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R4R: Recycling for Resilience by Waste Pickers

Utilising the unrealised potential of informal recycling to strengthen the resilience of slum communities and reduce climate change.

Photo of Do Huber
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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

Cardboard collectors are amongst the poorest informal workers; their potential contribution both to cities and the environment has largely gone unrecognised. In Durban, South Africa these workers spend their days searching for scrap cardboard, delivering their finds to depots, which sell them on to formal recycling companies. To many, the piles of collected cardboard may seem to be nothing more than waste – but the truth is that they contain unrealized potential, which could help to address three important problems: climate change, unsustainable slum communities, and low levels of employment in the city.

How? Let us explain:
The core of the idea is to link the amount of CO2, which is absorbed by the trees that are saved through the recycling work of the informal cardboard collectors, to the City of Durban’s Carbon Trading Program. Funds received through the program would be used to set up tree nurseries in slum areas. The trees would be used to create new employment streams, such as horticulture and associated products. They would also have several resilience effects on the slum areas. In this way, drawing on the existing efforts of the City, the cardboard collected by informal workers becomes the catalyst for a chain reaction that improves resilience and sustainability in slum areas, provides recognition for the work of the cardboard collectors, and creates employment opportunities.

WHO BENEFITS?

‘Recycling for Resilience’ would provide several benefits:
1. Cardboard collectors will receive the acknowledgement they deserve + an improvement in their working conditions + will generate income for their communities
2. Slum communities will benefit from new job opportunities
3. Slums will be upgraded + become more resilient
4. The local government will be challenged to implement better waste management + in extend the life of tip sites
5. Will contribute to climate change mitigation

HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

R4R is a program that draws together existing activities of the working poor, their residential communities, present city programs and strategies and established efforts of community based organisations.

Cardboard collection is an established activity in Durban. Although the City acknowledges the benefits of the recycling efforts, these have not been captured in any specific program. An existing asset is the City’s Carbon Trading and Urban Greening programs.

The R4R-program will work with these current disparate activities, attempting to bring them together. The first is to get funding through carbon trading exchange. This initiates the program and establishes the community tree nurseries. Having premised the funding on a carbon exchange program the City would be encouraged to maintain the income stream derived from the recyclable material.

The immediate benefit would be the ability to establish programs that support the working poor and improve their incomes and working conditions. The community located nurseries would plant food producing and indigenous trees. The former would be used to support income-producing programs, while the latter will be purchased by the city for its urban greening program. Local CBOs would act as the advocates and implementing agents for the emerging programs.

The net benefit for the R4R: to dignify the existing activities of the working poor, initiate job creation, result in improved living conditions in slum communities and the city, and, as a totality, contributes to climate change mitigation.

IN-COUNTRY EXPERIENCE

  • Yes, for two or more years

EXPERTISE

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years

GEOGRAPHIC FOCUS

  • Yes

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF

We are a non-profit organisation focused on promoting and developing good practice and process around inclusive urban planning & design. We collaborate with informal workers and allied professionals in order to develop inclusive urban spaces that support sustainable livelihoods for informal workers.

IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?

We have prior experience of working with waste pickers through involvement in municipal projects in the early 2000s and through a pilot project implemented by AeT since 2010-ongoing. These projects involved waste pickers and was actively supported by specific Municipal departments. There has been a desire to move the pilot project learnings to a more long-term intervention building on the Municipality’s recent research investment looking at recycling. The time is thus ideal to optimize on these emerging platforms.

The linkage of the waste pickers to urban agriculture in slums is a recent idea catalyzed by our networks i.e. South African Slum Dwellers International, Church Land Program. Through the networks, we discovered the presence of waste picking activities within slums and the definite need for additional livelihood strategies. The willingness to engage in urban agriculture within slums is apparent through a number of existing food security projects and nurseries.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?

The idea is unique because it links and fills gaps within various existing activities: 1) the unrecognized contributions of waste pickers, 2) urban agriculture in slums and 3) the carbon trading program – which if linked, can sustain both dignified economic opportunities and slums.

In 1), waste pickers face social stigma for doing “dirty work” and as “public nuisance”. By quantifying their contributions and linking these to funding urban agriculture projects in slums, we believe their status will be positively transformed. In 2), waste pickers’ contributions will solicit funding through the carbon trading program in order to initiate and sustain urban agriculture projects, which will provide additional livelihood opportunities. A number of waste pickers are resident in slum areas which provides an incentive for them to contribute to their communities. In 3), we discovered the willingness within the carbon trading program to fund recycling initiatives which means there will be an appetite for a project of this nature.

Advantages include our deep understanding of waste pickers and the light intervention, where simply acquiring a smart card will cascade into multiple benefits.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?

We have ideas of specific slums we could work with but the site selection can only be finalized if the proposal is accepted and subsequently matured.

Whilst different versions of the e-card technology exist, we would need to identify partners that can design an e-card and reader system based on the proposal. Key to our proposal is that we don’t wish to obligate waste pickers to upgrade their technology, so the card reader must be located downstream in the hands of the middle agents and others.

Although there is evidence that the carbon trading program funds recycling initiatives, it is not assured. We would like to know how to secure funding through other creative funding models.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

Most implemented interventions for waste pickers have a short life span and are not responsive to their unique circumstances and needs. We believe we have spent a lot of time designing a light intervention that would cascade into multiple benefits - that would fundamentally change the circumstances of the waste pickers as agents of change in their communities and the city as a whole.

The proposal will enable waste pickers to be valued within the green economy, benefit their working environment and improve their social standing within the communities in which they live. This novel program has the potential to be replicated across other cities and towns in South Africa.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?

The feedback included:

Waste pickers [WPs] were affirmed through their unrecognized contributions to nature conservation. The proposal sparked a new level of consciousness.

WPs desired to be involved as project initiators, because their association with the project would increase their value to communities. Community participation is a founding principle.

WPs appreciated the idea of planting medicinal trees as an added benefit that the project brings to manage health challenges e.g. mosquitos repelling trees.

WPs overwhelmingly supported the idea of the smart card. It would provide security if they were paid electronically; it would be visible identification to the project which would reduce public and police harassment. Work wear would be a further means to enhance their identification as project participants which would elicit additional recyclables and if linked to social benefits; it would also reward them as workers and service providers to the City.

WPs believed that run-down and vacant plots in various parts of the inner-city could be available to WPs who could then participate in urban agriculture alongside their work. This implied their desire to participate in urban agriculture.

Network partners confirmed the presence of urban agriculture within slum settlements. Saplings were being cultivated, but with no market. Appropriate partnerships will secure these markets. The project plan anticipates this in order to mitigate the challenges.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

A threshold had been reached in the pilot project that required another level of intervention in order to take the notion of recycling and the project further. The proposal now boldly links waste pickers to the green economy, to the communities in which they live and to the multiple benefits their work brings through the proposal.

We would like to build the partnerships and the project management mechanisms necessary to achieve the proposal, and we wish to implement the project with the full participation of the waste pickers themselves. The next step would be the privilege of obtaining funding that would provide the resources to mature the proposal into a working model.

How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?

The “Imagine Durban Informal Recycling Project” implemented by AeT was funded by the municipality and continues to enjoy support in various forms. Imagine Durban has endorsed the R4R project, read the comment from the Head: https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/urban-resilience/ideas/r4r-recycling-for-resilience-by-waste-pickers/comments#c-218936f8ceddcffa9b096d796546a7ca.

The Municipality is thus poised to respond to recycling projects and it is an opportune moment to introduce the R4R project, building on the success of an existing one. Regarding engagement with other relevant departments, there are many lessons which can be drawn from past municipal precedents. The smaller scale of the R4R project does not necessarily need the Municipality to sell carbon credits for it, but it will benefit from technical advice. We believe selling carbon credits through the voluntary carbon offset market is the appropriate scale and platform because recycling projects sell well here.

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Photo of Aaryaman Singhal
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I love this idea! I was wondering if you've considered bringing the Waste Pickers into a collective/coop for additional peer-to-peer support, development of shared/improved social identity, and collective bargaining capabilities? 

http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/rise-of-the-trash-picker-collective?utm_source=Pacific%20Standard%20Newsletter&utm_campaign=1025954bf8-daily-rss-newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_a4fd1bcb7e-1025954bf8-76402701

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