PhD thesis inspires film about South Africa’s waste pickers

Siyabonga, a waste picker in Johannesburg, at a screening for the film Reclaimin
Siyabonga, a waste picker in Johannesburg, at a screening for the film Reclaiming Now.
A PhD thesis about waste pickers in South Africa has led to a new film exploring their lives which is being screened at UCL Laws on Wednesday 8 March.

Waste pickers are informal workers who collect and sell recyclables for a living. In South Africa, an estimated 90,000 waste pickers collect 80-90% of everything that is recycled, playing a vital role in protecting the country’s environment, yet they are often stigmatised, face legal problems and are vulnerable to crime.

The new documentary, entitled Reclaiming Now, portrays waste pickers in Johannesburg as they struggle to make a living, sorting through hazardous waste in skips, tips and on the street.

Dr Allison Lindner, an interdisciplinary scholar and Lecturer at UCL Laws, interviewed waste pickers in South Africa as part of her PhD thesis investigating how legal ideas shaped the lives of vulnerable workers.

She worked with directors Premilla Murcott and Tricia Hlongwa to translate her thesis findings into a widely accessible medium that could reach a large number of people.

"The film shows a dimension of the global recycling economy that we often don’t think about," she says. "That plastic bottle you recycle may end up being collected by a waste picker like in South Africa."

Dr Lindner explains that South Africa’s constitution guarantees the right to sustainable development (that is, to enjoy a protected environment and improved economic, and social conditions) but this is not the case in practice for waste pickers, who often live in poverty.

"They are making such an amazing contribution - extending the use of landfills, keeping cities clean... Yet there is no real prospect for the average waste picker to improve their lot in life, through training or a better job," she says.

Dr Lindner is now engaging with policymakers in South Africa to ensure waste pickers’ voices are heard in the development of policies for the sector. Waste pickers have traditionally been excluded from this process and face widespread problems such as a lack of access to waste facilities and can be criminalised or face fines for working in certain areas without a permit.

Better integration of waste pickers into policy-making may not only lead to better working conditions and more training and job opportunities, but, by harnessing their expertise, could also increase the amount that is recycled.

Dr Lindner’s PhD drew on ethnographic ideas, looking at how people interact with legal institutions, concepts and frameworks. "This kind of inquiry produces a different kind of knowledge to a standard legal inquiry. You might look at a case, for instance, but also speak to the two sides to see how they understand the legal process and how it’s affecting them."

She says: "I hope this film can be used as an educational tool for academics as well as the general public. It can help people connect the dots between lofty legal ideas and realities on the ground."

The screening of Reclaiming Now will take place at 18.00-19.45 on Wednesday 8 March. It is a hybrid event, taking place at UCL Laws and online, and will include a Q&A with Dr Allison Lindner and the film directors. Register here: CLE - Spotlight on Waste: Film Screening and Policy Brief launch Tickets, Wed 8 Mar 2023 at 18:00