Garbage day in South Africa – informal recyclers’ role in the industry

It’s Friday, and that means garbage day in Emmarentia in Johannesburg. In the competitive world of recycling, that equals a 3 – 4 am start for most recyclers. Recycling in South Africa has a strong SADC (Southern African Development Community) flavour to it, with Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique well represented. Many sleep in the city to save on transport costs and to get a head start on the competition. It is estimated that 2-4 recyclers handle each household bin.

Recycling is big business in South Africa, with heavyweights such as Nampak and ArcelorMittal dotting the landscape. The industry is fueled by a hunger for recyclable items for both local and international manufacturers. Some recycled items, such as copper are in high demand ($9-$10 per kg on Alibaba’s website). I recently received a call from a Chinese friend based in Guangzhou, enquiring if I have any recycled copper contacts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The South Africa supply chain, start with an army of independent recyclers, that collects recyclable goods from landfills, industries or household garbage bins. Informal recyclers use carts to transport their goods and sell to buy-back centres. From there, other intermediaries or merchants might also come into play, before selling it to local and international manufacturers.

Some industries are also highly specialised and concentrated. A few years back, a trip to Bangladesh introduced me to the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard, where retired ships are dismantled. It is estimated that the yard handles a fifth of the world’s shipbreaking volume.

In the recycling business, value is created through sorting, grouping and volume. Hence, most recyclers need a place to sort and store their items before selling it at bulk and at higher prices. Recyclers are well informed, and any recycler on the street can tell an item’s resale value.

However, the world of the recycler is not without risk. In South Africa recyclers are frequently harassed by Metro Police and pushing a heavy cart on a Johannesburg street is a dangerous business. Chittagong’s Ship Breaking Yard is infamous for its child labour practices. The general lack of protective clothing in the industry, comes at a health risk, resulting in injuries and exposure to noxious fumes and asbestos.

However, recycling also creates jobs. Lots of them. A recent New York Times article noted that there are 15 million recyclers globally. The World Bank estimates Chittagong’s shipbreaking industry provides jobs for an estimated 200,000.

In South Africa, with an average unemployment rate of 25%, several companies and organisations have been engaged in developing inclusive business models (e.g. Mondi). Companies such as Coca-Cola’s 5 by 20 project (5 million jobs by 2020) also see recycling as a significant job creator (e.g. Coca-Cola Brazil’s Coletivo).

In some cities, it is the only recycling service available for residents. Often, informal recyclers do a more efficient and inexpensive job than the local government. Without the recyclers, a large number of individuals and industries would suffer — especially the independent recyclers, where garbage day is payday.

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