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Waste pickers — ensuring dignity and a sustainable way of life for the unsung, unseen heroes of recycling

Waste pickers — ensuring dignity and a sustainable way of life for the unsung, unseen heroes of recycling
Informal waste picker Kabelo Mothoemte leads the Federation Park waste pickers. (Photo: Michelle Banda)

Informal reclaimers have lived at a site in Parktown, Johannesburg, for years without shelter or toilets. A partnership between Urban Surfer, Hollard Insurance and Polyco plans to help formalise the site and provide equipment to help them earn a sustainable living.

Since 2017, Kabelo Mothoemte (34), from Orange Farm Extension 1, and seven others have braved harsh weather conditions in Federation Park in Parktown, Johannesburg, just along the M1 highway, using it as their informal reclaimer camp and also a place of residence.

recycling parktown

Formalising the informal — Urban Surfer, in partnership with Hollard Insurance and Polyco, are supporting the Federation Park waste pickers’ camp in Parktown, Johannesburg. (Photo: Michelle Banda)

When Daily Maverick visited the informal camp on Wednesday, 10 April 2024, we observed that there were no ablution facilities or standing forms of shelter – just mountains of recyclables on the ground or collected in 300kg bags.

According to Mothoemte, who has been a waste picker for about a decade, they moved on to the land as it was unoccupied. It is a dumping ground within the neighbourhood and is located near recycling centres and sources where they can collect recyclables.

Mothoemte said he used to live in Orange Farm, but realised that commuting to work every day was costly and sometimes he could not afford the taxi fares, so he opted to stay at Federation Park, despite not having a shelter or services at the site.

Every month or fortnight he goes home to check on his family and give them money. For him, living at Federation Park is normal and he refers to it as his other “home”.

“We live here normally, whether it rains or it’s hot or cold. We just have to make it work.”

Mothoemte said his most urgent need was finding reliable transport to assist with collecting recyclables and taking them to the recycling centres.

dignity recycling heroes

Community spirit in action: Waste pickers collaborate to move a 300kg bag of recyclables in Parktown, Johannesburg. (Photo: Michelle Banda)

Currently, the waste pickers at the site have to push their trolleys long distances. But the trolleys are not big enough for all the recyclables and they often have to make many trips to fill one 300kg bag, which translates into an income of about R1,500 to R2,000 a month.


Now, to support the Federation Park informal reclaimers, Urban Surfer, an organisation offering informal recycling solutions and providing waste reclaimers with equipment, is partnering with Hollard Insurance and plastics recycling NPO Polyco to help formalise the informal reclaimer camp.

“An informal camp has existed close to our head office in Parktown for some time. As part of a larger project to create meaningful social and environmental impact in our immediate surroundings, we recognised a need to find a way to support the camp, which has become an important source of income and safety for the recyclers who operate from there,” said Kyle McWilliam, head of group shared services for Hollard Insurance.

“We engaged with Urban Surfer, who do great work in supporting waste reclaimer projects, and agreed to partner with them to create a formal camp, subject to the relevant approvals and with input from neighbouring residents.

“The camp will provide upgraded security and additional equipment to enable the recyclers to earn a sustainable living. We are also exploring further partnerships in the recycling value chain in our attempts to secure a win-win-win, whereby Hollard and the surrounding neighbourhood win, the recyclers win and the environment wins.”


A waste picker separates recyclables into bags. (Photo: Michelle Banda)

Polyco CEO Patricia Pillay emphasised to Daily Maverick the importance of giving dignity to reclaimers. She said supporting this initiative was just one of the ways the organisation was contributing to reclaimer organisations.

“This is something close to our heart. We are closely involved in working with waste reclaimers, collaborating with members and organisations and investing in recycling and collection businesses throughout South Africa. The waste reclaimers are the unsung heroes within the waste collection and recycling industry, doing a great service for the country,” Pillay said.

The partnership will rehabilitate the site, which will include building a formalised and contained recycling camp. It will also introduce first-mile GPS tracking and documentation of recyclable collection.

It will help with on-site baling of recyclables by supplying a solar-powered baling machine to increase the reclaimers’ income by 30% and assist the reclaimers in getting the best value for their recyclables through off-take agreements and fully documenting the type, volume and value of recycling operations. In addition, the partnership will provide education or skills development beyond recycling.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Trash course — a look at Joburg reclaimers’ daily battle for recognition

Sifiso Gumbi, a former informal waste picker and now recycler relations officer at Urban Surfer, told Daily Maverick: “Waste pickers are the primary volume drivers of the recycling industry and therefore they need to be supported as an essential part of recycling.

“What Urban Surfer is doing with its partners is undertaking a project that will support just that. With this site, we are hoping to use it as a blueprint that showcases the results of supporting reclaimers with essential resources that a waste reclaimer should have access to, such as infrastructure, equipment such as trolleys and PPE.

A set of 300kg bags packed with recyclables. (Photo: Michelle Banda)

“An important aspect of the recycling environment is that it is very analogue. It’s cash-based and we are trying to usher in a little bit of digitalisation and teach them how to save, invest and properly handle hazardous materials, be ambassadors of social skills … A little bit more support could go a long way in helping the reclaimers do their work.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: A linchpin of SA’s recycling economy, informal waste pickers should be integrated into the mainstream economy


Another waste picker, who did not want to be named, spoke to Daily Maverick about his work and sleeping in the street. For him, formalising the site is a step closer to formalising their work and giving dignity to the work and the people who do it.

“This is no sophisticated job. Most of the time we are digging inside dirt and it requires you to have a conversation with yourself and think of the positives.

“Recycling is a big industry and does need to be formalised as that can help some challenges we face in the informal waste economy: from being prevented from accessing landfills in some municipalities [or] sources, to being treated inhumanely. Formalising means a bit of dignity in the work and us as people and not just appreciating the end product,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Partnership launched to upskill Joburg’s informal waste reclaimers

Liteboho Makhele, programme manager at the South African Cities Network, said formalising informal waste pickers involves crucial steps towards integrating them into the waste management value chain.

She authored a report emphasising the need for clear policies and laws to introduce legal recognition for waste pickers, improved working conditions and better collaboration among stakeholders.

Makhele said that by harnessing the potential of waste pickers and integrating them into formal waste management processes, municipalities can derive environmental, social and economic benefits.

She said integration required cooperation among national, provincial and local governments, waste management utilities and communities to ensure the successful implementation of policies and guidelines.

However, several challenges need to be addressed. These include registering undocumented non-South Africans, addressing the limited success of cooperatives, accommodating waste pickers who prefer to remain independent and developing legislation to recognise and protect their rights.

Navigating these challenges is essential for building a more equitable and sustainable future for waste pickers and ensuring they are no longer caught in the duality of being both visible and invisible members of society. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Loud applause for this initiative! I believe these people provide a valuable service and work very very hard. We could all help a little by providing a tin of food, some sandwiches, clothes or even money to the people on garbage collection day. My engagement every Friday with the guys who recycle in my area has given me insight into a tough life lived with dignity: being able to give medicine or help us rewarding for me – it’s a privilege to be able to give and I although I am seldom asked, I am glad to help – giving is good for the giver!

  • Kgara_Kevin Rack says:

    Greenwashing: Do not glorify povery work that has dire health risks for collectors, this work is for the poorest of the poor at R2 per kilo of plastic. This is not Environmentalism , most collectors are only in it for survival and selling it as unseen heroes of recycling is very decietful. I have visited sites like this and most do not confrom to standards with plastic all over the place contraducting the Plastic industry marketing of the unsung, unseen heroes of recycling.
    Anyone involced in this industry knows there is no such thing as plastic recycling, its a myth, pushed by the $580billion industry. Plastic has 1 iteration only before it hits landfill that is 9 billion tons of plastic since 1950 still exists today in one form or another.
    The plastic, ie PET etc, should be sold at R15 or more per kg to make it meanginful work however we should not allow products entering the enviroment that is non bio-degradable in the first place, that cannot be unbundle by nature and most plastic is synthetic and will be around for many many genratiosn to come.
    We are co-bricking our current environmental obligation for future generations to deal with. Ready steady Plastic Inc trolls….here we come.

    • John Kullmann says:

      Perhaps plastic should never have been invented, but we can’t turn back the clock. Greenwashing is done on paper, not on the ground. Rise from behind your keyboard, waxing lyrical and be the change you want to see. When you think “what can go wrong”, think “what can go right”.

  • Abel Appel says:

    I fully agree with this initiative. Often we tend to see these waste-pickers as a nuisance on garbage collecting days but we forget that they are trying to support themselves and their families. If they are given recognition residents may stop seeing them as a problem.

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