A study by a team in the fields of social work, economics and nutrition – under the guidance of the principal investigator, University of Western Cape Professor Rinie Schenck – has found that waste pickers save South African municipalities about R700 million every year.
The research found a hidden economy thriving on landfills.
The study said communities of "waste pickers" all over the country had created livelihoods by scavenging recyclables, food and potentially useful items from rubbish dumps.
“They are essentially offering a free service to remove recyclable items from landfills.
‘‘This saves money in terms of landfill space, as well as the indirect costs of recycling and waste management,” the professor said.
She said waste pickers are the “most important part of this informal waste value chain, but their contribution was unrecognised”.
Pickers reported not getting sick from eating the food collected at the sites, saying they can tell when food is fine to eat by smell, taste and touch.
According to the Department of Science & Technology and the National Research Foundation's Centre of Excellence in Food Security, waste picking was not covered by any legislation or policy.
It said waste management policies in South Africa only cover the formal sector.
"This means that conditions are not always good for the pickers, as different municipalities have different ways of dealing with the waste pickers.
“In some cases, the pickers are chased off the landfill sites. In others, they are left to work in unhealthy and unpleasant conditions,” the centre said.
However, research found a rare few that were looked after and supported in their work. They found on average pickers made about R770 in a good week and about R290 in a bad week.
As an example, they found, the Graaff-Reinet municipality had built a material recovery facility and pickers were supported and allowed to work at the facility.
The facility provided shade, and basic amenities to ensure that the waste was still clean, and streamlined the process.