transported and handled correctly. The adoption of these digital technologies and systems will change the way we serve and interact with our clients,” says Van der Merwe.

“Making sure clients have peace of mind is essential within our industry knowing that their waste could be a negative contributor to the environment if not handled correctly from start to finish. This is vital in making sure we help to curb climate change and keep our communities safe. So, this new system will be able to log each collection, check against the collection schedule and will raise any issue, for example with blocked access to roads or entries can be identified immediately.”

These newly digitised landscapes will bring the general waste management sector closer to the required level of oversight and vigilance.

These systems improve staff safety and business accountability by providing faster and more accurate reporting. South Africa is well known for illegal dumping and smaller cheaper but unreliable waste collectors taking shortcuts, with many not knowing if their waste has been handled and disposed of correctly. It’s important for all waste generators to keep and monitor these reports so that they stay within government regulations.

Also, many businesses and manufacturers are still unaware of the kind of waste they may be producing and the harm this could be causing to the communities and environment.

Through constant and accurate reporting waste management companies and government are able to implement the best waste management practices for all.

Dynamic oversight and control of these real-time systems will be managed from two ‘mission control’ rooms, one for Western Cape based in Cape Town and the other for Gauteng, KZN, and inland regions, based in Johannesburg. In addition to providing real-time oversight and support to Averda crews, the data collected by these technologies will allow for smarter, more efficient routes to be developed.

They will also permit intelligent route optimisation which has the potential of minimising our fuel consumption and maximising our efficiencies.

In other countries where Averda has deployed these technologies, we have found they led to an average 15% reduction in fuel use and means less time on the road.

“Waste is not just the responsibility of the waste management sector but of waste generators and making sure they implement a responsible end-to-end waste management regime and partnerships with waste management companies that have everyone’s best interest at heart,” concludes van der Merwe.

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Messe Muenchen South Africa addresses challenges across the food-water-waste value chain

Food waste, pollution, water and waste management and energy – among the key environmental challenges facing the country – will all come under the spotlight at a cross-sector trade show to be staged by Messe Muenchen South Africa next year.

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