Reclaiming Waste

Mind your waste!

Huge amounts of waste are produced every year around the globe. Household solid waste on its own, represents 2 billion tons of material each year. These materials accumulate, pile-up in landfills, and pollute the environment when they are burned, buried, or simply abandoned. The waste crisis is a reality.

The troublesome accumulation of unwanted materials has found an answer in recycling. The recyclables are no longer being considered as mere waste, but now as valuable resource. However, only half the amount of solid waste is actually collected to be valued as a resource. Many recyclables remain in their waste form, and become liabilities to societies.

Mind the informal recyclers!

South Africa is no stranger to this issue. To tackle it, local researchers and experts advocate for the recognition and the support of a highly efficient collection network: the reclaimers. These informal recyclers scour the cities to collect the recyclables of households’ bins. In the current situation, reclaimers undeniably play the most significant role in South Africa’s waste management system.

But their hard work is neither recognised by local authorities, nor is it valued as a public service. Their only source of income originates from the reselling of the plastic, metal, paper and other recyclable waste to buy-back centres and recycling plants. The socio-economical situation of a reclaimer is dire, and in a city like Johannesburg, residents often picture them as a nuisance.

Nevertheless, mindsets are currently moving, thanks to a growing public debate on the state of the environment, as well as discussions on the hardship of informal reclaiming. Initiatives are conveyed by reclaimers, associations, and researchers, to commit the local and national governments to officially integrate the network in their waste management solutions. There is ample room for optimism on the social dimension of waste.

Towards a convergence of social & environmental struggles?

South Africa, like the rest of the globe, is actually facing a double challenge: reducing environmental pollution through recycling, and offering better working and living conditions to the people working in this industry. But will it be a long term and sustainable change?

Is there any optimism for the environment? Are we, as a global society, offering a sustainable, long term solution to our planet through material stockpiling, destroying, recycling or reusing? These solutions tend to be mid-term, if not short-term, in the finite world we live in. All show disadvantages and become more and more problematic in every part of the world.

The reclaimers make us face our social and environmental failures. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, it is now time to seize the opportunity to build a more responsible world, a fair one, where social and environmental justice is the core of the society we live in.

All images © IFAS-Research, Mark Lewis, Mzwandile Buthelezi.
This cycle of academic, cultural, and public events has been coordinated in Johannesburg by the research and cultural departments of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), in collaboration with their partners, and with the support of the Institut français à Paris.