With waste-pickers having become a common sight in smallholding areas as well as in the suburbs, here are some useful guidelines on how to make their lives easier and encourage ~ rather than discourage ~ their very useful efforts at reducing landfill volumes and increasing recycling as a nationallyimperative initiative. This report was compiled by Mandy DG Barrett who writes: “I attended a life changing talk by Dr Melanie Samson of Wits and African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) hosted by the Randpark Ridge Village Association. Many people gripe about these reclaimers so I have put together this summary to help enlighten and inform our community on the invaluable job they are doing for us.”

❑ Who are the waste reclaimers (also called waste pickers)? Independent people (total number estimates vary between a minimum of 60 000 and a maximum of 215 000 reclaimers countrywide) who are currently without jobs and who are making an honest living so that they can feed, clothe and school their families. They typically travel many kilometres a day collecting waste, expending enormous energy in the process – their fully laden carts can weigh 200kg or more. It takes 23 two-litre PET bottles to make up 1kg, which can be sold for around R3/kg. This is also intellectual work as reclaimers need to quickly identify those materials which are lucrative to sell, and they need to work quickly in such a way that they do not upset residents and get evicted. Their work is also dangerous and time consuming. Many reclaimers are hit by cars. Pulling a trolley along a suburban road is slow and time consuming and the buyback centres sometimes make them stand in long queues for hours. Do not delude yourselves that these people have an easy time earning money! Many of these people come from SADC countries. Dr Samson made the point that many came to South Africa to work in the mining industry. With the closing of so many mines they now find themselves unemployed. ARO is an organisation which is collaborating with government and reclaimers in order to get the already functioning informal waste reclaiming sector aligned. They currently receive no financial support from government.

❑ What value do they add? Informal waste reclaimers extract discarded items that would normally end up in landfills and the environment, and sell these to buy-back centres for recycling. Their work saves municipalities R780 million in landfill airspace alone – and that saving does not include the savings in waste removal trucking and fuel. Due to their efforts in the recycling industry South Africa is now on par in the recycling arena with European countries – 80 to 90 % of all material recycled in South Africa is entirely due to the efforts of these green champions.

❑ What DO they collect? The reclaimers only collect what has economic value at the buy-back centre such as clear PET bottles (eg, cooldrink bottles), plastic milk containers, Kreepy Krawly pipes, plastic plant pots, large yoghurt containers, aluminium cold drink tins, aluminium pie plates, electronic waste, cardboard and paper.

❑ What do they NOT collect? The reclaimers do not take anything that the buy-back centres will not pay for including: – Bottle tops (these are recyclable but the buy-back centres will not currently pay any money for them), – Transparent fruit containers (eg, strawberry packaging – these are recyclable PET but the buy-back centres will not pay out for them), – Green and brown PET bottles such as ppletiser/ A Grapetiser/Mountain Dew and Stoney Ginger Beer bottles. Dr Samson recommends that one boycott Hard graft … it’s backbreaking work pulling a laden trolley buying such products and notify the manufacturers accordingly that they need to make their packaging in colours acceptable for the recycling buy-back centres. – Expanded polystyrene foam that much of supermarket meat and vegetables are packaged in.

❑ Are they criminals and will helping them contribute to the beggar or squatter problem? – Most reclaimers are good people doing their best to eke out an honest living. They are generally not beggars and are prepared to work very hard for long hours (day and night) for very modest returns. – Most reclaimers work a number of different suburbs, going through rubbish trash bins on the night prior to, and on the day of, garbage collections. Most live in very modest accommodation outside of our suburbs. When their carts are full, they may sometimes lie down in a park for an hour or two of sleep next to their carts rather than go home because most buy-back centres only function during business hours, and abandoning their precious trolleys and cargo would likely result in its theft.

❑ How can residents assist them? – Separate waste at source and place only what has value to the reclaimers in boxes or clear packets on the pavements on collection day. The easier residents make it for the reclaimers the less time they will need to spend in the suburbs. – Respect the fact that digging through waste is a disgusting job for anybody. Imagine yourself having to do this job! – Rinse out ALL soiled containers so that they are clean for collection. – Remove bottle tops and labels as these are not taken and are often discarded around the suburbs, or outside the buy-back centres. – Get to know the person who frequents your street – build a relationship with that person and find out what they will and won’t take. – Show kindness to your local reclaimers – offer bottles of water on hot days or a cup of tea on freezing winter mornings. A little kindness goes a long way. – Be mindful of the reclaimers who risk their lives on our roads and give them a wide berth while driving. – Encourage reclaimers to join ARO and become ‘registered’ reclaimers in your suburb. – Supply reflective vests and reflectors to your resident reclaimers. – Work with ARO as a community so that residents learn how best to work with the reclaimers for the benefit of all. And, above all, refrain from referring to them using demeaning and derogatory titles such as “scavengers”, “vultures” or “bin-scratchers”.