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South Africa’s waste surfers are rethinking recycling

Published at: 23 March 2016


According to the most recent National Waste Information Baseline Report published by The Department of Environmental Affairs in 2011 South Africa generates approximately 108 million tonnes of waste a year, of which 98 million tonnes goes into landfills. Both are staggering figures, especially when one considers that only 10 percent of all that waste ends up being recycled.

Despite the fact that this recycled waste fed R8.2 billion per year worth of resources back into the SA economy, according to research conducted by the Department of Science and Technology in 2011, major hurdles still face the local recycling industry – partly due to the fact that recycling isn’t even legislated yet in South Africa. This has led to the formation of a very important informal recycling sector that contributes massively to the creation of jobs in South Africa - where unemployment currently sits at 25%.

Anyone who has been to Johannesburg will recognize the ‘street surfers’ who cruise the streets of the city on their makeshift trolleys, going from suburb to suburb collecting recyclable waste from the dustbins and delivering them to recycling spots across the city. A street surfer can earn roughly R800 to R2000 by providing recyclable materials to private companies who turn their collections into resources for the manufacturing sector. “The hawkers that collect the recycling materials bring in about 2000 tonnes per month for our company. We end up paying all of them R2 million per month and can thank them for about 35 percent of our recycling intake,” says Pieter van der Westhuizen in an interview recently, the director of Lothlorien Recycling in Johannesburg. “Recycling is not a part of our legislation yet,” he adds. “When we see these guys digging through the trash, separating the various recyclable materials, they remind us how far we have to go and help us question whether we have done our bit or not. It’s a brutal job, but these guys are willing to do it.”

The Geza Jozi initiative is seeking to transform the lives of these informal recyclers. “Our aim is to facilitate the vertical integration of waste pickers into the formal recycling industry, promote household separation-at-source, and provide a platform for sustainable investment in the green economy”, the group says on their website. They have invented the Gezajozi E-trike - a pedal-powered, electrically-assisted, cargo tricycle. It can transport over 120kg of waste for a range of 40km.

The e-Trike, which is 100% locally assembled, is safer and more efficient than the current trolleys utilised by waste pickers throughout South Africa. It is fitted with motorcycle-style disk brakes, indicators, mirrors, an LED headlight and an interesting sounding hooter and, in partnership with Ellies Renewable Energy, GezaJozi is making the transition towards manufacturing fully solar powered electric tricycle fleets.

Even though criticism of recycling is growing – with many arguing that it is outdated, doesn’t put enough pressure on manufacturers and remains economically unsustainable – these sorts of initiatives do prove that every bit counts on the road to upliftment and a safer, more sustainable future.


Read Kim Harrisberg’s original article written for Urban Africa here.

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