Skarreling for Scrap: a case study of informal waste recycling at the Coastal Park landfill in Cape Town
Huegel, Christoph Peter
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A widespread phenomenon on dumpsites in the developing world, subsistence waste picking is also a common practice at the city-owned Coastal Park Landfill (CPL) in Muizenberg. Poor unemployed people from the townships of Capricorn, Vrygrond and Hillview, situated at the foot of the tip ―skarrel for scrap‖ every day. The word skarreling is an Afrikaans term meaning to rummage or scrabble, scuttle or scurry. Thus, if one talks of ―skarreling for scrap‖, it generally refers to poor people trying to eke out a living by looking for recyclables in the waste that can be put to personal use or turned into money. In the two decades since the transition to democracy, South Africa and the City of Cape Town (CCT) have formulated a number of framework and subordinate policies which express their commitment to sustainable development (SD). SD aims to achieve a balance between its three components, economic, environmental and social sustainability. Thus, SD is not only about increased economic efficiency and stability, while at the same time reducing pollution and handling natural resources more thoughtfully; it is also about promoting social equity by reducing poverty and empowering the poor. This study is guided by the assumption that waste pickers in developing countries play an important part in recycling efforts, and that recycling in turn is an integral component of SD, which is the guiding principle of South African policy-making. In an ideal scenario – as implicitly promised by the policies on SD – the management of solid waste should pursue the economic and environmental goals of SD by promoting recycling and should be aligned with the goal of creating sustainable livelihoods. However, the reality in the CCT is a different one. Landfill skarreling in the CCT, and particularly at CPL, is accompanied by conflict and a criminalisation of the skarrelaars. The CCT decided to phase out landfill salvaging in 2008, and subsequently has put a lot of effort into keeping skarrelaars away from its landfills. The implications of this decision – job losses for poor people and a potential increase in crime – have not been thought through. There is thus a dysfunctional triangular relationship around waste recycling in the CCT, leading to tensions between (1) the City‘s commitment to SD; (2) 5 its approach towards recycling (as part of solid waste management) in policy and practice; and (3) the livelihoods of the poor in adjacent townships. In the CCT the goals of SD are undermined by the City‘s recycling strategies, with adverse effects for the livelihoods of the people who live off skarreling. There are several causes for this disjuncture between policy and reality. The first has to do with ignorance on the side of the policymakers. They seem to be badly informed about the extent and nature of skarreling, perhaps assuming that this activity is performed only by a few people who need quick cash for drugs. The second cause can be attributed to the neoliberal macro-policies pursued in South Africa, as well as to the global competition between cities for investment. This neoliberal urbanism leads cities like Cape Town to re-imagine themselves as ―world (-class) cities‖, in which poor waste pickers are perceived as a disturbing factor. In the CCT, this goes hand in hand with an approach reminiscent of the apartheid mindset, which saw the need to control poor, black (and potentially unruly) people. The dissertation therefore focuses on the core themes of sustainable development, (urban) neoliberalism, and informality in combination with a case study of the informal waste pickers at the chosen landfill site. Writing from a political studies angle, this study is framed as a policy critique: it argues that the policies around SWM ignore South African realities, and that the SD policies and their implementation lack coherence. Moreover, the conflict between the skarrelaars and the CCT at the CPL is rooted in inadequate national and local legislation which does not acknowledge the role of informal waste pickers in SWM and aims at excluding rather than including them. If waste pickers were supported in their recycling efforts in both policy and practice, this would be a win-win situation for the state/city (economic benefits and less crime), the skarrelaars (regular employment and incomes) and the environment (less waste buried on landfills). The case study is primarily designed as a qualitative study, but also includes quantitative elements as it attempts a first quantification of the extent and nature of skarreling at the CPL site, one of only three operating dumpsites in Cape Town. The aim on the one hand is to estimate the contribution of the skarrelaars to waste reduction (and therefore to sustainability) in the City, especially since the waste they collect is not buried on the landfill, thereby prolonging the operational life span of the landfill. The other aim is to assess the role of the skarrelaars as an economic factor in the township, in particular the question of how important the incomes generated from skarreling are for their individual livelihoods and for the community as a whole.