Understanding reclaimers / waste pickers

If you live in an urban area in South Africa, you see waste pickers (who are also known as reclaimers) almost every day as you move around the city. But most of us know very little about the men and women who perform this important work.

The sections below explore who reclaimers are, why they chose this occupation, the problems they encounter, the particular challenges faced by women reclaimers, and how reclaimers are organising.  They provide a rich, multi-dimensional understanding of these issues through reclaimer profiles, written overviews, photo essays, videos, and posters.

Reclaimers and their contributions

Reclaimers are the foundation of South Africa’s recycling economy. Learn more about their daily work and the contributions they make.

Additional resources:

Reclaimers & Reclaiming – Reclaimer Contributions

Reclaimers & Reclaiming – A typical day of a female landfill reclaimer

Reclaimers & Reclaiming – A typical day of a male street reclaimer

A day in the life – landfill waste pickers

A day in the life – street reclaimers

Photo essays on reclaimers and their work

It is hard to understand reclaimers and the work they do just by reading about them. Reclaimers were incredibly generous in welcoming us to take photos of them at home and while they were working. These photo essays give you unique insight into reclaimers, their work, and their lives.

Additional resources:

Photo essay – Living and working in Metro Centre

Photo essay – Reclaiming in the Streets in Johannesburg

Photo essay – Recycling, upcycling and reusing

Photo essay – Selling to buyback centres

Photo essay – Northern landfill site

Photo essay – Reclaiming in the Streets in Durban

Photo essay – Palmer Street recycling facility

Reclaimer profiles

An important part of respecting and valuing reclaimers is seeing and interacting with them as whole human beings with full lives who have chosen this occupation. Get to know some reclaimers and learn more about their work, lives, and dreams by reading their profiles. 

Reclaimer profile – Ana Mabe – Organisational support and friendship

Reclaimer profile – David and Andronica – A working couple

Reclaimer profile – Dorah Mabe – Safe conditions

Reclaimer profile – Emily Mrabalalo – Women working for their families

Reclaimer profile – Eva Mokoena – Organising

Reclaimer profile – Francelina Lekeno – A roof over her head

Reclaimer profile – Lefa Mononga – A natural leader

Reclaimer profile – Nthombizodwa Gcabashe – Working with others

Reclaimer profile – Papi Spekhang – Fast Trolleys

Reclaimer profile – Simphiwe Rholoma – Recycling, upycling and reusing

Reclaimer profile – Refiloe and Sfundo – Working on Durban Streets

Reclaimer profile – Samual Motshwadi – Supporting a family

Reclaimer profile – Sibongile Muthwa – Professionalizing reclaiming

Reclaimer profile – Simon Ramohlokane – Sorting in a cooperative

Reclaimer profile – Solomon Mafabatho – Getting the copper

Gender and waste picking

Women who work as waste pickers often choose this occupation because it provides them with more control over their work and working hours than other jobs available to them, such as domestic work. This helps them to balance their need to earn an income with the family responsibilities that fall on them because of gender stereotypes.

Through a written overview on women and waste picking, photo essay, reclaimer profiles, videos, and webinar recording in this section, you will learn more about women who decide to work as waste pickers, their accomplishments, the challenges they face, how they are organising, and the leadership roles they play in their organisations.

Additional resources:

Webinar – Celebrating and learning from women reclaimers

WIEGO Gender and Waste Picking Project

Video – Infrastructure for integration – eThekwini

Photo essay – Palmer street recycling facility

Reclaimer profile – Ana Mabe – Organisational support and friendship

Reclaimer profile – Dorah Mabe – Safe conditions

Reclaimer profile – Emily Mrabalalo – Women working for their families

Reclaimer profile – Eva Mokoena – Organising

Reclaimer profile – Francelina Lekeno – A roof over her head

Reclaimer profile – Nthombizodwa Gcabashe – Working with others

Reclaimer profile – Sibongile Muthwa – Professionalizing reclaiming

Separation at Source and Reclaimers

Asking residents and businesses to separate recyclables from their waste through separation at source is an important way to reduce waste to landfills. It can greatly improve reclaimers’ working conditions if they are permitted or contracted to collect these clean recyclables instead of digging through rubbish. But to date, instead of working with reclaimers, municipalities have been paying private companies and cooperatives of non-reclaimers to collect separated recyclables.

The cartoon, diagrams, and written overviews below explain why such contracts have negative implications for reclaimers working on the streets and at landfills, and how contracting reclaimers to collect separated recyclables benefits everyone and the environment.

Additional resources:

Separation at source – Separation at source and landfill reclaimers

Separation at source – Separation at source and integration

Separation at source – Reclaimers and reclaiming – Key waste picker needs

Organising for integration

Instead of waiting for government and industry to implement waste picker integration aligned to the Waste Picker Integration Guideline, reclaimers are creating and implementing their own integration programmes and have started providing separation at source collection services. They are also organising to fight for integration and change the sector and their position in it. Learn more through these case studies, reclaimer profiles, videos, and written overview.

Additional resources:

Reclaimer profile – Eva Mokoena – Organising

Video – Paying reclaimers for a Separation at Source service – Johannesburg

Written Case Study – Separation at source by reclaimers – Johannesburg

Reclaimer profile – Simon Ramohlokane – Sorting in a cooperative

Written case study – Separation at source by a cooperative – Metsimaholo