Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish? Film and Film Description

Waste is one of the central environmental question of the contemporary moment. Whether understood to refer to unregulated waste dumps throughout the globe, the excessive depositing of plastic into the oceans, or the role of the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gas emissions, the contemporary waste crisis is planetary. Climate change is in many ways a crisis of waste, as the planetary atmosphere that has long served as a sink for the waste products of contemporary capitalism is no longer able to absorb the byproducts of industrial processes and collective consumption habits.
As one way of responding to this crisis, waste is increasingly being framed as a resource, especially for cities and citizens of the global south. Due to being a material that is readily available, international development practitioners and state officials often encourage small-scale waste collection operations as a way to further entrepreneurship and create community initiative. At the same time, state officials increasingly see waste as a resource that can generate employment and reduce the cost of waste management through the collecting and reselling of recyclables. These initiatives are designed to generate income while alleviating the environmental burdens of waste. These projects are often designed with little attention to the actual ways that waste is managed, however, and to the many people who work in the waste sector already. 

This film, one of the primary outputs of the broader Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish? project, introduces a creative look at the politics of waste in Cape Town, South Africa. This film is designed to highlight the unequal, power-laden relations through which waste circulates, and to offer insight into an industry that is often out of sight. Drawing from interviews with a number of different role players within the waste economy, the film highlights different perspectives on waste in order to call attention to some of the central tensions of the industry. The film situates waste management within a city defined by intense inequality and unevenness, highlighting the perspectives of reclaimers who perform much of the necessary collection of recyclables. Current efforts to formalize waste management and recycling initiatives have implications for informal waste pickers or reclaimers, who do much of the primary work with waste in the global south. Our film subsequently highlights the often fraught relationships between waste reclaimers and the formal waste management sector.
The title of the film – Turning Livelihoods to Waste? – is designed to raise a serious of questions about ongoing processes of formalization in the waste sector and the implications for those who currently work in the waste sector. Many who work with waste in South Africa work as waste pickers or reclaimers, and they are often subjected to extremely difficult work conditions. Ongoing attempts to formalize these systems threaten their livelihoods, creating new uncertainties and vulnerabilities. At the same time, there are serious questions about whether reclaimers should be expected to work in dangerous conditions, and what sorts of alternate arrangements may be more just and more ecologically sustainable. 
There is no easy answer to the problem of waste. As such, we show multiple perspectives that are not necessarily complementary. Our intention is not to tell a proscribed story, but rather to allow for different viewpoints to be articulated. Our hope is that viewers will be able to develop their own takeaways from the film, and that the film could be used as a springboard for in-class discussions with students around themes such as dignified work, inequality, and waste management. The film provides a visual look at the environments in which waste is found and handled in the city. Combined with sound-bites and insights from the role players, we explore the way different people in the city handle waste, for what purpose and for what outcomes.