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Every morning when she wakes up, Nomsa Zwane makes her way to the Marie Louise dump site a few kilometres away from her humble home in Braamfischerville in Dobsonville, Soweto, to see what valuable items she can salvage to resell and feed her family.

Sometimes, when she is lucky, the widowed and unemployed 32-year-old mother of two goes back home with a Barbie doll, a girl’s dress that seems to have been worn not more than four times, a memory stick, a pair of gloves, a James Hadley Chase novel or a cellphone pouch.

She reuses some of the stuff herself or sells it to her neighbours to put food on the table. Nomsa and a dozen other unemployed men and women who spend long hours rifling through mounds of waste at the dump site see value where others see trash, rubbish, garbage or filth.

Many people see them as a nuisance. Others pour scorn on them every time they see them. Some redicule them for their ragged look and the tattered and unsightly clothes they wear, oblivious to the fact that these garments are fit for purpose.

Others call them names, “scavengers” being one of them. Many municipalities view their activities as illegal and chase them away every time they attempt to approach dump sites in their jurisdictions.

Instead of driving them away, the City of Johannesburg has embraced them through its Waste Reclaimers Empowerment Project (WREP). Besides helping the City to divert a substantial amount of waste away from landfills, this activity provides sustainable jobs for many people, generates an economic activity, reduces poverty and helps to conserve the environment.
The project is aimed at assisting these men and women who literally turn trash into treasure, to make a decent living without the fear of harassment or arrest.

WREP is a partnership between the City, PET Recycling Company, Pikitup and the City’s Department of Economic Development that was launched by member of the Mayoral Committee for Environment Infrastructure and Services, Councillor Matshidiso Mfikoe earlier this year.

“We believe that waste reclaimers have an important role to play in achieving the mandate contained in the National Waste Management Plan that of diverting 20% of waste from landfills by 2015/16”, says councillor Mfikoe.

Continuing she says, “Besides helping the City to divert a substantial amount of waste away from landfills, this activity provides sustainable jobs for many people, generates an economic activity, reduces poverty and helps to conserve the environment”.

The project has since registered more than 300 waste reclaimers on its database. As part of the empowerment, the City assists waste reclaimers on the database to form cooperatives and train them in waste management issues, risks associated with environmental and health hazards, provides protective clothing as well as bylaw compliance and business planning advice.

While there are thousands of waste reclaimers actively involved in waste recovery, many operate as individuals and not as part of a cooperative. According to Mfikoe cooperatives have the potential to enhance sustainability of the reclaimers’ livelihoods by affording them access to shared logistics and infrastructure, information-sharing and collective bargaining to ensure a steady income for members.

The reclaimers have since formalised their activities and elected a reclaimers’ committee to represent them in strategic meetings with the City and the recycling industry. The City’s Integrated Waste Management Plan seeks to create 4000 jobs through waste minimisation and recycling by 2016.

Councillor Mfikoe said that “reclaimers are highly effective” and reach areas that “traditional waste collectors do not”. They are also vital links in the value chain, contributing to environmental sustainability by reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfills and providing material for recycling processes.