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South African Waste Pickers on a Zero Waste Tour

South African Scavengers Zero Waste Journey

Scavengers in South Africa are one of those organized communities that have turned the tide of their role in the waste management system.

Since the establishment of their national organization SAWPA (South African Scavengers Association) in 2009 with the support of GroundWork, their authorization as the de facto recycling system in South Africa has reached important political milestones and is still expanding. Their latest initiative: take a zero waste tour in Europe, learn about organic waste treatment, visit Gipuzkoa (Basque Country, Spain) best practices for zero waste, and share the story of collective organizations with informal recyclers in Barcelona.

Organics management, the key pillar of zero waste success

The zero waste journey begins with the Donosti International Organics Management Training Course, which involves the management of the organic part of waste, including collection and treatment. It also includes site visits to Hernani's on-site collection system and composting facility factory. As a student of Enzo Favoino, Chairman of the European Zero Waste Scientific Committee pointed out, the specific collection and treatment of biological waste is a necessary condition for moving towards zero waste.

"By recycling packaging, we only succeeded halfway," Favoino argues. Biological waste is still an important part of the total amount of municipal solid waste, so only collecting and processing dry waste cannot achieve the ambitious zero waste plan. “SAWPA supports a zero-waste approach because it can create jobs, save public money and combat climate change,” said Simon Mbata, SAWPA’s national spokesperson. “Organic waste is a key waste stream in the zero waste approach, but it is not included in the South African Waste Act (2008), so after participating in this training, it is very useful to start developing organic waste strategies in the country,” he added.

The first International Scavengers Conference in Barcelona

Continuing to Catalonia, one of the most compelling activities of the Zero Waste Tour is meeting with local scavengers in Barcelona, ​​most of whom are involved in the California Africa Moving Cooperative. This is the first time an international scavenger delegation has visited Barcelona, ​​so this is an important opportunity to exchange views on working conditions and collective organization strategies to improve their valuable work and demand recognition. Representatives of SAWPA and Cal Africa Moving and researchers from Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA), Research & Degrowth, Zero Waste Europe and GAIA participated in a full day of strategic talks, and ended up in a public event "Informal Recycling: Ecological alternatives "climax and social rights", which opened up the debate in Barcelona about incorporating recyclers into the urban waste management system.

These dialogues emphasized the need to recognize the environmental and social contributions of recyclers to resource recovery and job creation. They collect, sort, clean and in some cases dispose of recyclables, returning them to industry as cheap and low-carbon raw materials. In essence, if they are properly recognized and supported, their work represents a huge opportunity to save resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing recycling rates.

To be precise, one of the obstacles to the expansion of recyclers’ activities discussed at the conference is the role of middle positions (commonly known as "middlers") in the resource trade channel, which corresponds to the fact that some companies in Barcelona maintain an advantage in the street scavengers and scrap market. status. In addition, for many recyclers in Barcelona, ​​due to their immigration status and lack of resident or work permits, they face the risk of detention and deportation, which is even more serious.

“In South Africa, we have hosted many brothers and sisters from neighboring countries, and we welcome everyone in our organization, which in turn has connections with many other scavenger cooperatives around the world,” Simon Mbata said. "Our Global Scavenger Alliance is a key space to strengthen international coordination and solidarity among scavengers," he added.

The public event celebrated in Can Batlló is an opportunity to bring these conversations to the open space, giving us the opportunity to make many interesting suggestions, such as conducting a census of recyclers in Barcelona and providing ID cards to formalize them. Fundació Catalana per a la Prevenció de Residus i Consum pointed out the challenges posed by e-waste recycling and the need to establish quality standards to improve the recyclability of products. Other participants lamented that, given the city’s low recycling rate and consumer misinformation that hinders recycling at the source and other good practices, the government implemented an extremely expensive waste management system. In the end, it seems that many people support the inclusion of informal recycling in the formal system, and use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate and transform Barcelona's waste disposal methods.

The audio of the public event is available here:

Last but not least, SAWPA met with a working group led by the Barcelona City Council, which is coordinating the launch of a recycling cooperative in the city. In addition to understanding the details of the project, this is a useful opportunity to exchange experience and local knowledge. Based on their experience in this field, SAWPA warned that if the new cooperative does not involve all scavenger communities, there may be differences among scavenger communities, and recommends that scavengers be directly included in all development stages of the project. At this point, SAWPA and Zero Waste Europe agree that the establishment of a working group with all relevant stakeholders is essential to accompany this process.

All in all, this has been a very productive week, taking another step towards the transformation of our society through a more inclusive, sustainable, non-toxic and resource-efficient waste management system.

Their work represents a huge opportunity to save resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing recycling rates

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