First global waste pickers’ trade union launched

Thirty-six waste pickers’ organisations from 34 countries have been fighting for decades for the recognition of their work, their rights and impact on the environment.
Douglas Mali (48) wakes up every day at 4am to ensure he’s the first waste picker sifting through the bins that residents leave outside their houses in the upper-class suburbs of Sandton, Johannesburg.
He walks about 15km a day through the suburbs from Monday to Friday, pushing a trolley filled with plastic, paper, aluminium, glass and other materials residents have thrown away that could be recycled.
To him, this is not rubbish — it’s money.
Every Saturday, after sorting through the materials — which Mali says is the most time-consuming and energy-intensive part of his job — he and his colleague Refuoe Mokuoane from Lesotho take their trolleys to the Stratum Park scrapyard to exchange their collected recyclable materials for money.
They need 20kg of plastic to make just R80. They make about R3,000 a month, most of which is sent back to their families in the Eastern Cape and Lesotho.
Mali lives in Delta Park with four other waste pickers. He says he used to stay along the Braamfontein Spruit until the metro police came and burnt his clothes and blankets and he fled.
There are 60,000 to 90,000 waste pickers in South Africa and an estimated 20 million around the world.
Global alliance formed
Thirty-six waste pickers’ organisations from 34 countries have been fighting for decades for the recognition of their work, their rights and the positive impact they make on the environment. On Saturday, 29 October, the first global waste pickers’ trade union was launched: the International Alliance of Waste Pickers.
The alliance and its accompanying constitution aim to act as a representative structure and mouthpiece for waste pickers, defending waste pickers’ work and recognising their environmental contribution.
A study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research reports that South Africa’s waste pickers are responsible for collecting 80% to 90% of the used packaging and paper that is recycled in the country.
The Waste Picker Integration Guideline for South Africa, published in 2020 by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and the Department of Science and Innovation, reported that 57.1% of post-consumer paper and packaging materials in SA were recovered for recycling, putting the country on a par with many European countries, largely due to informal waste pickers who sort through materials in bins or at dumpsites.
The guideline states: “This ...