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Critical support for waste reclaimers during pandemic

- United Nations Industrial Development Organization

The donation of personal protective equipment and a truck will ensure the safety of waste reclaimers.

Waste reclaimers take ownership of the PPE and truck to ease the dangerous and laborious work of sorting waste

South Africa has more than 60 000 waste pickers who play a substantial role in the waste management industry of the country, collecting 80% to 90% of used recyclable collected on an annual basis. As one of the most vulnerable communities in the country, they were profoundly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown. Under the level 5 lockdown regulations, their daily earnings were impacted by the restriction of movement. Since the lifting of these restrictions, they have been exposed to the increasing risks of new types of hazardous infectious waste that could be contaminated by the virus.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), responded to the situation by working with stakeholders to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to members of the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) at four pilot integration sites in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape earlier this year. This was followed by the donation of a 4-tonne truck to contribute to a safer and more secure working environment for waste pickers.

These initiatives form part of the US$135 million flash appeal launched by the United Nations in South Africa in April 2020, aimed at assisting up to 10 million people in vulnerable communities facing various risks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Specifically, the UNIDO initiatives fall under the UN Environment-led National Stakeholder Platform aimed at expanding activities on safety and security for healthcare waste management during the pandemic.

The donation of PPE and the truck is part of a UNIDO project aimed at supporting the transition from conventional plastics to more environmentally sustainable alternatives in South Africa. The project is funded by the Government of Japan and executed jointly with partner institutions in the country, including the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), and other stakeholders. One of the outputs of the project is specifically designed to support ongoing processes related to waste picker integration. It contributes to this process by ensuring that the role of waste pickers is formally recognized and valued, and that they are integrated into the design and implementation of separation at source and other recycling initiatives.

Speaking at the handover, Simon Mbata, Chairman of the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA), said that the donation of PPE brought dignity to waste pickers, who now have the respect of their communities as recognisable workers in the waste recycling system. It also laid the foundation for future development.

Sixty per cent of the waste reclaimers at the four participating sites are female, in line with South Africa’s national priorities and UNIDO’s strong focus on ensuring gender mainstreaming in all its projects.

Eli Kodisang, organizer of the African Reclaimers Organization (ARO), explained that the truck would contribute towards the expansion of separation-at-source activities and an increase in collection rates of recyclable materials. It would also reduce the risk of accidents associated with pulling a trolley, especially for elderly women, and limit exposure to contaminated waste material. He said that the truck has already made a huge difference in ARO’s work and has opened new areas of opportunity for collecting recyclable materials. “It might just be a truck to other people, but for us it is opening a road to unlimited opportunities.” 

According to Dr Melanie Samson, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Wits, the UNIDO and broader UN initiatives have made important contributions to supporting reclaimers in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. She explained that the UNIDO project was designed to complement and strengthen initiatives by the South African government, industry and reclaimer organizations in a way that advances the implementation of the National Guideline on Waste Picker Integration. “Because the UNIDO donations directly respond to needs articulated by waste-picker organisations, they gave life to the Guideline principle that reclaimers must lead the way in defining and implementing integration and firmly entrenched this principle as we move forward with implementing integration.”

Mamogala Musekene, Acting Deputy Director-General for Chemical and Waste Management at DEFF, thanked the Government of Japan and UNIDO for supporting the project, and confirmed that SA recognizes the valuable contribution of waste pickers in diverting waste away from landfill. She said that the Department was looking forward to further collaboration with Japan and other partners to ensure that the work under the green economy was amplified and that the transition of the society/country to a circular economy was realized.

Khaled El Mekwad, UNIDO Representative and Head of UNIDO’s Regional Office in Southern Africa, reiterated that UN agencies in South Africa are working together to assist the South African government and citizens in mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. He said that waste reclaimers, being the front-liners in waste management systems in our societies, needed to be empowered and protected, and that the provision of PPE and a 4-tonne truck was aimed at expanding their activities within a safer and more secure working environment during the pandemic. “We hope that this action will serve as a first step towards further integration of waste reclaimers into South Africa’s waste management system and in strengthening the country’s recycling economy.”

The Ambassador of Japan to South Africa, Honourable Norio Maruyama, said that the UNIDO project was a concrete deliverable of the 2019 G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, which aims to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050.  In order to achieve this objective, the Government of Japan has launched an initiative to advance effective actions to combat marine litter at a global scale by focusing on four areas: management of waste, recovery of marine litter, innovation, and empowerment. “I understand that this project of UNIDO covers all four of the objectives fixed in our strategy.”

Maruyama said that the project has provided both Japan and UNIDO with the opportunity to join the collective effort to support South Africa, and especially the most vulnerable sector, in the fight against Covid-19. He expressed confidence in the ability and scientific expertise of researchers in both Japan and SA, through UNIDO, to find new materials as alternatives to single-use plastics as the next step in the project.

The Resident Coordinator of the UN in South Africa, Nardos  Bekele-Thomas, said that the UNIDO/Japan project had the potential to reduce plastic leakage into the environment and unlock new economic opportunities. “It provides endless possibilities for eradicating poverty, safeguarding the environment and creating shared prosperity which is greatly needed by South Africa.” She emphasised the importance of charting a new, more inclusive and sustainable path, moving away from the “tech, make, use and dispose model” that has been dominant among rich countries for many years. “The current crisis presents developing countries with a window of opportunity for change that should be fully grasped.”

She concluded that the strong cooperation between UNIDO and the government of Japan would help build an inclusive industry that ensures that no one gets left behind. “A cooperation that can indeed lead us to a more rapid transition to a new economy; one that draws from new technologies and innovation and that is increasingly decarbonized, less wasteful and more democratic in our decisions on how we produce, distribute, consume and recycle.”