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Recognizing the role of street waste reclaimers in South Africa

12 February 2024 UNIDO

Plastic Litter South Africa Story

A typical workday of Siyabonga Xabalakashe, a street reclaimer in Johannesburg, South Africa, begins at 3:30 in the morning. Together with his fellow workers, he navigates the challenges of city life and the changing seasons in order to provide for their families. Nevertheless, Xabalakashe’s story is not merely about the hardships. His story is one of optimism in raising public recognition regarding his occupation with UNIDO’s Waste Picker Integration project.

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Xabalakashe has clear goals and aspirations for his future. As a father of four, he is dedicated to providing for his children and ensuring their access to higher education. As a reclaimer, he strives for independence and to develop his own waste-separating model, for instance, actively buying raw materials and not just collecting waste or separating waste using machines. On his way to moving forward with his dream, he realizes the importance of public recognition for reclaimers and fostering better relationships with city residents, a core goal of the African Reclaimers Organization (ARO), in which he participates. 

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Despite the essential role played by reclaimers such as Xabalakashe in recycling, their contributions have long been overlooked and undervalued. They experienced stigmatization, marginalization, and exclusion from waste management legislation. Nonetheless, a turning point occurred in 2020 when the South African government introduced the Waste Picker Integration Guideline, acknowledging the crucial position of reclaimers in the recycling process. 

The UNIDO project, funded by the Government of Japan, aims to transition from traditional plastics to sustainable alternatives. It focused on creating an action plan for eco-friendly alternatives and implementing the "National Guideline of waste picker integration" to enhance plastics recycling through various organizations. The project prioritized training local government authorities, collaborated with waste reclaimers to develop training resources and implemented the South African Waste Picker Registration System that grants recognition and improves community relations. 

Emphasizing training for municipal officials and involving the ARO and South Africa Waste Pickers Associations (SAWPA), the project empowered reclaimers in developing training materials and activities, culminating in the implementation of the South Africa Waste Picker Registration System. ARO and SAWPA's significant involvement in the project empowered them to co-lead in capacity building, fostering better recognition and community relationships, marking a vital milestone in acknowledging the vital role of reclaimers in recycling.  

Xabalakashe emphasized the project's significant impact on his work beyond merely streamlining his tasks. It served as a catalyst for change by enhancing communication between reclaimers and residents and expanding their collection areas. This transformation generated recognition from residents who demonstrated a keen interest in waste separation. These shifts nurtured a deeper bond between collectors and the communities they serve. 

Project name: Support for transitioning from conventional plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives.