Recognise reclaimers now!


“No more coffee and futile engagements around a boardroom table,” says African Reclaimers Organisation’s, Luyanda Hlatshwayo.

Reclaimer integration in South Africa comes at a time where reclaimers are starting to properly organise themselves. With the growing number of unemployed, which currently sits at 44.4% including discouraged job seekers, an estimated 85 000 working class people have been able to sustain their livelihoods through collecting recyclables across the country. As a result of Covid-19 and job losses, reclaiming has seen an influx of people collecting and selling recyclables to put food on the table.

The collection system is very informal: one only needs hard work and dedication to do it. No identity document is needed, no interview and no boss. To an outsider, the system seems informal and uncontrolled, yet it accounts for 80 to 90% of post-consumer packaging collected for recycling, according to the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). This is an indication that this informal system is a well-oiled machine that produces recycling rates that the formal systems have struggled to achieve.

For the average reclaimer, integration is a big gamble for us depending on how the rest of society defines the word integration. Policy-makers lack of consideration for the person on the ground can be seen through the unintended consequences of their integration programmes thus far. For example, the City of Johannesburg and Pikitup’s Separation at Source (S@S) programmes employed EPWP workers in cooperatives. They knew nothing about reclaiming. This had dire consequences for reclaimers who were already working in those areas. These existing reclaimers had to compete with trucks, forcing them to sleep over in parks in suburbs so they could get to the bins first. This also meant the incomes of reclaimers in these areas decreased by up to 60%. The benefits of integration are abundant but it also has the potential to displace the reclaimers who have been doing this work for decades.

The best first step to stop this displacement from continuing is to organise reclaimers. African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) is a democratic, reclaimer-led organisation which was formed by reclaimers. Through the organisation, reclaimers are able to define what integration means to them and start working towards this through direct collaboration with residents, communities, schools, local depots and industries. 

Separation of materials by households, educating of residents on what is recyclable, provision of PPE to reclaimers, access to materials, sorting spaces, logistics and paying reclaimers a service fee for the materials have been a main focus of ARO’s work.

Through proper integration and recognition of the work reclaimers do, with provision of infrastructure, a service fee and logistic support, more can be achieved. This may sound optimistic but both government and industry have the capacity to facilitate. The only form of integration that is sustainable thus far has organically formed in communities with residents’ associations, industry and civil society.

Pilot project

Through collaboration with these stakeholders, ARO is piloting a reclaimer integration model working directly with residents in Brixton, Auckland Park and Bordeaux in Johannesburg once a week. The company, Unilever, pays reclaimers a service fee of 50c per kg on all the material that they collect. Reclaimers collect on average between 120 – 350kg per day, so this is giving them an extra R60 – R175 for that day’s collecting.

Some of the ARO members participating in the pilot project

We hope to get other companies like Unilever, or those using recycled paper or glass to come in on projects like this. And we hope to present this model to the City so it or other cities can use it.

Unfortunately, there has not been any proper interest from the City of Johannesburg, just a lot of coffee and futile engagements around a boardroom table. The City is still holding on to a cooperative system that is xenophobic as it excludes foreign nationals without documentation and displaces reclaimers who have been doing this work for decades.

We would love to work with the city, not for the city. The South African recycling industry is powered by a proper working informal system that needs to be recognised and organised, not formalised and we are ready to have meaningful engagements to make this happen.

Luyanda Hlatshwayo is a reclaimer and committee member of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO)

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Luyanda Hlatshwayo
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