The United Nations Environmental Programme [1
] refers to waste pickers as the ‘invisible environmentalists’ of the world. Waste pickers depend on collecting recyclable and other materials from the streets and landfills for their livelihoods [2
]. Although operating informally, waste pickers are responsible for the recycling of as much as 50% of the plastic waste in the world [1
]. In Brazil, waste pickers collect 92% of the country’s aluminium for recycling and 80% of the cardboard boxes [3
], affording municipalities significant cost savings in the maintenance of landfill airspace. Their actions also help to protect natural resources and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Despite engaging in dirty and hazardous work, waste pickers contribute to a country’s economy and can help to promote the health and well-being of society. In fact, they contribute to most, if not all, of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [4
]. Yet waste pickers still operate on the fringes of the formal waste system, risking their own health in their efforts to be self-reliant and to make a decent living for themselves.
In the South African context, street and landfill waste pickers divert 90% of the 10% of waste that is recycled away from the country’s landfills [5
]. Waste pickers also divert non-recyclable but re-usable goods, such as bricks, wood, furniture, household goods and food [6
] away from the landfills. Despite the contribution from the waste pickers, 90% of waste is still dumped on the 876 landfills that are spread across South Africa [9
]. This theoretically presents opportunities for more people to earn an income recovering recyclables. The South African government and the formal waste sector have to an increasing extent been recognising the important role that waste pickers play in diverting waste from the landfills [5
]. In fact, diverting waste from the landfills has become one of the major priorities of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Research, Development and Innovation Road Map [10
], an initiative in which waste pickers have the potential to play an even bigger role.
Currently attention is being given to ways and means of integrating waste pickers into the formal waste management system in South Africa. The success of the envisaged integration process is dependent on increasing the value placed on waste pickers’ work, facilitating greater access to waste, acknowledging that waste pickers’ voices are just as important as those of other role players in the waste management system, improving waste pickers’ earning potential and income, and improving their health through improved working conditions [11
It is estimated that there are between 60,000 and 90,000 waste pickers on the landfills and streets of South Africa, but with rising unemployment and urbanisation, there may actually be as many as 215,000 [5
]. Uncontrolled urbanisation in developing countries leads to an increase in urban poverty and inequality and more people resorting to informal economic activities [13
]. Amegah and Jaakkola (2016) regard sub-Saharan Africa as the fastest urbanising region in the world, with the fastest growing poverty trend [13
A critical but neglected area of research both globally [13
] and locally in South Africa [8
] is the health risks that waste pickers are exposed to. If waste pickers were formally employed at municipalities and waste companies, they would be protected by occupational, health and safety regulations. Being informal workers, they have no such protection [18
According to Cointreau (2006), the handling of waste has risk implications for many stakeholders—from the household that disposes of the waste to waste pickers and formal waste workers who collect, sort and recycle or dispose of the materials on the landfills [16
]. For most formal waste workers, precautionary measures are taken by their employers, such as providing protective clothing, training and washing facilities. The informal waste workers who are directly exposed to the waste have the least protection against health risk issues. While formal waste workers’ contact with the waste comes from picking up bags and bins, the waste pickers extract recyclable material directly from mixed dry and wet waste bags and open landfill dumps. In more developed countries, formal waste workers are only indirectly involved with the waste, working in mechanised sorting facilities and wearing protective clothing. Informal waste pickers in developing countries do not enjoy formal occupational, health and safety protection.
Clearly, despite the contribution of waste pickers to recycling efforts and waste diversion from landfills, the nature of their work presents many social, economic and health risks [1
]. Only two studies in South Africa have focused on the health of waste pickers on landfill sites. One study was conducted in Durban [23
] and the other in Tshwane [24
]. This article extends the scope and depth of the existing literature by highlighting the health risks to which waste pickers are exposed on nine different landfill sites in South Africa.
Internationally, some attention has been given to the health risks of waste workers, including waste pickers [1
]. These studies found that waste pickers are concerned about their health, mainly because if their health is compromised it could prevent them from working and earning an income to support themselves and their families.
However, the health risks faced by waste pickers should be viewed within the broader context of their living and working environments. Cointreau (2006) and Gutberlet and Baeder (2008) allude to the fact that some of the waste pickers’ health issues are not only due to their working with waste without the necessary protection [16
]. They are also a by-product of their poor living conditions, evidenced in insufficient water, a lack of sanitation facilities, polluted air and food insecurity if they live in informal housing settlements close to the landfill [21
]. Living on or next to the landfill or in informal, under-resourced housing units or shelters intensifies the exposure to health risks.
The International Labour Organization [27
] regards health and safety in the workplace as the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations. The World Health Organization (WHO) [28
] views workers’ health as being vulnerable to factors that could lead to cancers, accidents, musculoskeletal diseases, respiratory diseases, hearing loss, circulatory diseases, stress-related disorders, communicable diseases, and others. The WHO (2019) also states that working conditions, both in the formal and informal economy, bring other important factors into play, including working hours, salary, workplace policies concerning maternity leave, and provisions relating to the promotion and protection of workers’ health [28
In addition, health and environmental rights require that a person’s health should not suffer because of the environment in which they live, work, play and learn. Provisions for the health and safety of workers are seen to make a major contribution to the well-being of an employee. In practice, a focus on health and safety involves the assessment of risks to which people are exposed and the modification of systems to mitigate or eliminate the risks [15
Exploring some of the health risks and vulnerabilities experienced by waste pickers on nine landfills sites in South Africa—which this article sets out to do—is a valuable step in the process of building knowledge. Such insights cannot be disregarded in discussions on the support needed for successful waste picker integration. This article will also show that most of the determinants mentioned by the WHO are relevant to waste pickers on the landfills covered in the underlying study.
To view the health risks of landfill waste pickers in a broader context, the article introduces and is guided by a socio-ecological framework.
Theoretical Framework for the Study
The socio-ecological framework used in the article (illustrated in Figure 1
) considers the complex interplay between individuals and their interpersonal relationships, the community, institutions and policies.
This framework is based on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems framework [29
] which proposes that no person can be seen in isolation. Waste pickers and the health issues/risks they face should be viewed in the context of where they live and work [15
]. To understand the depth and complexity of these health risks, one needs to understand the context in which waste pickers work and live as well as the role that institutions and policies play. Table 1
, which has been adapted from The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2014), describes the levels in the framework [30
In this article, the first three levels will be used to describe the results of the study and to offer insight into the health risks faced by waste pickers. Levels 4 and 5 will be used to frame the policy and practical recommendations and further research that need to be conducted.
As stated in the introduction, only two previous studies were conducted on the health status of the waste pickers in South Africa. These studies were micro-studies linked to a landfill in Durban and a landfill in Tshwane. To understand the health risks of the landfill waste pickers (LWPs) on the nine sampled landfill sites, a concurrent mixed-methods approach, with both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, was used for this exploratory research. A definition of mixed-methods research is provided by Creswell (2007:269) as: ‘… a procedure for collecting, analysing and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data at some stage of the research process within a single study to understand a research problem more completely’ [31
In order to understand the health risks of the LWPs from a socio-ecological framework, qualitative interviews were firstly conducted with the landfill managers and officials on arrival in the town or at the landfill. The aim of the interviews was to understand the daily routine at the landfill and of the waste pickers, how the landfill is managed with the presence of the waste pickers, as well as the challenges and benefits of having the waste pickers on the landfill. Observations were made, relevant documents requested (such as rules for the LWPs) and permission was obtained to take photos of the landfill, its operations and facilities.
Interviewing the waste pickers, the researchers collected both numerical and text-based information concurrently. The questionnaires, consisting of quantitative and qualitative questions were developed, piloted and used in different studies in South Africa, such as the study of Schenck and Blaauw (2011 a and b) [32
] and Schenck et al. (2012) [34
]. An adapted version was also used in the study by Viljoen (2014) on the street waste pickers in South Africa [8
]. The findings were integrated into the analytical phase of the study [31
Nine landfills in four of the nine provinces in South Africa were included in the sample.
Three of the landfills were in cities/towns where extensive information was available from other studies on the health status of the population.
Three landfills were selected on the basis that information from an earlier (2012) landfill waste pickers study [34
] was available and comparisons could be made.
Another two landfills were added following consultation with the Western Cape Government Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA)—Waste Management sector.
Another rural landfill (BR), managed by the same municipality, was added to the research project after the completion of the fieldwork in the urban landfill (PR).
Before the fieldwork commenced, team members visited the sites to:
assess the accessibility and security of the sites for researchers and fieldworkers;
assess the suitability of the sites for satisfying the research aim;
identify the necessary processes involved in obtaining permission from the municipalities/local authorities to conduct the study on the landfills;
negotiate and obtain permission to enter the landfills;
identify the language(s) spoken by the waste pickers on the landfills in order to recruit suitable fieldworkers who could speak the languages of the participants.
The reconnaissance phase also assisted in determining the sampling process to be followed with the waste pickers. The reconnaissance visits to the landfill sites revealed that a pre-planned sampling of the waste pickers was not viable due to the daily fluidity of the research population. The research team determined that the sample should be selected from those available and willing to participate, which represents an availability and convenience sampling technique and ensures that the sample is as representative as possible. Ethical clearance was obtained from the University of the Western Cape’s Senate Research Committee before the research commenced.
The researchers ensured that fieldworkers were recruited who were fluent in Afrikaans, English and each area’s own local language. IsiXhosa, Tswana, SeSotho and Ndebele were the dominant languages spoken on the visited landfills. Fieldworkers were trained in the data collection process before the visits to the landfills.
The fieldworkers were trained to administer the consent form and questionnaires in the language the participants understood best because some of the waste pickers had had limited schooling or no schooling at all. On all landfills, at least two researchers were present for the duration of the data collection process and could assist fieldworkers if problems arose. The data was collected during 2015 and 2016, with aspects such as seasonality being taken into account. For example, areas with very cold climates in winter were visited in spring or autumn to ensure the best possible coverage of the research population.
On arrival at a landfill, the researchers, in consultation with the landfill manager or operator, identified the best spot for the data to be collected. This spot was different for each landfill site. On some landfills the managers assembled all the waste pickers willing to be interviewed in front of the office at the entrance to the landfill, while on most of the landfills, the researchers proceeded to the designated area where the waste-picking activities took place. This was because the waste pickers did not want to leave their collected waste out of sight for fear of it being stolen and also so that they could be at the site when the trucks arrived to dump new waste. It was arranged with the waste pickers that, as soon as a truck entered the landfill, they could go and collect the recyclables and then return to complete their interview.
indicates the number of interviews conducted on each landfill.
On all the landfills, the sample sizes were higher than 60%, except in PR where only 49% of the waste pickers present on the data collection day were interviewed. As can be seen in Table 2
, landfill PR had the highest number of waste pickers present and was far larger than the other landfills visited.
The quantitative data was captured in Excel and analysed using SPSS version 22 (IBM, Foster City, CA, USA). The qualitative data collected was analysed thematically. Observations and reflections from the fieldworkers provided contextual data, adding to the depth and richness of the study.
Taylor and Triegaardt (2018) are of the opinion that a core feature of transformative social welfare policy is to move away from the perception that people are exploited and blamed; rather, focus on their circumstances (looking through both a macro and micro lens) and address the factors that cause the deprivation by implementing programmes and other interventions that can improve their quality of life [45
]. These policies and programmes should be embedded in human rights and social justice. Reflecting on the health risks of the waste pickers, urgent measures should be taken to improve their quality of life and address the prevalent social injustices.
The health risks and general well-being of waste pickers on the landfills directly relate to Levels 4 and 5 of the socio-ecological framework and encompass the institutions and multilevel government (national, provincial and local) policies that have the power to favourably impact and improve the health and socio-economic circumstances of the waste-picking community.
Level 4 deals with the institutions that influence the day-to-day functioning of the LWPs. This study has shown that, with a few exceptions, very little effort has been made by any level of government—and particularly local government—to take an interest in and provide for the health and safety of the waste pickers in the form of protective clothing, shade, medical testing and other basic facilities that would ensure a reasonable level of comfort and dignity.
At the international level, with the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [46
], world leaders have pledged to transform the working environment and leave no-one behind. At the national level, South Africa’s Constitution promises clean and safe environments for all people. In South Africa, the National Environmental Management: Waste (NEM:WA) Act 59 of 2008 [47
] specifies the environmental and health standards that each landfill operator or permit holder must adhere to for the proper management of waste and, specifically for the purpose of this article, the protection of those working and residing on landfills. The environmental right, as stated in section 24 of the Constitution, is: ‘… everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being…’ The South African Human Rights Commission embellishes this as follows: ‘The Constitution further places an obligation in terms of section 152 (1) (b) and (d) on the part of local government as stipulated in sections 4(2) (d) and 4(2) (i), 73(1) and (2) of the Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000 to ensure that the right to a clean and healthy environment is fulfilled.’ If policies are to be transformational, reforms should be implemented that fundamentally change social institutions and relations to bring about greater inclusivity and a more equitable distribution of economic power and resources.
Given the valuable role played by informal waste pickers in the recycling industry and the broader waste economy [7
], the time has come to take steps to at least reduce the health risks that they face and to enhance their dignity and well-being, starting with providing them with access to basic amenities. Gutberlet and Uddin (2017), Cointreau (2006) and UNEP (2013) recommend that a comprehensive health plan be developed for informal waste pickers, which would include mapping and addressing the possible risks that they face on the streets and landfills [1
]. Such a plan should incorporate a proactive and inclusive approach to waste pickers’ health and safety, including the provision of vaccinations, protective clothing and access to medical care, and basic facilities such as water and sanitation and pest control on the landfills.
UNEP (2013) makes further recommendations, such as controlled access onto landfills to prevent fights and gangsterism, and a code of conduct drawn up together with the waste pickers [1
]. To ensure easier and safer access to waste, UNEP (2013) recommends the introduction of a waste-sorting facility and toolkit [1
]. Staff and site officers from the company or government entity that manages the landfill should have a presence on the landfill at all times. Gutberlet and Uddin (2017) add to these suggestions, saying that efforts should be made to induce behavioural change in the community towards safe recycling, sorting and separation and, above all, sound waste management [15
Integrating the self-employed waste pickers into the formal waste management system should be comprehensive in order to limit health risks. Waste pickers will never have a risk-free environment, but the right policies and supportive institutions can help to mitigate these risks and create a more sustainable and dignified working environment.
A final recommendation for the next step of the research process is to use the results of this research to determine quantitatively the depth and extent of the health risks of the waste pickers to be able to map and plan future health plans and practices as part of the integration process.