Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The rotten job of the informal recyclers

Walking the local neighbourhood on a Monday morning is one of the many times my middle class suburban life is put into perspective.

  • I’m not walking long distances to work
  • I’m not searching smelly dustbins with rotting food
  • and I’m not pulling a hugely heavy trolley (often for many kilometers) loaded with huge bags of tin, paper, cardboard and glass.
  • and I don’t have to sleep under a bridge or in a culvert

The people that do this are the informal recyclers whom I encounter on Mondays before Pikitup does its rounds (when not on strike!). I am humbled by the work ethic of these informal recyclers and ashamed that people have to do this to eke out a living;  and saddened that residents do not separate out old food and recyclables. Liz at Lancaster has recycled for years and has chosen to go the ‘official’ route using a company to collect our recycling. We do not separate at source as the sorters at the company we use – Whole Earth – do the separation.

Official recyclers

The Hawk Flight sorting team
The Hawk Flight sorting team at Whole Earth

Whole Earth Recycling was founded in March 2007 at Cluny Farm where, until 2008, sorting was done by 4 employees. When they moved to Strijdom Park in 2011 they started their community-based project. These community-based sorters, currently 24 of them, call themselves Hawk Flight. They generate an income by sorting and selling the material to local buy-back centres.  So with the admin team, the drivers, the truck assistants (the loaders) and of course the sorters, Whole Earth contributes to job creation by employing around 40 people in total.  In 2014 the Hawk Flight team sorted over 1000 tons of recycling so reducing impact on the environment while also generating income for themselves.  

Academic research on informal waste collection

There is loads of research about informal waste collectors in Johannesburg:

  • how they contribute to the reduction of re-usable waste and its disposal
  • how they find employment opportunities (albeit with meager wage earnings)
  • how they provide low-cost materials to various industries so contributing to a cleaner environment.

One such piece of research is a paper entitled ‘Informal waste collection in Johannesburg:  A case study’ by Thea Schoeman and Kasay Sentime (2011). This study was based on a sample of 150 waste collectors in 3 areas: Braamfontein CBD, Newtown and Killarney.

Source: Schoeman and Sentime p 9
Source: Schoeman & Sentime (2011) p 9

These specific areas were chosen in order to explore and compare the patterns between a central business district (Braamfontein), an impoverished residential area (Newtown) and a middle-class residential suburb (Killarney).  In addition to examining how this group of people is marginalized and even harassed by local authorities, the study provides stats that demonstrate their harsh conditions of work. Over 50% of waste collectors drag their heavy trolleys to the central sorting area (often an informally designated area) and then to the buy-back centres.

Income earned by informal recyclers (study dated 2011)

Source: Schoeman & Sentime p 9
Source: Schoeman & Sentime p 9

And for this the income can be desperately low.  They found that the incomes of the vast majority of informal waste collectors ranged from R50 to R2 000 per week, depending on the circumstances. One of the varying factors is location.  The accompanying graph shows that of the sample group 40% earned less than R250 a month and only 24% earned between R451 and R1000. The weekly income of the Killarney informal waste collectors was as much as R2000 a week. This is probably because the suburb of Killarney is one of the higher income residential areas in Johannesburg, probably resulting in more valuable and greater volumes of waste being generated there than in Braamfontein and Newtown.

Why not try to separate at source?

So next time you throw away dirty tissues and mouldy vegetables along with tin, cardboard and glass – give a thought not only to the working lives of those who have to rummage through your garbage to separate out the re-usables,  but also to the importance of reducing our waste.


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