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South Africa: wastepickers reclaiming their livelihoods

For a growing number of people, what others deem garbage provides an important source of livelihoods. South African citizens are joining the expanding global movement of waste pickers, who sort through the evergrowing heaps of waste at municipal landfills. They are turning garbage back into commodities in order to support themselves and their families, within a context where few can hope to find a job. They are also making important contributions to environmental sustainability by reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill, and providing inputs for recycling processes.
south african waste pickers win seed awardA group of waste pickers are presented with a United Nations SEED award

Friends of the Earth South Africa/groundWork is actively supporting the waste pickers in their endeavours. In particular, they lobbied the South African government to help the waste pickers gain recognition in the National Environmental Management Waste Act of 2009, as legitimate stakeholders that provide a benefit to South African society. This was the first time the wastepickers had received any recognition within national legislation.


Friends of the Earth South Africa has also supported the wastepickers in building links internationally and mobilising. They have built strong connections with the global movement of waste pickers, through the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and the Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising. With groundWork’s support they visited India and met with the Centre for Science and Environment in India, and activists and waste pickers who earn their living from recycling waste.


In July 2009, Friends of the Earth South Africa also hosted the first National Waste Pickers’ Meeting. The result was a commitment to work collectively towards securing waste pickers’ livelihoods. Four months later seven waste pickers joined Friends of the Earth South Africa in a visit to Egypt to attend a conference, ‘Towards a Culture of Sustainable Communities, Economies and Environment’ in Cairo.


Another unprecedented success came in 2011 when the Mpofane Municipality officially granted waste pickers the right to salvage waste from the local landfill site. The formerly unemployed people, now working together as the Mooi River Waste Reclaiming cooperative, were delighted to be recognised by the United Nations-founded SEED Initiative, which presented them with an award for entrepreneurship in sustainable development.

“This is a step forward in our struggle for environmental and economic justice for people who legitimately earn a living from the waste products of society. We are going to learn from the experience of others and enrich our struggles in South Africa, so that we can help build a unified global movement of waste pickers.”


Musa Chamane, Friends of the Earth South Africa


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