Waste-lifters of the world unite

Durban: As expected for the final day of the international climate negotiations, things are hotting up – press conferences have been cancelled, which is a reliable barometer of  such things. Journalists, under pressure from their editors to report some news – any news – have taken to interviewing each other. I’ve seen at least two news teams wandering around the media room reporting on the media at COP17, which is a level of navel gazing that’s surely not even interest to fellow journalists.

Literally a green house exhibited at the conference

But with no agreement likely to be reached before early hours of Saturday, the barrel must be scraped. Yesterday, reporters excitedly wrote up what they interpreted – or willed – to be a change of heart in the US position on agreeing to the EU roadmap that might resuscitate the dying Kyoto Protocol and get us some way out of this mess. The reports, based on a “subtle change in tone” and a “nuance”, but sadly not on US representative Todd Stern’s actual words, were swiftly squashed in a “clarification to the media”, issued by the US State Department. Basically, if the US was to see sense and act on international climate commitments, then Obama better kiss a second term goodbye. Having seen this year’s crop of Republican offerings, I’m willing to forgive him for this otherwise inexplicable moral madness. So, it’s down to China now…

Alternative agriculture on display

Outside the negotiating halls, meetings, lectures and other activities continue. A few Canadian and US students have been ejected from the conference for protesting the lack of urgency and progress on actually doing something about carbon emissions. In a rather unconvincing bid to prove that climate change deniers are not part of the loony fringe, Lord Monckton and Senator Inhofe descended from the skies like a bug-eyed alien and confused old guy, in a parachute stunt that was largely ignored even in these news-straitened times.


Pursuing other diversions, I sought out a group of waste-pickers, who are campaigning for greater recognition of the work they do and some protection for their livelihoods as their countries mechanise and develop. Waste-pickers and other ‘informal workers’ are people at the very poorest end of society. They are often homeless or slum-dwellers without basic water, sewerage and electricity provision – often these people have no identity papers or method of receiving government help. In short, waste-picking is the only way that millions of people have of acquiring food for survival.

Africa with this morning's cardboard collection

In the poor world, enterprising individuals can often find a task that needs doing and scrape by on that. As economies become richer, corporations are given contracts to perform these services, and they start to own the space and occupations of the most destitute. In addition, no respectable country wants to see bare-footed rag-wearing tramps bin-diving in its newly shining cities.

Waste-pickers meeting the recycling collection truck

As the countries of Asia, Latin America and, now, Africa start to provide municipal services like waste collection and treatment, conflict is breaking out as corporations seal off landfill sites and security patrols ban people from collecting waste from shops and residences. In response, waste-pickers have been banding together in cooperatives, with the help of NGOs, and have even formed a global alliance to defend their livelihoods.

The waste-pickers are paid according to weight of their collections

The case they make is bigger than their own livelihoods, though. In poor countries, as it should be everywhere, recycling is not a middle-class lifestyle choice, it’s a matter of common sense – there is almost nothing that cannot be re-used or have some further value eked out of it, whether that be feeding it to a cow or having its materials disassembled and sold on by waste-pickers. Governments confronted by waste management issues, however, are contracting companies to deal with it in the most cost-effective way: incineration or landfill.

Waste-pickers recycle more than 95% of rubbish, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and energy use.

The new cooperatives are making some progress. In some places, such as Pune in India, they now have safer working conditions, including trolleys for their collections, overalls and gloves, and they now get better pay and even schooling for their kids.

Durban has an estimated 15,000 waste-pickers, I learned, and I spoke to Africa, who has been working as a waste picker for 25 years and has never had it so good. Thanks to the help of a charity called Asiye Etafuleni, he now receives a better rate per kilo for the cardboard he collects, a trolley so that he doesn’t have to haul it on his head, and overalls. He’s also now a recognised part of the local economy with waste-collection relationships with businesses.

I made some short videos of my meetings with the waste pickers, but I’m an idiot at editing, filming and generally anything that might make the results look like a watchable video, so apologies for that, but I’ll post the clips anyway.





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