Slim pickings: What Joburg’s bin pickers earn and how long they’ve worked

Known variously as bin pickers, trolley pushers or dumpsite reclaimers, South Africa’s informal waste collectors play a surprisingly outsized role in the economy.  

Back in 2011 the Department of Environmental Affairs conservatively estimated that there could be as many as 62,000 waste pickers in the country, with about 40% of them working as trolley pushers. This is more than double the number of people employed in the formal waste management industry. The South African Waste Pickers Association claims to have 90,000 members across all nine provinces.  

Typically, these informal reclaimers collect from suburban streets on rubbish day, and also from landfills and dumpsites, malls and industrial areas. They sort through rubbish to separate paper, plastic and metal from the actual trash, and sell these recyclables for income.  

2022 research report interviewed 226 bin pickers in Johannesburg about the nature of their work. Of these, more than 70% earn less than R600 a week. 

Respondents mentioned a range of challenges, including homeowners abusing them, taxi drivers intimidating them on the roads and the direct competition from waste collection contractors like Pikitup in Johannesburg. In one Johannesburg survey 8,000 reclaimers collected more recyclable material in 22 days than Pikitup’s recycling programme collected in two years.  

The sector is dominated by men, possibly because hauling fully laden trolleys over long distances is very physically demanding. Only 16% of reclaimers are women, and they work closer to dumpsites. A quarter of those surveyed had been collecting for about 10 years.  

As the South African waste stream grows ever larger the capacity of landfill ‘dumpsites’ has reached critical levels. In 2017 South Africa produced more than 57-million tonnes of waste (actually 108-million tonnes if you include more than 50-million tonnes of ash from coal-fired power stations). Of this nearly 70% ended up in landfills. Metropoles dumping fees vary widely; useable land near urban centres comes at a premium, but if the dumping fee is perceived to be too high then refuse will be dumped illegally on open land, creating serious health and environmental issues.  

Across several recycling programmes aimed at consumers, participation has been very low (<20% of households). By one estimation informal waste collectors diverted 82% of waste packaging material, about 1.47-million tonnes, from landfills in one year. This has saved municipalities roughly R608-million (more if the cost of environmental impact is added), and all at no cost to the taxpayer.