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


Country Canada

November 19, 2013

Photo: SAWPA.

Photo: SAWPA.

Who are we, the South African Waste Pickers Association?

We, the South African Waste Pickers’ Association (SAWPA) are an affiliation of waste pickers working on more than 70 waste dumpsites (also referred to as landfill sites) and on streets throughout South Africa where our jobs provide us with an income to put food on our tables, clothe and educate our children, and provide us with the dignity that meaningful employment offers people.

We have come together today to object the proposal by EnviroServ to construct a waste incineration facility at the Chloorkop waste site. We call on government to deny EnviroServ permission to build a waste incinerator facility at Chloorkop. Waste incinerators represent a failure of good waste management practices and will take away jobs and livelihoods from South African waste pickers. South Africa’s waste management legislation, the Waste Act of 2008 stipulates that incineration must be the last resort in the waste management cycle after waste separation at source, materials recovery and recycling options have been tried and tested.

We organise collectively and democratically as the SAWPA in order to have a voice that can be heard in a democratic South Africa. This has been strengthened through many provincial meetings and three national meetings since June 2009, where we have discussed issues that affect us and we have planned and subsequently implemented these plans of actions.

We are presently finalising our national constitution, and have developed along with our ally groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa, “A Waste Picker’s Guide to Organising” in four of our South African languages.

We have a history that links us to one another in South Africa as well as waste pickers throughout the world. Our members have visited and worked with waste picker organisations and waste pickers in Pune, India; Cairo, Egypt; and São Paulo, Brazil where they have shared experiences and work methods that have assisted in the development of our movement in South Africa.

We have strong relationships with global organisations such as Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organizing (WIEGO), the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA) and Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), with whom we work to ensure that there is a strong African voice in the global movement of waste pickers, where waste pickers are demanding the right to be allowed to work in the places they choose and that their labour is controlled by themselves rather than major multi-national corporations or private interest.

What is our history?

Our history lies in a struggle to be recognised by government, industry and the people of South Africa.

Our history lies in brutal oppression – which is still found in some places – where we were whipped, shot at and chased off and excluded from our places of work at the waste dumpsites where we collect recyclables for an income.

Our history lies in struggle that has resulted in positive gains for the waste pickers of South Africa:

  • In 2008, waste pickers successfully engaged with the National Assembly Portfolio Committee on Environment in their deliberation on the Waste Bill, and convinced our parliamentarians in the Committee to include the rights of waste pickers (identified as salvagers) in the National Environmental Management: Waste Act and to ensure that waste incineration is the last resort to managing waste;
  • In 2009, Minister Ebrahim Patel’s Ministry of Economic Affairs recognised that recycling is critical to ensure job creation, which is at the heart of the SAWPA and consequently industrial bodies such as the Packaging Association of South Africa started engaging with the SAWPA to implement projects;
  • In 2010, the SAWPA was requested by the Department of Trade and Industry to participate and become a member in the Department’s Recycling Industrial Body where waste pickers were recognised as central to the management of recyclable materials and waste;
  • In 2011, the SAWPA was the key peoples’ movement leading the debate on waste, jobs and climate change alongside and inside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 17th Conference of the Parties gathering in Durban, South Africa;
  • In 2012, key municipalities in KwaZulu Natal – uMgungundlovu District Municipality, Msunduzi Municipality and the uMkhanyakude District Municipality – all recognised the importance of waste pickers and have commenced or have already built materials recovery facilities for waste pickers to have safer working conditions; and
  • In 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs (DEA) visited SAWPA partners in Brazil and Columbia to learn about inclusive solid waste management and the waste pickers’ movements in these countries.

What has been our approach?

We have made our history a positive one through the slow and deliberate building of our association.

We have, through our work, taken materials out of the waste cycle therefore ensuring that there are less toxins being dumped in the environment.

We have, through our work, of recycling plastic and metals, reduced the need for virgin materials such as coal, crude oil, gas and metals and thereby made a huge impact in the reduction of greenhouse gases by ensuring that society can keep ‘coal in the hole’, ‘oil in the soil’ and ‘gas in the land’.

We have, through our work, offered government and society a way out of the destructive practice of mining that results in the destruction of people’s lands and makes society poorer.

We bring to your attention that the incineration of waste results in the following negative impacts on society negatively:

  • The jobs of waste pickers and small recyclers are threatened by incinerators and waste-to-energy facility as they use recyclables as fuel. Recycling creates 10 to 20 times more jobs than incinerators. Incinerators require huge capital investment, but they offer relatively few jobs when compared to recycling. With a national recycling rate of less than 33%, the U.S. recycling industries currently provide over 800,000 jobs. A national recycling rate of 75% would create 1.5 million jobs in the US. [1]
  • Burning waste pollutes people’s health. Even the most technologically advanced incinerators release thousands of pollutants that contaminate our air, soil and water. Many of these pollutants enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain. Incinerator workers and people living near incinerators are particularly at high risk of exposure to dioxin and other contaminants. [2]
  • Waste-to-energy incinerators are a source of dirty energy. Waste incinerators in the EU continue to pollute the climate and cause significant public health risk, while burning billions of dollars-worth of valuable, non-renewable resources. Modern incinerators in the EU are a major source of ultra-fine particulate emissions.[3] In 2009, the SITA Cornwall waste company was banned from distributing information on incineration for, among other things, making unsubstantiated claims that the UK Health Protection Agency stated that modern incinerators are safe.[4]
  • If material is not recycled, more finite, fossil-fuel based resources need to be extracted to produce more goods which drives climate change. According to the U.S. EPA, “waste to energy” incinerators and landfills contribute far higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and overall energy throughout their lifecycles than source reduction, reuse and recycling of the same materials. [5] Incineration also drives a climate changing cycle of new resources pulled out of the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and then wasted in incinerators and landfills.

Based upon the above we call upon Government:

  • To stop the EnviroServ Chloorkop Waste-to-Energy proposal now;
  • To put a country-wide ban on waste incineration;
  • To recognise that we do not need charity and patronage. We do not want our labour to be a seen as a welfare issue. Waste picking is meaningful and we want it to become viable job opportunity for people, not an exchange only for food stamps;
  • To assist and support waste pickers with forming cooperatives and providing the required training to ensure cooperatives operate successfully;
  • To develop municipal composting and biogas systems in cooperation with waste picker cooperatives to create clean energy; and
  • To develop local government capacity throughout South Africa to engage with waste pickers in a meaningful and supportive manner to ensure waste management is sustainable and builds livelihoods rather than destroys people’s income.

We respectfully request government to respond to our concerns within 30 days.

Simon Mbata
South African Waste Pickers Association

Mark Gordan
Deputy Director General, Department of Environmental Affairs

For Minister Bomo Edna Molewa, Environmental Affairs

Friday, the 8th November 2013
Pretoria, South Africa


[1] Tellus Institute, More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the United States, 2011.

[2] Waste Incineration and Public Health (2000), Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council, National Academy Press, pp. 6-7.

[3] Howard, C.Vyvyan, Statement of Evidence, Particulate Emissions and Health, Proposed Ringaskiddy Waste-to-Energy Facility, June 2009. [4] UK Without Incineration Network: Burner Booklet Banned, July 2009: [5] U.S. EPA, “Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases, A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks 3rd edition,” 2006.