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south africa: dealing with waste problems

The way we deal with ‘waste’ is not just a technical issue, it is a symptom of much deeper problems with the current economic, political and social systems. Waste is the visible face of a development model built on the assumption that some people matter more than others, and that pollution is the inevitable price of progress.

south africa: dealing with waste problems

In South Africa, a growing number of poor people make a living as informal ‘waste pickers’, collecting garbage at municipal landfill sites and selling it on for recycling. They have found an innovative way to support themselves and their families, and also make important contributions to environmental sustainability by reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill and providing inputs for recycling processes. Yet their role is not respected, many municipalities see them as a nuisance, and the government has attempted to introduce legislation to ban the practise of waste picking.


Meanwhile, waste incineration and the poor management of medical waste have very detrimental impacts on the environment and human health. Incineration of medical waste leads to mercury and dioxin contamination. There is an urgent need for improved medical waste management and a phasing out medical waste incineration in South Africa.


what happened?

In 2008, Friends of the Earth South Africa / groundWork published two reports Wasting the nation: Making trash of people and places and reclaiming livelihoods: The role of reclaimers in municipal waste management systems, which look at the impacts of the current waste management model and argue for a more sustainable and just approach. They also lobbied for improvements to the National Environmental Management: Waste Bill, through which the South African government was attempting to exclude vulnerable people from earning a legitimate livelihood from waste recovery at landfill sites.


FoE South Africa helped to organize waste pickers, and assisted them with accessing decision-makers. They helped to create public awareness of the important contribution waste pickers make, and created political pressure through protest actions.


In December 2008, they organized a community exchange to India, where eight South African waste pickers, health care workers and activists visited Indian communities to meet their counterparts to share perspectives and build solidarity.


what changed?

After successful lobbying by FoE South Africa and others, the government’s Waste Bill was improved. Once enacted, it will represent the first time that informal recyclers are officially recognized in law.


South African waste pickers gained real insight and knowledge from their visit to India. They learned how to recycle new materials, and developed more pride and perspective, becoming motivated to organize themselves and challenge decision-makers.


FoE South Africa also campaigned successfully to get waste management onto the curriculum for the training of health care staff in KwaZulu Natal. This victory followed two other successes for the organization: the elimination of mercury from health care equipment and the move away from incineration as a disposal route for health care waste.


what next?

After the Waste Bill is enacted, continued lobbying by waste pickers, FoE South Africa and others will be required to ensure that regulations are developed requiring municipalities to engage with reclaimers and respect their rights.




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