Waste Collection and recycling are fundamental parts of a truly circular economy. But, unfortunately, in many developing nations, waste collection is primarily done by informal waste pickers/reclaimers. For example, in South Africa, there is an estimate of between 150 000 to 200 000 waste pickers.
These unsung environmental heroes perform one of the most challenging jobs in the industry and contribute significantly to the circular economy. Yet, they are unaware of the importance of their position. The day of a typical waste picker usually starts early in the morning, around 04:00 am to 05:00 am; pulling their trollies, they go bin to bin salvaging approximately 80% to 90% of post-consumer paper and packaging collected in South Africa for recycling (Godfrey et al., 2016). In addition, they are the backbone of the current system that directs recyclables away from landfills and toward recyclers. This is according to the 2020 Waste picker integration guideline conducted by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) with the support of the University of Witwatersrand.
Since 2015, I have directly engaged with more than 1000 individuals who make a living from collecting and recycling waste materials. Unfortunately, many of them have no idea of the importance of their work in contributing towards a truly circular economy. I have learned that even the few who somewhat understand the term still don't care about the circular economy. Instead, they care about their next meal.
This insight made me wonder if there is a disconnect between current benefits and future advantages in climate-related actions; that is to say, are we asking people to adopt new ways of living with the promise of a brighter future? I am convinced that most of us understand the danger behind waste or pollution, how it contributes to climate and how this will ultimately affect the whole planet. However, I am not confident about whether we are willing to take action today to benefit our future. In a few cases where our activities contribute to the circular economy, our absolute priority is to secure our next meal, not the environment.
So my unanswered question is this: How to stimulate circular economy actions that will help us secure our meals TODAY while benefiting future generations?