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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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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.


‘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


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.


  • Yes, for two or more years


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


  • Yes


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

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

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?

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Asiye!

Below is some feedback from our experts. We'd love to hear your responses! 

To what extent has the municipality been engaged (will this integrate with existing schemes like the treepreneurs?) and what role could they play in scaling this up? The difference with your idea is the involvement of cardboard collectors, adding value to their existing activities. One thing I'd like to know is whether this initiative is of sufficiently large a scale to participate in carbon trading initiatives? 

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you for your perceptive and interesting questions Chioma.

The “Imagine Durban Informal Recycling Project” implemented by AeT was funded by the municipality and continues to enjoy support in various forms. For instance, the active coordination efforts of the Municipality’s Inter-departmental Informal Recycling Reference Group, in which AeT sits on as a Technical Adviser. This Reference Group motivated for the implementation of a research study looking at recycling in the City with a focus on waste pickers in which AeT participated. Imagine Durban has endorsed the R4R project, read comment from the Head here:

 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.
It is premature to give a definitive answer about engagement with other relevant departments of the Municipality. However, there are many lessons which can be drawn from past municipal precedents which will be a significant reference point for the R4R project. The Municipality has implemented other successful work which touch on different aspects of R4R project and we see the project drawing on technical advice from the municipality’s experience of these prior projects and systems into a specific project to benefit waste pickers.

For instance, the Municipality’s Bisasar “Landfill gas to electricity” Project harvests gas from the methane generated by the waste in the landfill site. The methane is subsequently used to fuel gas turbines for electricity generation. This project was funded through a carbon financing system, and demonstrates that the Municipality has the institutions and mechanisms to engage in carbon financing, see more here:

The smaller scale of the R4R project does not need the Municipality to necessarily sell carbon credits for it, but it will benefit from the Municipality's technical advice.

The Buffelsdraai Community Reforestation Project ( was initiated by the Municipality and it links to our conceptual idea that there is a market in the Municipality for planting of indigenous trees by underprivileged communities. The carbon offsets from the Municipality’s carbon emissions during the 2010 FIFA was used to leverage a community-based system of planting indigenous trees. This represents the horticulture side of our R4R project. The initial strategy for the R4R Project is to work with the carbon trading program to establish a funding stream but the hedge strategy could be the potential to leverage carbon offsets from big events in the future (e.g. 2017 Commonwealth Games) in the similar manner that the Buffelsdraai project was initiated during FIFA World Cup. Therefore, the R4R Project will draw on technical advice from this prior precedent.

In relation to the question of the scale of the project to participate in carbon trading initiatives, given the smaller scale of the R4R project – we believe selling carbon credits through the voluntary carbon offset market is the appropriate platform. There is evidence that recycling projects sell well in these platforms – see an example on the credible carbon registry here:  

In the event of the project proceeding, we would be able to utilize project funding to better publicize and sell our carbon credits on these voluntary carbon offset markets.
Further, we intend to design an incremental program and the initial year-long program will help us to develop the frameworks and test the viability with the active group of waste pickers we are engaged with. The prospect of scaling up the project in the future is premised on the inner-city cohort of around 500 waste pickers.

As our institutional practice, we are cautious about rising community’s expectations and we believe in responsible and incremental development. The initial funds from carbon credit program will help initiate the program, and we believe that there will be an incremental link and relationship between the number of waste picker participants and the appetite to purchase the carbon credits. We also believe the R4R idea is catalytic and after inception and successful demonstration of its potential, there will be greater uptake.

Photo of Chioma Ume

Thanks Asiye! It's great to see that you have gotten feedback from the community and incorporated it into your idea. As you spoke to waste collectors, what did you learn is the biggest challenge they face? What interests you about the support that Amplify can provide? 

Photo of Do Huber

Hi Chioma, good to hear from you again.

The waste collectors reported that their biggest challenges relate to getting consistent access to waste which is restricted when they are harassed and chased away by City officials, enforcement agencies and some members of the public who consider them a source of public nuisance and urban clutter. Therefore, they face social stigma at a number of levels and are frowned upon by their communities for doing “dirty” work.

From a development perspective, what aggravates the social stigma is the lack of knowledge about the role and contribution of the informal sector in the recycling value chain. The smart card system proposed in the R4R project would aid in quantifying the volumes of waste recycled by the collectors which in turn will increase their value and status as contributors to the green economy. The smart card systems also represents a non-intrusive method of gaining knowledge on the contributions of informal recycling. From a social perspective, we believe that the R4R project would enable the collectors to be seen by their communities and the general public as catalyzing community-based greening programs through their work of informal recycling, and this would be transformative of the negative public attitudes towards them.

A second definitive challenge mentioned by the waste collectors is the need for supportive infrastructure and equipment to enhance their ability to collect recyclables more efficiently, resulting in increased incomes. The R4R Project would enable us to continue the programmatic approach initiated through the pilot project in partnership with the City’s Imagine Durban Project, and accordingly continue developing and advocating for supportive infrastructure and equipment for waste collectors.

In relation to your question about the support that Amplify can provide, the reality of the situation is that the waste picking sector does not easily attract funding. An asset that Amplify would thus bring is the provision of catalytic funding. The program started off with an innovative approach through the support of the Imagine Durban Project, however internal competition for local funding is frustrating the continuance of this initial work. In addition, as an organisation, we’re strong with a project based approach which is what Amplify’s funding would enable. Project-based work is short-term and an easier means to get local government departments to commit to specific and short-term goals which incrementally, through a series of projects, allow for developmental gain within a specific informal sector.

The other benefit that Amplify will bring is that because it is set in the context of innovation, it will better capture people’s imagination and participation. This is critical given the negative attitudes towards the waste picking sector. The ability for innovation-based projects to transform negative attitudes towards waste pickers was well-proven with our pilot project supported by the Imagine Durban Project.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on making it to the Feedback Phase! We would love it if you can take some time to answer the new Refinement questions that we've added to your original idea submission form. To answer the new questions, hit the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post. Scroll down to the entry fields of the new Refinement questions. Hit Save when you are done editing.

Also, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 11/16" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks for the tips. We have responded to the questions asked by the IDEO Expert Chioma Ume in the comment section and the new question posed at the end of the post about the connections to the broader systems of the city. 

Photo of Aman Sadana

Hi Guys,

This is a wonderful idea! Its beauty lies in its ability to acknowledge the 'green' contribution of cardboard collectors and instil a sense of pride and dignity in their work. It reminds me of the Dabbawalas of Mumbai, who deliver almost 160,000 home-cooked lunches from the kitchens of suburban wives and mothers direct to Mumbai’s workers in the world’s most ingenious meal distribution system. Over the years, these Dabbawallas have become the subject of numerous documentaries and research papers. As a result of this public adulation, these workers have begun to look at their work with a great deal of respect and reverence.

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks Aman for seeing the potential to enhance the dignity of the cardboard collectors through a program which recognizes their undervalued contribution to the environment and the economy. It is always encouraging to learn about other sectors in the informal economy such as the "Dabbawalas" of Mumbai that have been given public recognition for their contributions to the socio-economic fabric and functioning of the Cities that they live and work in. 

Photo of Jared Byrne

I think that many people try to make an impact through drastic changes - which many slums won't, or can't, adapt too. I think this is one of the best ideas because it is such a simple concept that is already applicable, and it makes an enormous difference. Very impressive & Good Luck!

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you very much Jared! Your support for us and our idea is very much appreciated!
You are right, the concept is simple, but still has the potential to make an enormous difference for the informal community. The results of the upcoming beneficiary feedback will enhance the idea and its' implementation feasibility, so keep up to date on our progress!

Photo of Barbara

Through the relationships established between students and the cardboard recyclers and barrow operators, Unisa's Bright Site Project has become aware of the exceptional efforts and opportunities for change being made by Asiye eTafuleni in building sustainable and socially inclusive livelihoods. Well done on this innovative idea and the difference it will make to climate change and the city of Durban and importantly to individuals and communities lives on the ground.

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you Barbara for supporting this new Project with the waste pickers. Working with social workers has been a critical to advancing our prior Project work, in applying a holistic approach to human-centred design and development.

Photo of Hartmut Huber

It is important to provide a benefit evaluation for the communities in order to "sell" that proposal - what was done here. So luckily that is not only a nice idea but can provide value (and money) for the communities. That approach is very much appreciated.

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you for your appreciation of our approach Hartmut!
We also think that our idea has great potential in supporting the informal communities in various ways. Especially joblessness is a huge challenge for them, so by creating new and stable income opportunities this means a big step against that challenge.

Photo of nora

Great ideas like this one can have a huge impact in different scales-but they need to be realized and supported!Good luck!

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you Nora for your comment and support!

Photo of Lihle Nyawo

As a street trader, I can say that the waste pickers are really struggling every where in the world. We need projects like this so that everyone can see how important they are to our city and communities.

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks for the grassroots perspective Lihle.

Photo of Laura Alfers

This is a great initiative - Asiye eTafuleni has been incredibly creative in its past work with informal cardboard recyclers, and this is an exciting new direction for the work!

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks Laura for your comment and support, this coming from you, as an expert on research on informal economy!

Photo of Chantal Froneman

Great project, awesome idea, Well Done!

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks Chantal for your support!

Photo of Sally Roever

Great example of how to build on existing livelihood activities.

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you Sally for your support, given your expertise in the realm of research on the informal economy.

Photo of Bongumusa Zondo

This innovative project has huge potential in addressing climate change issue through grassroot bottom-up approach by city dwellers. Interestingly enough is that waste pickers are partners to sustainable and liveable city which is the vision of the City of Durban. They are self organised and they know the challenges they are facing but continuously take lead to present an alternative. If this project is supported, first state of the art green recycling campus which will ensure humane conditions for pickers and while reducing possible abuse by well established recycling organisations will be established within the City of Durban but run by waste pickers in partnership with AET. Number of lessons from this project have been well documented and shared with other cities for replication in other cities but equally for mind shift and sustainability within City of Durban.

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you Bongumusa for the detailed response. Your contributions as a Durban City Official is important because it gives credence to the reality of our current proposal based on AeT's prior relationship with the City through the Imagine Durban Informal Recycling Project.

A short video of the Project which received a commendation at the 2012 Sustainable Architecture Awards as work of social significance can be viewed here:

Photo of Phumelele

A practical and innovative idea, that would benefit such a large sector of informal workers in Durban! A holistically sustainable idea!

Photo of Do Huber

Phume, your observations based on your discipline as an Architect are valued.

Photo of Amanda Botes

Often the role of informal collectors of waste is undervalued in cities. Over the last few years Asiye eTafuleni have worked hard to change the perception of citizens towards informal recyclers and have helped to build the capacity of informal collectors to improve their yield and quality of life. Linking the work of the informal cardboard recyclers to the City of Durban’s Carbon Trading Program is a natural progression which will help to further improve the livelihoods of Durban's communities.

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you for your considered response, particularly in recognising the link between the carbon trading program and the livelihoods of waste pickers. This reinforces our belief that this mechanism could be a means to generate funding for a sustainable project.

Photo of Amira Osman

The recyclers deserve recognition and the amounts of cardboard collected make a real impact. This project is worthy of support!

Photo of Do Huber

Thank you for your response which affirms the role of recyclers within City economies and settlements.

Photo of Nadia Shah

Excellent idea! All the best AET.

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks a lot Nadia! Please feel free to share your expertise in sustainability at Urban Earth.

Photo of Claudia Loggia

That's a brilliant idea! Well done Asiye!!!!

Photo of Do Huber

Thanks Claudia for the comment! But since your research area of sustainable systems links with our idea we would be interested on your expertise feedback .

Photo of Shane Zhao

Thanks for the post Asiye eTafuleni team! Have you implemented similar recycling programs previously in Durban? What are some first steps that you might take to start testing this idea with the local community?

Photo of Blaise Dobson

Shane, it seems like they have. "Asiye eTafuleni has been commissioned by eThekwini Municipality through its Imagine Durban Demonstration Fund, a joint initiative between the Municipality and Sustainable Cities, a Vancouver based NGO (Canada) to implement inner city cardboard recycling project." Check out the link for the write up:

Photo of Do Huber

@Shane: Like Blaise already mentioned, we do already have experience with recycling programs:

Approx. 5 years ago we implemented an internationally funded Inner City Cardboard Recycling Project here in Durban, SA, which is still active and ongoing. The project involved organizational development, social services, detailed design [trolleys] and urban infrastructure.
Details about this project can be found on our website and under this link:

Since we maintained direct contact with the original project beneficiaries and their colleagues as well as working relationships with local government officials who previously implemented the project, we see it as a good base for starting the R4R 'Recycling for Resilience' initiative.

First steps to be taken are to implement our idea:
1. Activate our NGO colleagues from the country affiliated to an international slum dwellers organization.
2. Utilize this project opportunity to initiate previously discussed plans for slum located, job creation opportunities.
3. The opportunity would provide the seed funding and implementation rationale.
4. Utilize pre-existing local government contacts and structures to negotiate support from the City's energy office and the greening program. We participate in various liaison structures that would ensure access to these key decision-makers.

We hope that we answered your questions.