Making Zero Waste Work with Waste Pickers

By Asiphile Khanyile, Waste Campaigner, groundWork South Africa

Over the recent years, zero waste has become an important vision and action that defines how waste is managed. Zero waste is a game changer and an opportunity that plays an important role towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which accelerates climate change. Fundamentally, zero waste asks us to change actively, collectively and inclusively in the manner in which waste should be managed.  Hence, the definition of zero waste by outlined by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials without burning, and without discharges to land, waste or air that threaten the environment or human health”, and it compels us to look at the entire lifecycle of waste which is; extraction, production, consumption, collection and disposal.

Reading the definition above, my mind immediately zooms into the waste pickers that are central to a zero waste system. Luckily for me, I have had the privilege of working with waste pickers on the ground and that has enabled me to delve deeper into their world.

Firstly, in a zero waste system waste pickers are recognised as an integral part because of their significant contribution towards saving landfill airspaces, diversion of recyclable materials, keeping the recycling value chain viable and climate change mitigation. Hence, this definition mentioned above opens up an opportunity for us to continue to engage and work with waste pickers. Since 2021, I have worked with waste pickers through groundWork (gW), Warwick Zero Waste Project (WZW) and the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), I have learned that waste is source of livelihood for waste pickers and they are also people whom hold a pool of knowledge about the recyclable materials. As part of civil society, we have recognised that waste pickers are fundamental to a zero waste system.

The questions ask with waste pickers is ensure that they are not exploited, stigmatised, harassed and excluded. How do we continue to educate our communities about the relationship between zero waste, climate change and waste pickers?

Every time, I do my work these are some of the questions that ramble through my mind. Some of the answers  to these questions were from the several visits I had in the months of February, March and April 2023, as gW we engaged waste pickers from a buy back centre, landfill and on the streets (Free State, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal). From my experience in Warwick and the visits, I have noticed that it is about working collectively, opportunities that foster active participation and engagements, infrastructural support by government – and even the private sector, and capacity support and building for waste pickers that will create the opportunity for waste pickers thrive in clean, dignified and safe spaces in order to make their work easier. Mostly, importantly, in some of the visits I saw tons of recyclable materials that could have ended up in landfill, dumpsites or even into the natural environment, diverted.

Hence, I was reminded that for zero waste to work it should ideally NOT be capital intensive, high tech and exclusionary. Instead, for zero waste to work it should be easily accessible, inclusive, low cost and tech and viable, and have at the heart of the process, waste pickers.