The Political Ecology of the Waste Economy in South Africa

Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish? Assessing the Impacts of Formalization and Technologization of Waste Management on the Urban Poor is a recently completed three-year project ESRC-funded project that investigated the impacts of changes in waste management in South African cities on livelihoods among the urban poor. In this blog, reposted the from the Situated UPE Collective website, Nate Millington outlines the landscape of South Africa’s waste economy today and some of the key focus areas.

A byproduct of industrial processes and household consumption, waste is a critical reflection of contemporary life. Waste management is an essential environmental service provided for by municipal governments, one with serious implications for public health and pollution. At the same time, waste is an economy, one that intersects with informal livelihoods, a globalized trade in waste materials, and existing urban geographies. In South Africa, the current waste economy is a multi-billion rand industry that employs roughly 30 thousand people in the formal sector and between 60 and 90 thousand in the informal sector. Much of the critical work for the waste sector is done by informal waste collectors, who collect huge volumes of waste materials that they sell to a network of buyers and traders.

This pedagogical case study is designed to reflect on waste management in global south contexts as actually existing systems. While waste is often framed as a crisis in the global south, it is important to note that waste management is nevertheless happening. An attention to waste can subsequently allow for a series of broader questions related to livelihoods, governance, and political ecology. Paying attention to the flows of waste in and through the city can call attention to patterns of inequality and urban environmental governance, especially in contexts of formal job loss. At the same time, solid waste management is a critical task for municipalities, one that will require creative approaches given that the production of waste materials continues to increase as consumption itself continues to increase. To pay attention to waste is also to pay attention to its inverse: production.

This set of resources is designed to introduce readers and students to the mechanics of waste management in global south contexts as well as to further critical engagements with the subject of waste. Specifically, this exercise asks readers to reflect on their values in regards to waste and its management, and to consider the ways that waste can or should be dealt with in ways that further goals of social justice, environmental sustainability, and equity.

Key Concepts
Discard Studies
In describing their orientation towards waste, the editors of the Discard Studies blog define the field in the following way:
The field of discard studies is united by a critical framework that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power in definitions of, attitudes toward, behaviors around, and materialities of waste, broadly defined. As its starting point, discard studies holds that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, harmful, or morally offensive, but that both the materials of discards and their meanings are part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Our task is to interrogate these systems for how waste comes to be, and our work is often to offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste.

Work in this field has considered the complex politics of waste management, focusing on the environmental, social, and cultural dynamics of working with and engaging with waste products at a number of different scales. An attentiveness to waste, discardians argue, is critical to situating existing political and economic processes into specific environmental and social contexts. Managing waste is an intimate, embodied process, an infrastructural service is critical to daily life and municipal governance, and a site from which larger questions about politics, relationships, and environmental dynamics can be discussed.

Political Ecology
Political Ecology can be summed up best by the foundational statement offered by Blaikie and Brookfield (1987): “The phrase ‘political ecology’ combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself” (17). Political Ecology demands that environmental degradation be understood in relation to the socio-economic pressures placed on land managers, and calls attention to questions of marginality, inequality, and power. Geographers working within the discipline of PE stress the always political nature of environmental degradation and situate humans within ecosystems while refusing to collapse power and differentiation into crude understandings of society/nature binaries. Fundamental to Political Ecology is the question: “who is benefiting?” In the last two decades, political ecologists have turned their attention to cities, highlighting the ecological dynamics of urban processes like gentrification and real estate speculation.

Informal Economy
The term informal economy refers to economic activities that occur outside of state protection. Estimates are that 60% of global workers (roughly 2 billion people) are informally employed. While informality has long marked the labour market, especially in the global south, changes to the nature of contemporary capitalism have led to the increasing informalization of contemporary labour. For many, a formal job is no longer a possibility, and has been replaced by a variety of livelihood strategies. Finding ways to formalize the informal sector has long been a priority of post-colonial and developing states, but these strategies often ignore the complex economies and strategies found in the informal sector itself.

Case Study: The Political Ecology of the Waste Economy in Global South Contexts
Context and Background

Waste management in Sub-Saharan Africa is marked by overlapping dynamics of formality and informality, linking subsistence-based waste collection with the increasingly sophisticated nature of contemporary recycling. Across Africa, waste management rates remain low when compared to global levels, and solid waste management remains a serious problem. The challenges of urban solid waste management will only increase in the years to come due to continuing population growth, urban expansion, and increased consumption. These trends are occurring throughout the global south but are especially acute in Sub-Saharan Africa. Across the continent, urbanization continues to increase dramatically, and municipal governments are often beset by financial and institutional challenges. Formal waste management is subsequently complicated by political and financial dynamics, and is often non-existent in rural areas. Waste is subsequently a critical issue for policymakers and urban actors across the continent.

While statistics are often inconsistent—preventing systematic comparison–roughly 50% of African households receive some form of household waste collection. Continent-wide statistics elide massive variability, however. South African cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town feature rates of household waste collection of nearly 100% within a national average of roughly 65%. Much of the continent, however, features rates of formal waste collection that are much lower. Statistical engagements with waste collection are by necessity partial though, and offer little insight into the processes and actors that make up the waste stream throughout the continent.

Household waste collection is high in South Africa, especially in urban areas. Major urban areas feature collection rates of nearly 100%, although service is extremely variable depending on geography. Waste collection in many lower-income and township communities, for instance, occurs through drop-off points in containers while many wealthier and middle-income communities receive household collection. Apartheid spatialities and geographies continue to complicate service delivery in the present, especially as waste management companies argue that roads in township communities and informal settlements are too narrow for garbage trucks (See Korfmacher, 1997). Regardless of how waste is collected, landfilling remains the dominant endpoint for most domestic waste, and landfills range from technologically sophisticated sanitary sites to open dumps.

Figures on waste vary regionally, but national statistics indicate that of the 108 million tonnes of waste generated in the country in 2011, 90% ended up in landfill. Yet, within these statistics, it is crucial to differentiate between industrial waste and municipal or household waste streams. Of the 108 million tonnes of waste generated in 2011, for instance, 36 million tonnes are industrial biomass and 48 million are so-called ‘unclassified waste’ (which includes fly ash and dust, bottom ash, slag, and brine – many of which are products that result from mining and coal energy generation). If industrial waste is taken out of the equation, South Africa’s rates of recycling and waste minimization are quite high by African (as well as global) standards, especially in municipal areas.

Waste characterization studies are limited but offer insight into the broader dynamics of waste production and management. A 2011 baseline study found that South Africans produced 59 million tons of general (ie. non hazardous) waste. Of this, around 5.9 million tons were recycled, meaning that 53.5 million tons (or roughly 90%) were landfilled. Yearly tonnage amounts suggest more volatility in the amount of waste that is either landfilled or recycled. In terms of recycling, recent statistics supplied by the recycling industry indicate that roughly 70% of recoverable paper was recovered (PRASA, 2018), 55% of PET bottles (PETCO, n.d.), and 41 % of glass (Glass Recycling Company, 2017). As most recycling is determined by profitability at the global and local scale, recycling rates are largely dependent on the value of specific materials and related transportation costs and there is considerable fluctuation. Not all recyclables that are collected are then recycled, and South Africa is presently marked by an overaccumulation of recyclables, in part due to the recent ban on the importation of recyclables into China. The strengthening economy (and related value of the rand), coupled with new restrictions on buying in China and limited local markets for recyclables, has resulted in a situation where recyclables are currently difficult to unload. At the same time, collection is increasingly competitive even as the amounts paid to collectors are declining.

Landfills throughout South Africa are increasingly at risk and overloaded. Dwindling landfill space is a pressing concern for municipalities, one that is driving environmental legislation. Waste legislation has also imposed new regulations around landfill form, raising environmental and monitoring standards. As a result of landfill pressure and the cost of landfilling, waste management is shifting towards what the industry refers to as waste minimization initiatives, including recycling and more technologically intensive alternatives like waste to energy and anaerobic digestion. In addition to the development of separation at source initiatives in many metropolitan areas, small-scale waste to energy projects are being considered throughout the country (although implementation remains limited).

The Recycling Economy and Informal Waste Collection
The collection of recyclables is both nascent as well as established in South Africa, and involves a developed industry that recycles as long as there is a profitable market for recyclables. Recycling rates vary by material, with high rates of recycling for paper, metals, and some plastics, and relatively low rates for glass and lower-quality plastics. As most recycling is determined by profitability at the global and local scale, recycling rates are largely dependent on the value of specific materials and related transportation costs in the context of global and local price fluctuations related to currency, the price of oil, and the price of virgin materials. While separation of source initiatives are emerging throughout South Africa, the bulk of recycling is done outside of the state’s ambit through the actions of informal collectors, private recyclers, and non-profit associations.

The current actors in the recycling value chain include material-specific entities funded by the packing industry as well as private sector recyclers and collectors that operate on a variety of scales. As part of a global industry, recycling in South Africa is co-produced across so-called formal and informal sector divides. It is estimated that 60 to 90 thousand people are employed in the informal recycling economy in South Africa. These men and women collect recyclables, either from the street or from the landfill site. Once the materials have been picked, reclaimers sell recyclables to intermediaries, often at buy back centres, who sell aggregated materials to private recyclers or producers. These organizations then sell the materials either locally or globally, to mills, processing facilities, and other sites where materials are converted, sometimes to new products but often into their constituent parts such as pellets. In every step of this chain, profit is extracted, as a material deemed worthless is slowly shifted into something deemed valuable through a variety of translations: selection and collection, compressing, processing. While their labour is frequently dismissed, devalued and exploited, waste pickers are active creators of value and crucial to the conversion of recyclables into sources of profit (Samson, 2015).

Formalization of Recycling
Waste, for many, is a resource waiting to be rendered productive. As with other cities in the global south, waste is increasingly seen in South Africa to harbor value that has yet to be extracted. This creates opportunities for state recycling efforts that prioritize both waste minimisation as well as skills development or employment growth. As a result, there are increasing pressures to change the dynamics of waste collection in South Africa (and throughout the global south) through the development of separation at source initiatives and other forms of alternative collection. State-sponsored recycling programs–as well as private sector collection efforts–are shifting existing patterns of collection and their associated regimes of labor, infrastructure, and technology. Often these programs involve the outsourcing of collection to private waste management companies, who charge the city to collect recyclables that they then sell. In many places, these changes have led to conflicts with waste pickers, who report serious drops in their incomes as a result of changing forms of collection. In addition to government-led efforts, recyclers themselves are increasingly finding ways of accessing new materials through the extension of collection into areas that were previously seen to not be economically viable.

Sources and Further Research
Political Ecology of Waste
Fredericks R (2013) Disorderly Dakar: The cultural politics of household waste in Senegal’s capital city. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 51(3), 435-458.
Fredericks R (2014) Vital infrastructures of trash in Dakar. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 34(3), 532-548.
Fredericks, R. (2018). Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. Duke University Press.
Moore SA (2012) Garbage matters: Concepts in new geographies of waste. Progress in Human Geography, 36(6), 780-799.
Njeru J (2006) The urban political ecology of plastic bag waste problem in Nairobi, Kenya. Geoforum 37: 1046–1058.

Recycling Economy
Alexander C and Reno J (eds) (2012). Economies of Recycling: the global transformation of materials, values and social relations. Zed Books Ltd.
Godfrey L and Oelofse S (2017). Historical review of waste management and recycling in South Africa. Resources, 6, 57

Labour and Informality
Millar K (2014) The precarious present: Wageless labor and disrupted life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cultural Anthropology, 29(1), 32-53.
Millar K (2008) Making trash into treasure: Struggles for autonomy on a Brazilian garbage dump. Anthropology of Work Review, 29(2), 25-34.
Millar K (2012) Trash Ties: Urban Politics, Economic Crisis and Rio de Janeiro’s Garbage Dump. In Alexander C and Reno J (eds) Economies of Recycling: the global transformation of materials, values and social relations. Zed Books Ltd.
Millar, K. M. (2018). Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump. Duke University Press.
Rosaldo M (2016) Revolution in the garbage dump: The political and economic foundations of the Colombian recycler movement, 1986-2011. Social Problems, 63(3), 351-372.
Samson M (2015) Accumulation by Dispossession and the Informal Economy – Struggles Over Knowledge, Being and Waste at a Soweto Garbage Dump. Environment and Planning D 33(5): 813-830.

Plastic Waste
Liboiron, M (2015) Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics. Journal of material culture, 21(1), 87-110.