The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
Supported by Logo WIEGO

Posted by
Written by Deia de Brito

May 10, 2013

Check translation:
South African government delegates visiting waste pickers' cooperative CooperLimpa in Diadema to learn about participatory and inclusive waste management models. Photo credit: WIEGO.

South African government delegates at waste pickers’ cooperative CooperLimpa in Diadema with municipal officials and waste picker leaders to learn about participatory and inclusive waste management models. Photo credit: Deia de Brito.

By Deia de Brito, WIEGO

In April of this year, officials from the South African Department of the Environment (chemical and waste management  branches) were in Brazil and Colombia to learn about inclusive solid waste management. During its visit to Brazil, the South African delegation went straight to the heart of the Brazilian waste pickers’ movement, to its headquarters in São Paulo. On the following day, the delegation continued on to Belo Horizonte, where it visited a cooperative and met at the city hall with members of the Municipal Waste and Citizenship Forum. Their last stop in Brazil was Diadema — located in the industrial belt on the outskirts of São Paulo city — where they visited a cooperative, learned about the city’s inclusive waste management model, and met with the mayor. Later they went on to Bogotá, Colombia, where they met with the city and nationwide waste pickers’ movements there. The learning exchange was facilitated by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

A Visit to Diadema

“Will you take a picture of me?” Nolwazi Cobbinah asked as she stood in front of pile of crushed plastic and stacks of cardboard. “Some people don’t believe me when I tell them I work with trash,” she said. Cobbinah — the acting deputy director general of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, in the Chemical and Waste Management branch – was in Diadema, São Paulo in early April along with two other government officials, Mamosa Afrika, Director of General Waste, and Pamela Nyuswa, Assistant Director of the same department. They were here to learn about how Brazil handles recycling – and the informal workforce largely responsible for it: the waste pickers, or catadores.

“With high poverty levels and inequality [in South Africa], the issue has really come to the fore of authorities,” said Cobbinah. “That’s why we’ve taken the initiative to familiarize ourselves about how other jurisdictions have handled the matter, from a policy intervention point of view, so that when we engage in discussions with waste pickers – as they are a key stakeholder in this process – we can do so from an informed perspective.”

This isn’t the first time Brazil has been looked to as a model for South Africa. Members of the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) have visited the country a number of times to see the workings of waste picker associations and their relationship to recycling industries. The Packaging Council of South Africa (PACSA) has also visited Brazil to learn how their counterparts engage with waste pickers.  In policy terms, Brazil is at the forefront of socially inclusive waste management – waste management that recognizes and involves waste pickers. Brazil’s National Waste Policy (2010) is considered one of the most forward-thinking federal waste laws in the world. It aims to decrease the amount of waste produced, promote more sustainable consumption, and direct waste to less wasteful final destinations. In accordance with climate change goals, the policy is pushing the nation to recycle 20 percent of its waste by 2015.

Within this framework of sustainable waste management, the policy also covers how waste pickers should be integrated in municipal recycling programs and engaged in recycling programs after the mandatory closure by 2014 of all open dumps. It includes planning mechanisms on all levels of government for the closure of open dumps. The policy, in writing, prioritizes waste pickers’ associations and cooperatives over private companies. It also covers producer responsibility. Waste pickers should not have to pay for the huge amounts of waste generated by large producers.

Of course, the law has its faults and there are always loopholes to be found. For example, waste pickers and allies are fighting to stop the incineration industry from taking advantage of the policy’s waste reduction goals and the carbon credit opportunities. The national movement of waste pickers is also struggling to engage municipalities as the pressure to close open dumps increases, often without considering waste pickers’ livelihoods. Many dumpsite workers are now out of work and impoverished as a result of municipalies closing landfills and dumps without compensation, training courses for other trades, or re-integration into new recycling programs.

The National Movement of Collectors of Recyclable Materials (MNCR) has luckily been a watchdog on how the National Policy has been playing out. Founded in 2001, MNCR – one of the largest national waste pickers’ movements in the world – has been instrumental in organizing waste pickers across the country as well as engaging all levels of government. Like a handful of Brazil’s big social movements, MNCR now holds some degree of political power. Its waste picker leaders meet with former and current presidents. The movement has 65,000 members – out of an estimated 800,000 waste pickers in the country.

South Africa is just now seeing a surge in the organizing efforts of waste pickers. In 2009, the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) was formed. Since then SAWPA has met frequently with representatives of government and industry. Last year, federal officials met with SAWPA leader Simon Mbata, whom they had invited to also participate in a national conference and afterwards, one put on by the waste industry. Present there were also municipalities and industry leaders. After discussions between all groups, Cobbinah said the conclusion was unanimous: that “waste pickers add value in the waste management system.” Since then, other meetings have taken place.  On May 15-20, 2013, the Joburg Waste Summit, hosted by Johannesburg Council and its waste management company Pikitup, brought together 400 participants. Waste pickers were not invited to the Summit so Melanie Samson of WIEGO (see Melanie Samson’s summary) shared the platform with Simon Mbata of SAWPA. Between June 19th and 21st, SAWPA held its national meeting in Johannesburg, where waste pickers discussed funding, the development of ongoing projects, a waste pickers’ database, and the drafting of their Constitution. The association continues to progress, slowly but surely (see Musa Chamane’s summary). 

The South African delegation’s visit in Diadema began at CooperLimpa cooperative, where Maria Mônica da Silva, a waste picker with the cooperative, provided background on the case of Diadema. It was the first municipality in all of Brazil to pay waste pickers for collection service, and also the city after which Brazil’s National Waste Policy was modeled, she explained.  Although it was Diadema’s 100th anniversary, a number of city officials showed up to meet the South African delegation. The municipal secretary of the environment and several other support staff arrived to discuss the Diadema model, which they described as the first truly participatory model in Brazil.

“We technical staff didn’t arrive to say how things would be – no, that has already been done and never worked. Waste pickers are managing this program, not technicians,” said Sandro Eduardo, a biologist with the Vida Limpa, the city’s recycling program. Silva added that it was the first decentralized model in the country, using a participatory approach that involves three municipal departments and a cooperative. The program started in 2000 after the closure of an open dump where many waste pickers were working.

Cobbinah seemed surprised that Silva had worked as a waste picker her entire life before becoming the articulate leader that she is. “Did joining the cooperative improve your life?” Cobbinah asked Silva.

“I used to bring my children to collect recyclables with me in the streets. After joining the cooperative, my life improved 100 percent,” Silva said. “My quality of life improved and my understanding of what it means to be a citizen. This gave me self-confidence, which was so low before. I began to look at my community differently – it changed everything.”

Silva made a very important point that resonated with Cobbinah, who brought it up again later in the day. “Waste pickers will only listen to waste pickers. It doesn’t matter how many NGOs or government officials try to talk about organizing – it won’t work,” Silva said. That was how she began to become interested in organizing – when organized waste pickers began talking to her. And even then, it was a long process of building communication and trust.

Denise Ventrici, the municipal secretary of the environment in Diadema, who began her position with the new government in January, demonstrated her support for the city’s recycling program. When Cobbinah asked what her motivation was in supporting the program, Ventrici answered, “Social inclusion.”

After the visit to the cooperative, the delegation went to the Botanical Gardens to visit the city recycling program “Vida Limpa” team and watch a presentation about the program. After the presentation, Cobbinah invited the city of Diadema and the cooperative to South Africa, as she felt that there is a great deal that South Africans can learn from the Brazilian experience.

“We are behind you guys. In South Africa, we have lots of unemployment, poverty and inequalities. I think we face many of the same problems.” Cobbinah highlighted one of the problems that their department is trying to solve: unlike the national Brazilian policy, the South African waste management policy does not specify how to involve waste pickers.

“Because you’re advanced in these solutions and have made history, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “When we look at the model, we are particularly encouraged by the participatory aspects. This is something that resonates with South Africans.”

Meeting the Mayor

The presentation was followed by lunch with Mayor Lauro Michels at a restaurant in downtown Diadema. This meeting was actually crucially important for Mônica da Silva and other waste pickers because this was the first time they had met the mayor since he began his term in January. The previous mayor had met with them every three months, and Silva hopes to reestablish this kind of regular contact with the new mayor. Michels said he wants to improve recycling collection in the city, expanding some collection points as part of federal programs.

“Things that can be reused or recycled are sometimes treated as trash when they aren’t trash,” Michels said. “We have to think beyond just recycling plastic bottles now.” He also mentioned a move towards adopting zero waste practices in the city and the need for environmental education programs in the schools, emphasizing separation at source. He added that the city government is rethinking relationships with waste pickers and buyers. “First we have to get to know each other,” he said. Silva agreed emphatically.

Looking forward

It is too early to tell how the South African government will consider the Brazilian inclusive models. The South African delegation said the social inclusion of waste pickers is very important to them and they insist that they are in line with Diadema’s approach of learning from the waste pickers rather than telling them what to do. Their department recently commissioned an 18-month study on the financial contribution of waste pickers to municipal solid waste management systems. It will be carried out on several landfill sites in South Africa. “They add value and there should be something done to recognize the value they add,” Cobbinah said.

As part of the study, they will also be piloting a training module in which they’ll be “beefing up their knowledge on the recyclables, the process of separation, how they deal with sales and marketing, recycling companies, value…”, Cobbinah said. They hope that these early efforts will lead to a more formal, countrywide program.

“We have no problem taking the initiative to look at how we can organize waste pickers, formalize them, integrate them – whatever needs to be done, with them – that will improve their lives and livelidhoods and make sure their dignity is restored,” Cobbinah said.

As for Mônica da Silva, she hopes that Diadema will continue to move forward as an inclusive model. The city is currently behind on developing its municipal waste management plan. She is also fighting the incineration industry and the municipality of São Bernardo, which signed a 30 year contract for a private company to incinerate waste in seven of the region’s cities, including some of Diadema’s. While certain practices and models are positive examples, the reality on the ground continues to be a constant struggle.