Inclusive Integration: Empowering Informal Waste Pickers through Clear Policies and Laws

by Liteboho Makhele
30 June 2023

Visible Invisibility


The paradox of being both visible and invisible is the lived experience of informal waste pickers in the bustling streets of our cities. We see them everywhere, yet they are some of the most marginalised, villainised, criminalised, and invisible members of our society. Even though they provide a much-needed service that diverts recyclable waste from landfill sites, their contributions are often underrated, undervalued and unrecognised. They are, however, consciously or not, all collectively struggling for visibility in places where they are unwelcome, stigmatised, discriminated against, ignored and seen as traffic hazards and nuisances.


In her paper on Social Invisibility: A Definition and An Overview, Mathilde Arrivé (2020) “characterises individuals who are excluded from authorised visualities and majority visual discourses, and thus denied access to the social gaze… as invisible women and men… people “without” – without a face, without a voice – deprived of “the right to look” while paradoxically being the object of constant surveillance.” She adds that social invisibility is a social construct and an evolving process that can be exposed and “reversed, disrupted, subverted, and rerouted through various strategies”. Indeed, the tide is turning for “urban surfers” – informal waste pickers with their makeshift trolleys – and various strategies are being used and some explored, on how best to value and recognise their contribution to the waste management value chain, and more importantly, what is required to empower them to reclaim subjectivity, identity, participation and visibility in a sector in which they are significant players.


Waste pickers’ essential contributions towards the achievement of the SDGs


Taking the circular economy thinking into account, where waste reuse and repurposing is fundamental to not only meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but very importantly, as central to addressing environmental impact, it is clear that waste pickers play a fundamental role in helping cities progress towards the achievement of the SDGs, tackling not one, but at least 6 of the 17 goals in total.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Waste recyclers contribute to at least 6 out of the 17 SDGs.

For SDG 6, which focuses on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, waste pickers contribute to diverting waste from stormwater drainage channels, rivers and water catchments, which in turn contributes to reducing flooding, improving the quality of water and the health of water catchment areas. For SDG 7, which focuses on ensuring access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy for all, separating recyclable waste from waste streams, waste pickers ensure that non-recyclable and combustible waste can go to waste-to-energy plants to address some of the challenges experienced in the country’s energy sector. In relation to SDG 8, integrating informal waste pickers in the waste management value chain can greatly contribute to the creation of full and productive employment and decent work for all, as well as contribute to economic growth and diversification of green economy sectors.  In addition, the contribution of waste pickers and their recycling efforts to the making of inclusive, safe and sustainable cities and human settlements envisaged in SDG 11, cannot be over-emphasised.

Considering the indicators of SDG 12, waste pickers contribute to the minimisation of waste generation and highlight the benefits of recycling, and this can be used as an education and awareness initiative to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns among consumers and producers alike. Finally, looking at SDG 13, waste pickers embody climate action in practice – both for mitigation and adaptation to climate change – considering that waste is the fourth largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter globally (Hughes and Rescalvo, 2021) and without improvements in the sector, solid waste-related emissions are anticipated to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2050 (Kaza, et al, 2018), which, if not managed properly, may lead to pollution of ground and surface water, soil, and air (Mokoena, 2019) as each step of waste management generates GHGs (Hughes and Rescalvo, 2021), making solid waste management a critical – yet, often overlooked – piece for planning sustainable, healthy, and inclusive cities and communities for all.


Importance of Integration


A study conducted by Godfrey (2021), indicates that informal waste pickers diverted around 51% of all paper and packaging waste collected in South Africa in 2017, while a Policy Briefing Note dated February 2016 (Godfrey et al), indicates that “informal pickers are estimated to have saved municipalities between R309.2 – R748.8 million in landfill airspace (in 2014), at little to no cost, by diverting recyclables away from landfill, at ± 16-24 tonnes/picker/annum”.


This is critical as several metropolitan municipalities are quickly running out of landfill space, with some of them left with 5 to 10 years’ worth of air space available for waste disposal, this is according to 2018 reports (Eberhard, R, 2018) while the remaining capacity of landfills in other cities is declining and the processes to secure new regional sites are complex, contested and long (ibid).


To harness the full potential of informal waste pickers, it is crucial to establish clear policies and laws that facilitate their integration into the formal waste management value chain. The National, Provincial and Local government spheres have made significant strides in recognising the contribution being made by informal waste pickers and have put in place policies, strategies, and guidelines for municipalities and industry stakeholders on measures to remunerate waste-pickers for the services they provide. They have established programmes aimed at improving the working conditions and livelihoods of informal waste pickers, by providing decent employment and better integrating them into the country’s waste economy. These initiatives are, however, still in their infancy. The National Waste Management Strategy (NWMS) 2011 stated that the National Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) should provide guidance to municipalities and industry on measures to improve the working conditions of waste-pickers. The Waste Picker Integration Guidelines were developed and issued in 2020, while the following year, in May 2021, the Department issued amendments to the regulations and notices related to the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).


While these initiatives have gone some way in recognising the contribution of informal waste pickers, they fall short in promulgating binding laws that would ensure that waste picking is a recognised job category and profession under the employment protection laws of the country, thereby granting waste pickers legal status. The initiatives also fall short of instituting occupational health and safety regulations and providing access to social protection schemes for waste pickers. Lessons can be drawn from other Global South countries like India and Brazil.


Building the Case: Brazil Case Study


Experience from Brazil demonstrates that successful integration requires the alignment of existing acts and policies with the goal of waste picker integration (Dias, 2011).


Over the past 15 years, the legal framework for social inclusion in solid waste management (SWM) in Brazil has shifted to a more comprehensive and inclusive approach that involves policy, legislation, and social initiatives that focus on redistributive measures, legal support, and social recognition of informal waste picker organisations. Brazil is now considered one of the most progressive countries in terms of inclusive policies for waste pickers (Dias, 2011) as the country recognised the importance of these waste pickers and sought to formalise their activities while improving their working conditions and enhancing social inclusion.

At the municipal level, the Brazilian Constitution assigns responsibility for solid waste management to municipalities, while the federal government establishes territorial and environmental guidelines (Brazilian NR, 2010). The first recognition of the role of waste pickers occurred at the municipal level in the early 1990s through partnerships between waste picker cooperatives (Dias and Silva, 2017). Some of the key examples of municipal and federal legislation, as well as steps taken by Brazil to integrate informal waste pickers are as follows (Dias, 2014):


Belo Horizonte: In 1990, the municipality included an article in its Organic Law stating a preference for the collection and sale of recyclables to be done through cooperatives. Later, in 2000, the Department of Social Mobilisation was created to provide technical advice to waste picker organisations.


Porto Alegre: In 1990, the Urban Cleansing Code established that formally organised waste picker groups registered with the Urban Cleansing Department would be the preferred destination for recyclables collected through the municipal recycling scheme.


Diadema: In 2000, Law 1921/00 named waste picker organisations as potential partners in municipal recycling programs and allowed them to receive revenue generated. Law 1928/00 authorised the municipal executive power to enter agreements with waste picker cooperatives, and in 2004, Law 2.336/04 granted the municipality the ability to contract with waste picker cooperatives and provide remuneration for services rendered.


Similar recognition of waste pickers occurred at the state level:


Minas Gerais: In 2001, COPAM (Environmental Policy Council) issued resolutions to upgrade waste management practices, provide alternatives for waste pickers, and later, in 2008, the Minas Gerais State Solid Waste Policy was approved.


Federal District of Brasília: In 2004, Law 3517/04 recognised organised waste pickers as beneficiaries of materials generated in state buildings.


At the federal level, the Brazilian Occupation Classification recognised waste picking as a profession in 2001. In 2007, Law 11.445/07 established national guidelines for basic sanitation, allowing municipalities to hire waste picker associations and cooperatives directly for selective waste collection. Presidential Decree 5940/06 mandated the implementation of selective waste collection in federal public buildings, benefiting waste picker organisations.


In 2010, the National Policy of Solid Waste was approved, making the inclusion of waste pickers in the reverse logistics system mandatory. However, the clause restricting the use of incineration as a “last resort” treatment technology was omitted.


(Excerpted from Overview of the Legal Framework for Social Inclusion in Solid Waste Management in Brazil, Dias, S. 2014. WIEGO.)





The integration of informal waste pickers in Brazil serves as a successful model for South Africa and other countries and municipalities looking to address waste management challenges while fostering social and environmental sustainability. It is important to note that the legal framework has been shaped by a combination of strategic activism and advocacy by waste pickers, along with those groupings taking advantage of political opportunities to pass progressive legislation (Rosaldo, 2018). The successful social mobilisation of waste pickers has played a crucial role in advancing inclusive policies at the local, regional, and national levels. By recognising the valuable contributions of waste pickers and implementing clear policies and laws, Brazil has demonstrated the potential for creating inclusive and efficient waste management systems.



Key Considerations for Clear Policies and Laws


While these key lessons from Brazil provide a good benchmark, contextual considerations for South Africa are necessary and should include:

  1. The challenge of registering undocumented non-South Africans who would not qualify for any government assistance and integration programmes.
  2. The limited success of cooperatives in the country. As Fourie and Malan (2021) point out, the survival rate of co-operatives in South Africa is extremely low, mostly as a result of lack of access to resources, poor or lacking business management skills, and the inability to manage the co-operative specific relationship between members. Therefore, the approach followed by Brazil, in municipalities contracting and working with cooperatives might not be successful in South Africa.
  3. The preferred independence of some waste pickers who do not want to become members of organised waste picker associations and/or cooperatives.
  4. The ease or difficulty of developing legislation that recognises and protects the rights of waste pickers as legitimate stakeholders in the waste management value chain. This includes binding laws, granting them legal status, occupational health and safety regulations, and access to social protection schemes.





All these considerations are crucial steps towards integrating informal waste pickers into the waste management value chain and creating sustainable and inclusive waste management systems in our cities. Clear policies and laws are needed to provide legal recognition, improve working conditions, enhance skills, and promote collaboration among stakeholders. By harnessing the potential of waste pickers and integrating them into formal waste management processes, municipalities can achieve environmental, social, and economic benefits while building a more equitable and sustainable future for all. It is essential for national, provincial and local governments, waste management utilities (where they exist), and communities to work together to ensure the successful implementation of existing policies, strategies and guidelines, and advocate for laws to be legislated for the betterment of the economy, society and the environment, and perhaps by doing so, waste pickers will be spared the duality of being both visible and invisible.

Liteboho Makhele is the Programme Manager: Sustainable and Resilient Cities at the South African Cities Network. To contact her email