TLR Policy Briefing

Supporting sustainable waste management

Policy briefing

Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish?

In the context of high unemployment and growing volumes of waste volumes, more and more people and institutions are looking to waste management as a way to create jobs and improve the environment. This is quite a shift from how waste is typically thought about – dirty, unsafe, and out of sight/out of mind.

Political actors in South Africa are encouraging the transformation of waste management into a sector that can provide employment, employment opportunities, and income. But although many types of waste are valuable, turning waste management into a profitable industry is difficult. Most waste doesn’t actually have economic value, and profit margins from recycling are tight. Additionally they are subject to changing global prices and fluctuations.

Our research has shown us that the current waste industry in South Africa is reliant on what we call subsidies. These ‘subsidies’ come in many forms:  local governments and residents pay for waste management services, residents contribute voluntary work, and government and industries fund recycling initiatives.

The primary subsidy, however, is provided by informal waste pickers or reclaimers who make essential contributions to the waste industry. They tend to work at rates far below a dignified wage. While many who work in the waste sector are grateful for the opportunities it provides, the incomes are small and conditions often brutal. Without this subsidy, the industry is unlikely to be viable: without the current labour of collectors and reclaimers, the form of the recycling industry would be radically different.

In this context, framing waste as a profitable industry rather than as a municipal service can actually cause problems: it makes people believe and act as if it is reasonable to expect the waste industry to provide sustainable profits and decent livelihoods. It reduces the political will for subsidizing reasonable reprocessing of waste (particularly the cost of labour). It can sideline important conversations about who should be doing the subsidizing, and whom, if anyone, ought to garner the benefits from waste management.

The waste sector is not a panacea for unemployment. In the context of a structural unemployment crisis, no individual sector can bear the burden of job creation. We encourage more creative solutions to economic inequality; make-work and undignified work ought to be off the table.

Waste needs to remain understood and talked about by public and private actors as a problem for people and the environment. We must continue trying to reduce it, first by reducing initial volumes and recycling what remains. Policies and projects that emphasize the economic value and profitability of waste can be both misleading and, on the whole, counterproductive.

Ultimately, the state must remain responsible for waste management, as both an enabler of waste industries and most importantly as a regulator of what is and is not acceptable waste practice. The state, in consultation with residents and waste workers across the sector, must determine what and who needs subsidizing, and at what levels. This subsidy ought to be based on a principle of producer responsibility.


Waste is first and foremost an environmental problem. This focus needs to be retained, and interventions must be designed to motivate waste minimization rather than grow a waste industry. Asking too much from the waste sector is reduces its viability.

Waste management, including the management of recyclables, is first and foremost a municipal service. All spheres of government should limit or eliminate outsourced contracts, in favour of secure waste workers at or above minimum wage.

Waste subsidies are needed to enable dignified working conditions and wages. Ensure that subsidies are available and fairly allocated. Collaboration with existing waste reclaimers is critical: support and listen to what is wanted by existing waste workers before developing programmes. Critically, financial subsides ought to come first and foremost from producers, not from government. There are many different models of producer responsibility that differently require state intervention and oversight: the key here is that government is responsible for governance and oversight, while producers are financially responsible and thus motivated to reduce their waste.

Waste reduction should be encouraged by the development and subsidization of end markets and financial incentives to design for recycling. Designing for recycling improves existing supply chains, which creates jobs and increases profits. Designs must be motivated by waste reduction and efficient, sustainable processing; the best long-term global strategy for people and our material well-being is to create low-waste, reusable products. Producers are critical here, especially as they largely drive design changes.

Waste education and awareness campaigns should help communities understand government responsibilities and the environmental/social impacts of waste, not try to make communities responsible for their waste. Community facilitators should be employed as long-term state employees who develop local relationships, ensure reliable services, and provide a point for complaints.

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