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People picking waste from a refuse dump
Waste pickers in Sasolburg, South Africa. Jonathan Torgovnik/ Getty Images

Waste pickers play a key role in the fight against plastic pollution – insights from South Africa into how their voices can be heard

Our addiction to plastics is trashing the planet, exacerbating global heating and threatening our very survival. Since 2022, the UN has been convening negotiations on a Plastics Treaty to address this crisis.

In one of the greatest success stories of the negotiations, an International Alliance of Waste Pickers representing 460,000 of them in 34 countries has ensured that the draft treaty includes a just transition for waste pickers.

As my research shows, there are a host of reasons why this should happen. Among them are the fact that waste pickers provide an important service to society. In addition they are producers of knowledge and ideas. Because they go through our trash and leave behind everything without value, they know better than anyone which plastics should be eliminated. They are also the only people with significant experience collecting recyclables in developing countries.

According to the alliance, a just transition for waste pickers involves: recognising and formalising waste pickers’ role; registration; meaningful involvement in policy-making and implementation; social protection and fair remuneration; and capacity building and organisational support.

As the world’s leaders meet in Ottawa for the current round of negotiations, the alliance’s challenge is to ensure commitments to waste pickers make it into the final text.

South Africa’s approach to waste picker integration demonstrates how they can be protected.

A working model

As the Reclaim, Revalue, Reframe website my colleagues and I created explains, South Africa’s just transition for waste pickers is grounded in an approach that I call “participatory evidence-based policy-making”.

I first used this approach when I facilitated the three-year process to develop government’s Waste Picker Integration Guideline for South Africa. A series of education workshops combined waste pickers’ knowledge with analysis of academic research. In this way, a working group of various stakeholders agreed on the content of the guideline.

The key to our success was to start by agreeing on what existed.

In the past, government and industry treated waste pickers as poor, marginal people in need of help.

But research showed waste pickers collected 80%-90% of the used packaging and paper recycled in South Africa.

It became clear that it was waste pickers who were subsidising government and industry and that they were the experts on getting recyclables out of the environment.

Based on this analysis, the working group defined waste picker integration as the creation of a formally planned recycling system that:

  • values and improves the present role of waste pickers

  • builds on the strengths of their existing system for collecting and revaluing recyclables

  • includes waste pickers as key partners in its design, implementation, evaluation and revision.

The group also agreed on integration principles. They include redress, improved incomes and working conditions, and valuing waste pickers’ expertise.

Now, South African municipalities and industry are required to make this work in practice.

South Africa has regulations which make producers responsible for the impact of their products after consumption. The rules require industry to pay a service fee to waste pickers registered on the South Africa Waste Picker Registration System. This is a vital step in addressing racial capitalism, as the entire recycling industry has exploited black waste pickers’ free labour.

It is difficult to register waste pickers, as they are understandably reluctant to give their personal information to municipalities and industry. Including them in the process of developing the registration system helped to create trust.

Justice delayed

South Africa’s potential to be the world leader in a just transition for waste pickers is at risk, however, because of weak implementation, monitoring and enforcement.

Industry is paying the service fee to only a handful of the registered waste pickers.

Few municipalities have integration programmes that comply with the guideline.

It is unclear what the government is doing to address these legal violations.

Fixing the loopholes

The solution lies in using the participatory evidence-based approach again – this time for implementation.

First, the government should establish a permanent multi-stakeholder Waste Picker Integration Committee to develop and oversee the implementation of a national integration strategy.

Second, the government should work with waste pickers and other stakeholders to create a municipal waste picker integration support programme.

Third, the government should include waste pickers and other experts in monitoring producer responsibility for waste. Stiff penalties must be imposed on industry for noncompliance.

Fourth, companies that committed themselves to waste picker integration by signing the Fair Circularity Initiative Principles should push South African industry to meet its legal requirements to pay and integrate waste pickers.

Lessons for the Plastics Treaty

The South African experience demonstrates what’s possible.

The International Alliance of Waste Pickers proposed how the Plastics Treaty could address their concerns. Negotiators should agree to this text.

The South African experience also shows that achieving a just transition requires participation at all stages: implementation, monitoring and enforcement.

This must be built into the treaty now and the Group of Friends of Waste Pickers nations should agree to keep partnering on implementation.

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