The impact of the recycling industry on poverty levels in South Africa’s informal economy: a case study of waste pickers in Pretoria
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South Africa is gripped by high and rising levels of unemployment and poverty, which have conspired to create a society that is one of the most unequal in the world today. This is not helped by the fact that the troubled global and local economies are squeezing formal sector jobs in the country. As a result, many semi-skilled and unskilled workers have no choice but to enter the informal economy and perform survivalist-type work. Collecting and selling recyclable material is an interesting and increasingly important informal activity, yet it is largely overlooked at the policy level. As a result, waste pickers remain marginalised and their earnings and future prospects are highly uncertain. This paper analyses the impact of informal recycling on the poverty levels of street waste pickers in South Africa, using Pretoria (the capital) as a case study. A mixed-method approach informed the results. Structured interviews were conducted between July and September 2010, with 142 street waste pickers taking part in the survey. Among the findings were that low education and skills levels help to ensure that street waste pickers have little chance of joining the formal sector. Furthermore, the majority of street waste pickers have an average of four dependants, which places a heavy financial burden on them. Under such circumstances, the income from waste picking is insufficient to lift these people out of poverty. Yet some waste pickers display a surprising degree of entrepreneurial resilience and even pride at being able to independently make an honest living. A new policy position needs to be adopted which will help street waste pickers escape the socio-economic twilight zone in which they are currently trapped and be recognised for their important contribution to cities’ waste management systems.