Creating safer working spaces for women recyclers

Misiwe Maphumulo

Street trade is pervasive and a source of employment and income for many urban dwellers. WIEGOs recent /survey shows that 61% of livelihoods are earned through informal work. A secure environment is a prerequisite for formal business, this shouldn’t be any different for the informal sectors.

Everywhere informal recyclers experience strong prejudice and often humiliating or disrespectful treatment when collecting material on the street. They become associated with dirt or are perceived as a nuisance, or even criminals. This negative perception is further influenced by the conflict in the street between vehicles and the carts used to transport recyclables collected, reflecting a need to create dedicated lanes for Non-motorised Transport beyond recreational activity. Durban’s informal recyclers provide a pivotal local service by collecting large quantities of discarded recyclable material from our streets, parks, alleys and beaches, and diverting recyclables from going to landfill increases life span of the landfills.  In fact, the recyclers operating in the city centre alone save approximately 150 tons of recycled material daily from being taken to the dump, a substantial contribution to keeping Durban clean and green. Informal recycling is a key part of the broader green economy strategy, and is accessible to marginalized people as a low-barrier to entry job. Many recyclers are vulnerable women who are often exploited by middle agents who purchase the recyclables and waste generators. Being a woman on the street is not an easy job, with no recognition and a name. Recycling is the right thing to do but there is the need to make it safe and dignified for the workers.

Ethekwini Municipality and AeT as well as other key partners, have worked with the recyclers on a project that will provide a safer, more dignified working environment. A recycling facility has been built in Palmer Street and once operational, it will address some the impediments that the women face on daily basis, providing an opportunity to escape social and economic exclusion. A group of women recyclers have been meeting in anticipation of the opening of the facility. These women will carry the name “friends of the recyclers”, initially established in 2011 by the Palmer Street recyclers, making it easier for the waste generators to recognise and respect them. As an organised collective there is also increased bargaining power to negotiate better prices from middle agents and the opportunity for personal growth; some recyclers live on the street and some abuse substances, so a chance to work with experienced, established recyclers will impact positively on their rehabilitation. Shared work provides a greater ability to meet the needs of the industry for clean, sorted and baled material of quality and quantity. This will provide the opportunity for women to be change agents in their communities regardless of their educational backgrounds, be ambassadors and educate waste generators.  

The cohort of women recyclers who attend regular meetings at the Palmer Street Recycling Facility, activated and facilitated by AeT. Photo’s: Toni Ottanelli-Gale

According to UN Habitat, informal recycling offers significant environmental, economic, and social benefits:

  • Job creation: Waste picking provides a source of livelihood to extremely poor people with few other employment opportunities. Though many waste pickers practice their trade as a full-time profession.
  • Public health and sanitation: Waste pickers collect garbage from neighbourhoods that lack public services.
  • Municipal savings: According to UN Habitat waste pickers provide between 50 and 100% of waste collecting services in most cities. This is effectively serves as a mass subsidy for city governments, who do not pay for the labour.
  • Reducing pollution and mitigating climate change: By cutting the quantity of virgin materials needed for production, waste pickers save room in landfills, lessen water and energy consumption, and reduce air and water pollution, and climate change.

The existence of poverty is intolerable for the creation of a better society and needs to be eradicated. Inclusive, fair waste recovery scheme and safer working environments for the recyclers are viable practise contributing to reaching this goal.

[Feature image: Women recyclers in the park alongside the Palmer Street Recycling Facility]