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Working and living in Johannesburg: Insights into informal recycling

Dr Tanya Zack and Sarah Charlton, Johannesburg, 2011

“The world’s 15 million informal recyclers clean up cities, prevent some trash from ending in landfills, and even reduce climate change by saving energy on waste disposal techniques like incineration” (Chaturvedi 2009).

Informal recyclers1 comb the dustbins and sidewalks of residential and commercial neighbourhoods in Johannesburg for selected solid waste items with resale value which they load onto makeshift trolleys. On foot and with sheer muscle power they pull their loaded carts for many kilometers through the streets to privately owned buy-back centres where the waste material is weighed and sold.

Recyclers operate independently of labour regulations and protection, without employee benefits, using improvised transport, and frequently - inadvertently - contravening by-laws and city rules in their living and working activities. But they are intimately entwined with the formal, recognized systems of urban life: essential suppliers to registered recycling businesses, intense users of city roads, sidewalks and public spaces, specialised reclaimers competing daily with the crude appetite of the City’s Pikitup trucks.

The lives of recyclers reflect a wide variety of circumstances. Many recyclers sleep in conditions that are outside of formal residential accommodation.

Table 1: Informal recyclers’ nightly accommodation. Non-formal accommodation column 3, ‘rough sleeping’ column 4. (research conducted in 2009 by students in the course ARPL 3013 at the University of the Witwatersrand, School of Architecture and Planning)

Interviewee Nightly accommodation Non-formal accomm. Rough sleeping
1 Shack in Orange Farm X  
2 ‘In the bush’ close to where he is likely to get waste X X
3 In the open veld (grass) behind Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet X X
4 In a warehouse in Faraday X  
5 In a parking lot in Braamfontein X X
6 In a shack in an informal settlement in Booysens X  
7 In an park located behind a large dumpster X X
8 Under the freeway bridge in Newtown X X
9 Orlando East (type of accommodation not clear)    
10 On the pavement next to the depot in Bryanston X X
11 On the pavement next to the depot in Bryanston X X
12 Room in a flat in Doornfontein    
13 In the basement of a building in Hillbrow X  
14 At the taxi rank in town X X
15 In a park in Plein Street X X
16 At the recycling depot X X
17 Unoccupied house in Brixton    
18 Flat in Johannesburg CBD    
19 In a homeless shelter on Kerk Street in town    
20 Under the bridge in Newtown X X
21 Under the bridge in Newtown X X

1 An activity known by other names elsewhere such as ‘binning’ (Gutbertlet et al 2009) or ‘reclaiming’. In Brazil recyclers are known as ragpickers or catadores de lixo( da Silva et al 2005).

Many of the recyclers who sleep rough in the inner city go to homes elsewhere in Gauteng, at weekends or several times a month.

Table 2 below lists nightly as well as other accommodation used weekly or monthly, or visited less frequently (adapted from Bickford, Shapurjee, Ramokgopa, Raymond 2009).

Interviewee Nightly Weekly or monthly Longer term
1 Shack in an informal settlement in Orange Farm   Bloemfontein (whenever has money)
2 ‘in the bush’ close to where he is likely to get waste   KZN(last went in 2007 due to lack of money)
3 Open veld behind KFC in Glenanda


Mpumalanga (doesn’t go back by choice)
4 Vacant warehouse in Faraday with other people RDP house in Protea Gardens, Soweto (‘once in a while’) Nqutu, KZN
5 Parking lot in Braamfontein with girlfriend and friends. Occasionally food and shower at the Recreation building in Hospital Street, Braamfontein Shoshanguve(every week)  
6 Shack in informal settlement in Booysens (with 3 children) Government subsidised house in Tsakane, Springs (every month)  
7 ‘in the bush’ – in a park located behind a large dumpster Escort(once or twice a month) Mozambique
8 Under the bridge in Newtown House in Dobsonville, Soweto with siblings (every weekend) Osizweni, Newcastle
9 Orlando East   Mashaying. Fryburg, Free State
10 Street alongside the depot in Bryanston Orange Farm (every weekend - Friday to Monday morning) Lesotho
11 Pavement next to depot in Bryanston Backyard shack in Kaldevin rented from a friend for R250 (month end and public holidays) Free State
12 Shared room in a flat in Doornfontein   Lesotho (every 2 months)
13 Basement of a building in Hillbrow (with other recyclers) Shack in Diepsloot (every weekend) Zimbabwe (every December)
14 At the taxi rank in town   Komatipoort, Mpumalanga (whenever has money to go home)
15 In a park in Plein St Germiston (every month)  
16 On the street outside the depot in Bryanston Carltonville (every weekend) Lesotho
17 Unoccupied house in Brixton   Nkandla, KZN (once a year, usually December when it rains)
18 Flat in JHB CBD   Lesotho (every 2 months)
19 Homeless shelter in Kerk Street in town   Mabopane, Pretoria (never goes home by choice)
20 Under the bridge in Newtown RDP house in Evaton West (every weekend)  
21 Under the bridge in Newton RDP house in Evaton West (every weekend)  

These regular street sleepers have different motivations and housing needs from the city’s ‘destitute homeless’. Indeed some are property owners in their own right.

Recyclers choose to spend work nights in Johannesburg to save on transport costs; and to be ready to start their outbound journeys to suburbs very early in the mornings. They choose spacious places where their accommodation may be cramped but they are able to store their goods. Recycling work involves gathering and then later, sorting the load prior to having it weighed at the depot. Recyclers need space for separating and sorting bulky items and they need time to do this sorting. They also need place to stockpile items until they have amassed enough of a particular material to make exchange at the depot worthwhile.

The business of informal recycling depends on the prices paid by buy-back centres for particular categories of waste. Recyclers typically accumulate stock over the week, and on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings they sort the stock and take it to whichever accessible recycling station offers the highest price per category.

These were typical prices in 2010:

Table 3: Typical prices for resaleable waste in Johannesburg in 20102

Paul Motshweneng and his partner have both worked as recyclers since they came to Johannesburg from Lesotho in 2005. They live with their baby in a makeshift room, 2m X 2m, in an illegally occupied warehouse in Doornfontein. It is a building with no formal water or electricity services. From here Paul conducts his daily routes to the destinations (suburbs of Johannesburg) outlined in Table 4. He says the competition has increased and so he has to wake earlier and earlier to be first at the bins he works every week.

Table 4: Daily schedule of a recycler3:

2Amounts estimated by recycler Paul Motshweneng, interviewed by Tanya Zack, 2010
3As described by recycler Paul Motshweneng, interviewed by Tanya Zack, 2010

Paul’s Wednesday route is a return journey of some 34kms. On the way back he is pulling more than his body weight in waste and in wet weather it is a much heavier load.

Chaturvedi, B (2009) A scrap of decency. New York Times, August 4. Available at

Gutbertlet, J; Tremblay, C; Taylor, E; Divakarannair, N (2009) Who are our informal recyclers? An inquiry to uncover crisis and potential in Victoria, Canada. Local Environment 14: 8 733-747
Da Silva, M; Fassa, A; Siqueira, C (2005) World at work: Brazilian ragpickers. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62 (10) 736-740

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