Cape Town - Dirt pickers, also known as waste reclaimers or waste pickers, are known to be an annoyance as they often rummage through wheelie bins leaving a mess in their wake, but research by Melanie Samson, a senior lecturer at Wits University, has shared details of their critical role in recycling.
Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning spokesperson Rudolf van Jaarsveldt agreed that dirt pickers played a huge role in the recovery of packaging waste, particularly in the absence of waste separation at source (SAS) to recover recyclables from the waste stream – which would otherwise be unnecessarily landfilled.
“Their contribution is immense in keeping themselves, recyclers and buy-back centres (BBC) in business. They thus play a key role, but need to be better co-ordinated to yield better results and also acceptance into society. It's more complex, and there are many layers to cut through,” he said.
Van Jaarsveldt estimated there were about 90 000 waste reclaimers in SA – of which approximately 3 000 to 5 000 operated in the Western Cape.
In her article titled “Not Just Recycling the Crisis”, Samson detailed the daily working lives of these reclaimers and focused primarily on the labour of reclaiming, the contributions reclaimers made to the economy, city and environment, and how they organised collectively.
An article by Tamsin Oxford in Wits’ research magazine, Curiosity, shared that for Samson, waste pickers filled a gap left behind by a lazy population that did not separate their waste at source and from that they created an entire recycling economy built on their expertise of waste picking.
“The reclaimers collect around 80% to 90% of all post-consumer packaging and paper left behind,” Samson said. Oxford relayed this had a big impact and that waste reclaimers also saved municipalities up to R748 million a year in landfill space.
Samson said although they were unseen, they were an essential connection between the waste management system and the economy – and they were subsidising the entire thing.
“Considering how much money they save the government, they are performing a critical role and yet they are largely stigmatised, harassed and not seen as people,” Samson said.
Urban Waste Management Mayco member Grant Twigg said the City acknowledged the role of waste reclaimers and said they were working in to adopt flexible approaches to start at source separation projects in different communities where waste pickers were not present in Cape Town.