How much ‘bin pickers’ make in South Africa – with some earning more than the national average

 ·10 Jun 2024

The majority of waste or bin pickers in South Africa earn between R300 and R600 per week, but some can earn as much as R7,000—which is more than the average formally employed worker.

This was highlighted by The Outlier, which noted that a research report interviewed 226 bin pickers in the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) about the nature of their work.

The report aimed to identify these pickers and understand how they operated, including the challenges they faced in South Africa.

The rubbish that they focused on collecting the most was e-waste, with the most collected type being cables (45%), followed by screens (39.5%), and 28.2% indicated they collected all types of e-waste.

Other discarded items included radios, machine parts, kettles, TVs, and computer parts.

The report further highlighted that waste pickers in the CoJ collect e-waste from multiple locations.

74% of the waste was sourced dustbins outside houses were where the most e-waste was collected, followed by shops and businesses (60.9%) and 56% was directly collected from residents.

A further 7.3% collected e-waste from streets and roads and local illegal dumping areas.

They sort through rubbish to separate paper, plastic, and metal from the actual trash and sell the recyclables for income.

Of the pickers surveyed, more than 70% earn less than R600 a week. The majority (39%) earned between R300 and R600 per week.

However, roughly 12% earned close to or over R1,000 a month, while 3% earned more than R1,501.

The report highlighted that the lowest weekly earnings figure given was R100, and the highest was R7,000.

This works out to between R400 to R28,000 per month.

According to the latest quarterly employment survey (QES) published by Stats SA, the average monthly earnings are R26,894, meaning some pickers earn over 4% more than the average formally employed worker.

The sector is predominantly male, possibly due to the physically demanding nature of hauling fully loaded trolleys over long distances.

Only 16% of waste reclaimers are women, and they tend to work closer to dumpsites. Approximately a quarter of the survey respondents had been collecting waste for about 10 years.

The Department of Environmental Affairs conservatively estimated that there could be as many as 62,000 waste pickers in the country, with about 40% of them working as trolley pushers.

This is more than double the number of people employed in the formal waste management industry. The South African Waste Pickers Association claims to have 90,000 members across all nine provinces.

The waste stream in South Africa continues to grow, putting pressure on landfill capacity.

Dumping fees in urban areas vary widely. While land near urban centres is valuable, high fees may lead to illegal dumping on open land, causing serious health and environmental concerns.

Over the years, participation in several consumer-focused recycling programs has been very low, with less than 20% of households taking part.

However, informal waste collectors are estimated to have diverted 82% of waste packaging material, amounting to approximately 1.47 million tonnes, from landfills in a single year.

These collectors or pickers have saved municipalities roughly R608 million (more if the cost of environmental impact is added), and all at no cost to the taxpayer.

Despite this, the respondents highlighted a number of challenges that they faced on a daily basis.

These include mistreatment and abuse by homeowners, intimidation by taxi drivers on the roads, and stiff competition from waste collection contractors like Pikitup in Johannesburg.

Notably, in a survey conducted in Johannesburg, 8,000 pickers collected more recyclable material in 22 days than Pikitup’s recycling programme collected in two years.

Read: Big problems for domestic workers in South Africa

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