Weather, workers & a greener environment

Posted on June 11, 2017


The first serious cold snap of winter struck South Africa’s Highveld this past week, bringing sub-zero temperatures. And the Western Cape was battered by what were said to be the worst storms in 30 years. This rough weather pattern followed the chilling news that official, narrow gauged unemployment was now close to 28%,

But although the southern storms brought gale-force winds there were also some torrential downpours of rain, that at least provided some relief to the parched province. But these weather conditions also brought human distress, devastation and even death.

Hardest hit were the homeless, along with those among the working poor and the growing legions of unemployed who lack adequate shelter. Suffering too were workers recently — and often controversially — evicted from perhaps adequate shelter, often as a result of losing jobs and falling behind on rent or mortgage payments.

In most of these cases of eviction, even where union members were involved, organised labour was noticeably absent. This makes the often loudly proclaimed union mantras, “Back to basics” and Organise the unorganised” sound rather hollow.

Among the working poor who were badly affected by the weather were those men and women I regard as the hardest working and most poorly paid of entrepreneurial labourers: the scrap collectors. They are not unionised because no union has shown any interest in them and they are frequently harassed by the authorities.

It is they who, often with old, purloined supermarket trolleys, scavenge through the bins and bags of middle class suburbia, saving from cluttered landfills that which can be recycled or otherwise sold. But it is not only the unions that pay them no heed. Local government too, shows little or no interest in this small army that provides tons of reusable waste to private companies.

It is an invaluable and unappreciated service that, in the Brazilian city of Curitiba, was used as a crucial part of a local government-driven “green revolution” that also created jobs. Curitiba is now regarded, although it still has its problems, as the most innovative — and greenest — city on earth.

The authorities in Curitiba established a recycling plant in a deserted factory, educated the public about recycling and organisd the scrap collectors. They were provided with large, mobile trolleys and paid what the scrap was worth. Today, 70% of waste generated in Curitiba is recycled.

Workers in the recycling plant also learned to repair thrown away items, including old computers and computer literacy classes were started. It is a far cry from how waste is dealt with in most South African cities and towns.

Although rates vary slightly, private companies such as those in Cape Town, pay R2 for a kilogram of mixed plastic. Tin cans — “We step on them to make them flat,” says local collector, Imraan Barker — fetch 30 cents per kg, cardboard R1, plastic water bottles R2.50.

Starting before daybreak, with two trolleys, and covering 15 or 20km before delivering, late on Monday afternoon this week, bulging bags of household detritus, Imraan and his brother, Gahlil, earned just R100. Since losing jobs 12 years ago, the brothers, aged 31 and 30, have been “been doing this work”.

In bad weather they are also unable to work and to earn. Much the same applied to the scrap collectors of Curitiba before the “cash for trash” (in the form of bus tokens that scrap collectors sold) was introduced in 1989.

The people behind this Brazilian example admit that all that was required can be summed up in two words: political will. However, as the architect and former mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner has noted: “We had to move fast to avoid our own bureaucracy.”

At least one of Curitiba’s developments, the rapid bus transport system, has been copied in Cape Town and Johannesburg in the Mi City and the Rea Vaya systems. But little is being done to change radically South Africa’s waste management in a way that could create jobs and help improve our environment.

Surely time to take action, especially as often ground water polluting landfills reach capacity.