The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), under the project “Support for transitioning from conventional plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives“, funded by the Government of Japan, addressed the safety of waste reclaimers in South Africa and their protection from the threats of Covid-19 pandemic.
As part of the project, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was provided to members of the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) at four pilot integration sites in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape.
The COVID19 pandemic has greatly affected the activities of waste reclaimers. Under the level 5 lockdown regulations, their daily earnings were impacted by the restriction of movement. Since the lifting of these restrictions, they have been risking their lives and safety as the pandemic continues to generate new types of hazardous infectious waste that could be contaminated by the virus.
Simon Mbata, a leader of a waste reclaimers group at the pilot integration site at Vaalpark under SAWPA, explained that many waste workers could not afford PPE and could therefore not go back to work. “We are not employed and are not provided with PPE by any specific party,” he explained.
UNIDO responded to the situation by providing PPE to counterparts who will contribute to the project as trainers. This activity also forms part of the recently launched United Nations Flash Appeal aimed at assisting up to 10 million people in vulnerable communities in South Africa facing various risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The provision of PPE to waste reclaimers falls under the UN Environment-led National Stakeholder Platform aimed at expanding activities on safety and security for healthcare waste management under the pandemic.
A key component of the UNIDO/Japan project is to support ongoing processes aimed at building the recycling economy through the integration of informal waste reclaimers and the promotion of waste separation at source. The project is implemented in partnership with industry, the University of Witwatersrand, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
According to Suzan Oelofse of the CSIR, waste pickers were particularly hard hit, as their activities were not seen as essential services during level 5 of the lockdown. “This project provided an excellent opportunity to provide COVID-19 relief support to waste pickers in South Africa,” she confirmed.
Cecilia Njenga, Head of the UN Environment Office in South Africa who is leading the UN Flash Appeal waste management group, said: “This UNIDO project is an immediate and direct support intervention of the UN’s COVID 19 response to support a more effective and coordinated approach to safe and environmentally sound waste management. It also contributes to laying the foundations for building back better after the pandemic and achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda.”
Khaled El Mekwad, UNIDO Representative and Head of UNIDO’s Regional Office in South Africa, reiterated that the UN agencies in South Africa were working together in response to the COVID19 pandemic. “UNIDO is contributing to supporting the efforts of the Government of South Africa. In this particular case, we are helping to ensure the continued provision of waste management services by supporting waste workers as important players in the field.”
Speaking during on online meeting, the Ambassador of Japan to South Africa, Mr. Norio Maruyama, said that the project now also contributes to the challenges that South Africa is facing due to COVID-19. He thanked UNIDO and all the project partners for supporting the country through the project. “People working in the informal sector are the most vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic. Providing them with PPE is therefore extremely important – it enables them to return to work to earn their daily income, while helping them avoid contamination,” he concluded.
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