At stake in Johannesburg's 'recycling wars': more than trash

Informal and formal sectors of the economy work side-by-side in many African nations – but can they work together?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A street scene from the Central Business District, or Newtown, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2009.
Denis Farrell/AP/File
Children play with old car tires in a street in the Katlehong Township, southeast of Johannesburg, Feb. 14, 2014.

In another lifetime, Louis Mahlangu was an electrician.

It was a good job, challenging and respectable, the kind of profession that could make his family proud.

There was just one problem.

“There was no work,” he says. No matter how hard he looked, Mr. Mahlangu was barely finding enough jobs to scrape by. Then his sister invited him to tag along to her job. The hours were good, she promised, and the pay – well, it was better than anything he was likely to earn replacing wiring in suburban houses.

And so he put on a pair of rubber rain boots, hiked to the top of a squelching mountain of Johannesburg’s garbage, and began digging for plastic.

Twenty-two years later, he’s still there, along with thousands of others like him, collecting dinged Coke bottles and pulverized yogurt cartons discarded by the city’s residents and selling them on to private recycling companies. At his peak, Mahlangu says, he made up to $1000 each month, a respectable wage in a country where the newly proposed minimum wage is around $250 per month.

For years, informal recyclers like Mahlangu – there are some 60,000 to 90,000 of them countrywide, according to South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology – were Johannesburg’s only real system for sorting the salvageable from the sludge in its residents’ garbage. Some worked the dumps, while others traversed the city on foot, plucking recyclables directly from household trash bins.

But lately, these informal recyclers have acquired a new competitor: the city itself. Over the last few years, Johannesburg’s government has begun building up a system of curbside recycling like those found in most Western cities – complete with its own sorting facilities and sleek new trucks huffing their way through the hilly suburbs.

That growing footprint – and the looming threat it poses to informal recyclers like Mahlangu – speaks to a broader development question that has long flummoxed Africa’s cities. It’s the puzzle of how to meld the two distinct economies that seem to walk in lock-step through the streets here – one formal and regulated, the other informal and entrepreneurial, competing to serve metropolises growing at a breakneck pace.

And it’s a question that goes far beyond recycling. Take public transport. Across most of sub-Saharan Africa, city buses, if they exist at all, compete with well-organized private networks of wheezing passenger vans – Senegal’s cars rapides, East Africa’s matatus, Ghana’s tro tros, South Africa’s minibus taxis – that traverse cities on routes written nowhere but known to almost everyone.

In many African cities, it is not uncommon to see women hawking trays of tomatoes, onions, or bananas just feet from air-conditioned supermarkets, or shacks backed up against ultra-modern apartment complexes. Outside Johannesburg, thousands of men descend daily into the abandoned shafts of the city’s old formal gold mines, informally – and illegally – collecting whatever is left.

“What many developing countries are now grappling with is that there are very deeply entrenched and often quite well organized informal sectors” in industries like recycling, says Linda Godfrey, principal scientist on the “Waste for Development” project at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a parastatal research organization. “These informal pickers have mobilized themselves and have systems that work. We're now introducing advanced policy instruments that can affect their livelihoods and that can cause friction.”

In Johannesburg, the government has puzzled over what to do with informal recyclers nearly since the word "go" on the city’s first pilot recycling program in 2009, says Nelly Rampete, who manages recycling for Pikitup, the municipal waste collection agency. Should the city hire them? Ignore them? Try to beat them at their own game?

Over time, the sector's observers say, it's attempted a bit of all three. They city has made scattered efforts, for instance, to support waste-picker “cooperatives,” giving designated groups of recyclers material support – like working clothes or storage facilities – in return for agreeing to sell their goods back to city-designated recycling companies.

But recyclers have often bristled at the inefficiencies and rigidities of the city’s systems. They’ve been doing it longer, they argue, and they simply know how to do it better. And efforts to outdo the recyclers – for instance, by getting city trucks to collect recycled goods early in the morning, before informal collectors have a chance make away with them – have gone about equally well.

“They just get there earlier and beat the trucks,” says Musa Chamane, an activist with the environmental justice organization groundWork, where he organizes waste pickers. “When you exclude recyclers, they just re-include themselves.”

For now, indeed, informal collectors remain the core of recycling here. The city collects recycling curbside in only about 30 percent of its neighborhoods. Countrywide, meanwhile, informal recyclers are still responsible for about 80 to 90 percent of paper and packaging diverted from South African landfills, according to a study by Dr. Godfrey and her colleagues at the CSIR. Collectively, they save the country’s cities as much as $50 million, according to that research, with each individual recycler diverting about 20 tons of material from landfills every year.

“The main thing we are asking is to be recognized as the backbone of this economy,” says Mahlangu, who sits on the organizing committee for a group of reclaimers at the Marie Louise landfill west of Johannesburg. Since the city began introducing curbside recycling, he says, his and his colleagues' incomes have dropped off steeply from their peak of $1000 a month, now coming in somewhere closer to $300. He often hears that the city supports informal recyclers, he says, but has yet to see much practical evidence of that.

“We are providing a huge service to the city, and to the environment,” he says, his eyes following the queue of trucks lumbering toward the top of the dump. “In return we just ask that they recognize us as workers and as human beings.”

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