By Tebogo Maleka and Petronella DeWet
South Africa has more than 60,000 waste pickers who play a substantial role in the waste management industry of the country, collecting 80 to 90% of used recyclables collected on an annual basis. As one of the most vulnerable communities in the country, they were profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Under the stringent level 5 lockdown regulations, their daily earnings were impacted by the restrictions on movement. Since the lifting of these restrictions, they have been exposed to the increasing risks from handling waste that could be contaminated by the coronavirus.
The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has responded to the situation by working with stakeholders to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to members of the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) at four integration sites in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape earlier this year. Sixty per cent of the waste pickers at the four participating sites are women.
The PPE consists of work jackets and trousers, masks, gloves and work boots. UNIDO also donated a four-ton truck to contribute to a safer and more secure working environment for waste pickers.
These initiatives are some of the results of the US$136 million flash appeal launched by the United Nations in South Africa in April 2020, which aims to assist up to 10 million people in vulnerable communities facing various risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The UNIDO initiatives fall under the UN Environment-led National Stakeholder Platform aimed at expanding activities on safety and security for healthcare waste management during the pandemic.
The donation of PPE and the truck is part of a UNIDO project supporting the transition from conventional plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives in South Africa. The project is funded by the Government of Japan and executed jointly with partner institutions in the country, including the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF). One of the outputs of the project is specifically designed to support waste picker integration by ensuring that the role of waste pickers is formally recognized and valued, and that they are integrated into the design and implementation of separation at source and other recycling initiatives.