Joburg wastepickers against “recycling levy”

Wastepickers in Johannesburg say the proposed tariff is going to pit them against recyclers employed by the municipality. Photo by Sharon McKinnon

The formalisation of recycling in Joburg city looks to sideline the people who have been doing the work informally all along.

The livelihoods of an estimated 8,000 wastepickers could be negatively affected if the City of Johannesburg introduces a recycling levy as part of its 2021/2022 tariff charge changes. As part of the proposed levy, affluent households in various suburbs will be charged an additional levy of R50 per month for all properties with a market value above R350,000. The recycling levy excludes those located in areas classified as townships or informal settlements. The recycling charge will focus on the “separation of waste at the source of generation” – which includes households.

The African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) says that it was not consulted by the City of Johannesburg as the people who actually do the separation of waste and sell it to buy-back centres for a living. A report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research states that in 2014 the informal wastepicking sector saved municipalities as much as R750-million in “landfill airspace” at no cost to the government. “The proposal undermines our work and it will reduce or cancel our collection systems causing more poverty,” said Luyanda Hlatshwayo from the ARO.

Hlatshwayo also warned that if the proposal gets approval it would lead to wastepickers sleeping over in suburban parks as they would be competing with workers employed by the City to be the first to have access to the recyclable material. “They never engaged with us as we have an idea of what we are doing but need the support of the City. Are they going to be paying contractors to do the work? If they do that, we will simply go into the suburbs early to be the first to have access to the recyclable material. Reclaimers would go and sleep in the parks in the surburbs which will not be safe for them,” said Hlatshwayo.

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Dr Melanie Samson, a senior lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Witwatersrand, says that the City of Johannesburg only recognised informal wastepickers in 2007 and has always wanted to control them. In 2011, the City according to Samson came up with a project that was meant to empower wastepickers but the project had “a charity approach which made the reclaimers worse off”. Samson told participants of a virtual seminar that the City of Johannesburg pays between R20 and R25 per household to private companies for collection of waste.

“Pikitup which is responsible for waste management and is owned by the City of Johannesburg always misses its target of how much it recycles even when it lowers its target. The company has never worked with reclaimers and they just push them further and further away,” Samson said.

At the beginning of lockdown in March last year, wastepickers were one group of informal economy workers who were heavily affected by the restrictions that were imposed by the government.

Elijah Kodisang from the ARO said that wastepickers are not recognised as stakeholders in waste management in the Integrated Development Plan of the City. Kodisang said that the recycling levy is one of the ways the City continues to criminalise their ways of living. He said that countries like Colombia offer best models of how cities in South Africa should be dealing with wastepickers. There, they are recognised as providers of the public service of recycling and are remunerated for their work.

The City of Johannesburg did not respond to questions from Elitsha. Any late replies or comments will be added.

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The African Reclaimers Organisation is running a petition against the recycling levy by the City of Johannesburg.

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