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Fig 1: BOTTLED-UP: Two reclaimers help sort PET plastic bottles for recycling. A pilot programme in Joburg has helped solidify the reclaimer-resident relationship and empowered residents to recycle at home. (Photo: PETCO)

Rethinking Recycling

Unique pilot programme boost for recycling sector reeling from the Covid-19 lockdown

3:55 min TWO:20

  • In a post-lockdown boost for informal reclaimers, a Joburg pilot programme shows positive results, including empowerment of reclaimers and boosts to the city’s recycling rates
  • 66% of reclaimers in pilot reported increased recycling support from households
  • Informal reclaimers participated in the programme via the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO)

A resident, Angela Schaerer, who has been mobilising members of the Bordeaux South Residents Association, said many fellow residents were not actively separating materials or recycling materials before the partnership with the reclaimers was established.

“Now we have an easy way to do this while supporting industrious people who help our environment,” said Schaerer, adding that information about the programme was shared via WhatsApp, pamphlets and email newsletters and residents were seeing the benefits of a cleaner suburb thanks to the initiative.

“Previously, residents tended to ignore or harass reclaimers. Now people greet reclaimers, separate materials for them, provide refreshments, and take time to learn more about their work and their personal stories.”

Since last year, the ARO has embarked on an awareness and information campaign in support of the recyclables separation programme, with workshops and cleanup activations at schools, universities and community events, ARO organiser Eli Kodisang said.

“Having a personal relationship [with reclaimers] makes residents more willing to separate their materials, as they understand the difference it makes to the daily life of the reclaimer and her or his family,” Kodisang said.

According to David Drew, a board director of PETCO representing brand owners, the pilot programme also meant that the materials collected were “cleaner and, as a result, easier to recycle”.

“Separation in the home is something that everyone can do. This is an organic African solution and deserves our support,” said Drew.


/1 / The pilot project is being conducted in the Johannesburg suburbs of Brixton and Auckland Park. It is the joint initiative of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO), Unilever, and the University of the Witwatersrand, with additional support and sponsorship from PETCO, POLYCO, The Glass Recycling Company, Fibre Circle, Packaging South Africa, Auckland Park Residents Association, and the Brixton Community Forum.

/2 / The survey formed part of a “baseline study”, undertaken from June to November 2019 by Social Survey Africa, looked to establish measures of impact for the pilot project which aims to test a new approach to reclaimer integration and separating recyclables at household level, in which reclaimers are responsible for providing a separation service and are paid for doing so.


Facts & Figures

Highlights of the baseline study were prepared by Wits University academic Dr. Melanie Samson, who has researched waste, reclaimers and recycling for almost two decades. She notes that the pilot programme is significant for two reasons:

  • It is the first project in South Africa that is developing a mechanism to integrate individual reclaimers. As the majority of reclaimers do not want to join cooperatives and according to CSIR 92% of waste cooperatives in SA fail, it is crucial that we find other ways to integrate reclaimers.

  • It is the first project in South Africa to pilot paying reclaimers for the collection service that they provide.

Highlights from the study noted by Samson included that:

  • The provision of clear recycling bags for reclaimers to give to residents, donated by PETCO, “made a significant difference”;

  • Over 90% of residents believed reclaimers should be allowed to collect recyclables and more than 80% believed reclaimers should be paid for their work;

  • Plastic bottles were most important to reclaimers, but were the items least separated out by residents;

  • Residents earning over R7,000/month were more likely to separate their waste than those earning less (68% vs 32%); and

  • Reclaiming is a full-time, long-term vocation, with 96% of reclaimers reporting their work as fulltime and 30% reporting their weekly earnings at between R400 and R500.

“The baseline study demonstrated that residents are open to working collaboratively with reclaimers to increase separation-at-source and improving working conditions for reclaimers. Separation rates can be increased, and separation of plastic bottles can be increased,” Samson noted.

“The pilot has the potential to increase volumes of recyclables collected, improve relationships between residents and reclaimers, and improve reclaimers’ incomes and working conditions. The pilot will also provide important insights into how to design separation at source programmes that include reclaimers.”


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