Unsung heroes

Unsung heroes

They’re at work before the crack of dawn until long after most other citizens have gone to bed. And yet waste pickers are viewed as an irritation by many who see them going through their rubbish bins.

“Instead of getting annoyed, people should be thankful for the difference these pickers make in our environment and economy,” says Mpendulo Ginindza, vice president of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA).

“According to the CSIR, in 2014 alone the informal pickers saved municipalities between R309 million and R748 million in landfill airspace. This by simply diverting recyclables away from landfills.”

According to the Waste Pickers Association, South Africa has more than 90 000 waste pickers, and Ginindza says it is estimated that a single picker can divert between 16 and 24 tonnes each year.

“Plastics SA reported in 2018 that the majority of recyclable plastic collected was sourced from formal collectors. Formal collectors typically source their recyclables from waste pickers and buy-and-drop centres.”


A waste picker is defined as someone who collects reusable and recyclable materials from both residential and commercial waste bins, as well as landfill sites and open spaces, in order to revalue the waste and generate an income.

Ginindza says she interviewed a female waste picker from Limpopo about her typical day: “She told me competition is rife, and she has to wake up at 4am to be on site by 5am. When she arrives, she sorts the waste and weighs the materials. When there is enough, she transports it to the drop-off centre for formal collection.”

Whether waste pickers work in a rural or urban environment, the fact remains that this is no easy job. “They are the first people on the road early in the morning. They sort through bins and carry the heavy waste on their trollies. Often, they don’t have the proper equipment, and environmental conditions are not safe. Not to mention what they come across in the bins,” Ginindza continues.


Though the industry itself is regulated, Ginindza points out that many waste pickers are informal workers, noting, “A number of municipalities have attempted to integrate informal workers, but with mixed success rates.”

The Waste Pickers Integration Guideline for South Africa, produced by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in 2020, provides guidance to municipalities and industry on measures to improve their working conditions.

Legislation also plays a role. “In May 2021, the Extended Producer Responsibility Regulations came into effect. Its purpose is to support pickers, and give recognition and compensation for the work that is done by them along the waste value chain,” Ginindza continues, adding that individuals can also help by making life easier for these waste pickers.

“Start by separating your waste at home and at work. Avoid putting dangerous or hazardous items in your bins that pickers may come across when looking for recyclables. And of course, be more tolerant and patient on the road or on the street the next time you meet a waste picker at work.”  

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