Last year, SA recycled a not inconsiderable 98 649 tons of post-consumer PET plastic bottles, saving 612 000 m³ of landfill space and 148 000 tons of carbon emissions, according to the PET Recycling Company. A somewhat surprising majority of that was collected by the country’s waste pickers (or ‘reclaimers’, as they are more formally known) – as much as 90%, in fact. And of course, they don’t collect plastic only – paper, glass and tin are part of the equation too. Yet, despite their massive contribution, they receive very little government and policy support.

Enter the Recycling with Reclaimers pilot project. Established through a collaboration between the African Reclaimers Association, Wits University and Unilever South Africa, the project – which recognises the integral role of waste pickers in a circular economy – is designed to formally integrate them into the Johannesburg waste collection system. The project partners will work with reclaimers as well as Johannesburg’s Brixton and Auckland Park communities with the aim of increasing the collection rates of recyclables from households and offices; enhancing the livelihoods of informal waste collectors through recognition and compensation; and improving overall community behaviour change and perceptions about waste pickers. The project will also involve the City of Johannesburg and government departments.

The City of Gold is home to around 6 000 waste pickers – a small segment of the country’s estimated 215 000 reclaimers. ‘Reclaimers are already central to the recycling economy,’ says Wits senior lecturer Melanie Samson. ‘Integration isn’t about bringing them in; it is about integrating reclaimers into our understanding of the recycling economy.’

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