Building More Sustainable Cities: Urban recyclers – the need for proper storage and sorting space

By Steven Charters

Despite working on the margins of many cities around the world, informal recyclers are playing important roles in urban waste disposal: collecting, sorting and returning discarded recyclables from city streets, parks, alleys and beachfronts. There may be up to 15 million informal recyclers globally (Chaturvedi 2009). The volume of recyclable material diverted from landfills or from lying around as litter by these workers can be substantial. In Durban for example, informal recyclers collectively save approximately 150 tons of recycled material daily from being deposited as waste into local landfills. Typically, however, their contributions to society are not recognized or valued, they earn very little for their efforts, and they are rarely integrated within formalized municipal waste disposal programs or policy.

Being able to accumulate, store and sort collected materials is central to informal recycler’s livelihoods and for lack of alternatives, recyclers in cities usually use streets and other public spaces to do this. They often confront numerous challenges as a result, ranging from theft of their goods by rivals to confrontations with police or local residents who view them as undesirable. Having dedicated spaces for informal recyclers to operate helps to ensure their safety, improve the income potential of their efforts and minimize conflicts with others in the public realm. “The main barrier to the allocation of space for informal recyclers comes down to competing uses for land in a city, and the perceived hierarchy of use”, says Richard Dobson, co-founder and project leader of Asiye eTafuleni, a non-profit organization that works with informal workers in Durban. Not surprisingly, informal workers rank very low on the priority scale. The unorganised, “urban guerrilla tendencies” of their work, their lacking capacity to represent themselves collectively, and the prejudices of city officials ensures that they do not easily climb the municipal priority list.

Durban inner city has a large stream of cardboard waste that is sorted by informal cardboard recyclers – photo by Tasmi Quazi / Asiye eTafuleni

However, cities of the future need to proactively tackle the challenge of creating physical space for recycling activities. Without these spaces it will be difficult to achieve high level of recycling that many cities aim for. In addition, spaces close to the sources of waste are required to ensure that transport-based carbon emissions are kept to a minimum. While in most cities very little is done to ensure the availability of space for recycling activities, there are a few examples where the issue of space allocation is being tackled proactively as a means for improving urban environmental quality and achieving poverty alleviation and social equity goals. In Durban, the long-term sustainable development office of the municipality, Imagine Durban, has partnered with Asiye eTafuleni and other departments to realize a number of projects designed to support the informal recycling sector. The project has been made possible with funding support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that was facilitated by Sustainable Cities International (SCI). In Vancouver, the non-profit organization United We Can has been operating a centrally-located sorting center for more than 15 years. In Dar es Salaam, limited municipal resources and land pose challenges to the work of formal and informal recyclers alike, underscoring that access to convenient space is not only a challenge for the informal economy in many cities. In some cases in Dar, local non-profit organisations are stepping in and providing space for recyclables sorting. In each of these cities we see similar challenges and different approaches to meeting them.


Since 2009, Imagine Durban and Asiye eTafuleni have been working together on an inner-city cardboard recycling program. So far this has involved several demonstration projects focused on building cooperation between recyclers, giving them uniforms to make them appear more presentable in the community, and bridging their relationships with local businesses who produce a lot of recyclable material. Demonstrating the capacity of informal recyclers to be presentable and organized are important steps toward building municipal support for land allocation. The demonstration projects in Durban have had success in improving the earnings of recyclers and strengthening their relationships with businesses and each other. Moving forward will involve collaboration with other municipal departments on a creative design solution: a specialized sorting facility earmarked for an underused piece of municipal land which was collaboratively identified by the recyclers and local government officials.

Preliminary design concept for a waste sorting facility for cardboard recyclers in Durban. The facility shown on the left hand side will provide space for storage, sorting and sale of cardboard. Vehicular access into the circular hardened forecourt will permit trucks buying material to enter the site and back into a loading dock. It is proposed that circular forecourt be screened by a circle of trees and the remainder of the site will be used for a small landscaped park.

The design of the Durban sorting station is intended to be more than a utilitarian space for informal workers but an attractive public amenity that benefits a wide range of users. The final design for the facility is going to be developed by a local government department, but initial renderings developed by Asiye eTafuleni depict a facility integrated within a green space lined with trees. And there is no denying that the location, currently an empty lot used for parking construction equipment but within close proximity to a famous landmark, could use a facelift. This flagship sorting centre will be the first of its kind in the city, but the people behind its development view it only as a step in the right direction. The space is designed to accommodate approximately 15 recyclers.

Positive outcomes for this first station will be measured in how the space is used and maintained. Building a structure is not the hard part, demonstrating that it will be maintained over time in terms of urban management is the major challenge. Promoting the project as a green economy initiative has been a strategic motivator in progressively gaining the support of city officials. Ideally, one day there will be multiple stations distributed throughout Durban, particularly serving high-yield collection routes near commercial and industrial districts.


United We Can in Vancouver, Canada is an organization that provides a venue for informal recyclers – binners – to return and sort the bottles they collect and ensures they receive fair payment. They recognize the dual benefits of recycling, the environmental improvements and the potential to alleviate poverty. United We Can’s sorting facility is a full-scale operation, employing some binners directly to assist others in sorting and tallying their collections.

United We Can is situated in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side neighbourhood, known for high rates of homelessness and drug abuse; this location is very convenient for many binners, some of whom are homeless or drug users themselves. However, Vancouver has some of the highest land values in the world and development pressures are high. United We Can has a special agreement with the City for cheap rent, currently protecting their operation from land speculation. In theory, the agreement for cheap rent could be revoked, and the viability of United We Can’s location thrown into question. Maintaining good relations with the City officials and being able to demonstrate success are crucial to United We Can’s staying power.

Vancouver’s United We Can facility – photo by Simon Thielen

Dar es Salaam

There are many challenges in allocating space for recyclers in Dar es Salaam, given the lack of municipally-controlled land in many parts of the city. Indeed, space issues pose challenges for ‘formal’ recyclers (often small-scale private operations hired by the City) as much as for informal workers. “Of Dar’s population of 5 million people, anywhere from 70-90% of population live in unplanned areas. Individuals subdivide and sell land in peri-urban areas when the city expands outwards, leaving municipal councils with little or no land to set aside for public land uses,” says Morgen Zivhave of SCI. What is more, he continues “Dar and its 3 Municipal Councils have limited capacity to manage waste collection service and they have contracted private companies and community based organisation to collect waste.”

According to Zivhave, many recyclers in Dar are using transfer stations – designated places where waste is held temporarily and sorted before being taken to the dump. Because transfer stations are often located close to residential neighbourhoods, they help reduce instances of illegal waste dumping into public spaces. Some of these transfer stations are run by local NPOs; in one case, the Kisiwani Environmental Group (KEG) started a recycling and composting transfer project using part of a graveyard outside an Anglican Church for waste recycling because they could not get any land from the local government. This recycling initiative has been successful by generating enough revenue through the sale of plastics and compost to employ 3 youth to manage the facility. By providing a convenient space for recyclers to deliver and sort material, KEG helps reduce the volume of waste transferred to dumps. While such transfer stations are largely used by formal recycling collection organizations, perhaps a similar model could be extended to serve informal recyclers as well?

Reducing waste going to the dumpsite is the benefit that Zivhave cites as a key contribution of recyclers to urban sustainability in Dar es Salaam. The largest cost (financially and environmentally) for waste management in Dar is transportation to the main dumpsite, Pugu, some 30km outside of the downtown. Initial research at the KEG transfer station has shown that 60% of waste coming to the transfer station is organic. Separating out not only the recyclable plastics but also the compostable waste almost halves formal waste transportation requirements, and thereby significantly reducing green gas emissions from waste transport. Recently, following a solid waste stakeholder workshop organised by SCI., the Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA) and Dar City Council in July 2012; local authorities agreed to set aside land in existing and abandoned dumps for waste recycling.

Lessons Learned

Informal recyclers already contribute to keeping cities clean, and they have an important role in creating orderly, workable and safe urban environments that benefit everyone, especially in large developing cities where formal garbage systems are limited. From a land allocation perspective, it is critical that cities decide that informal recycling is a priority. In an ideal world, the allocation of space for recycling centres would be part of official legislation or land use plans. If this is not possible, the best next option would be to build sympathetic support for informal recyclers by appealing to broader municipal priorities. In cases where municipalities do not have the resources, there are also opportunities for local NPOs to take an active role in providing space for recycling initiatives.

Steven Charters is currently doing a 6-month internship in Durban as part of our SCI Youth Internship Program. His work will focus on green economic development.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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3 Responses to Building More Sustainable Cities: Urban recyclers – the need for proper storage and sorting space

  1. Pingback: ANATOLE: The importance of local production in cities « Toneta Project

  2. Pingback: Growing Importance of Informal Recycling with Growing Concerns of Climate Change | Asiye EtafuleniAsiye Etafuleni

  3. Pingback: Inner-City Cardboard Recycling Project wins Sustainable Architecture Awards | Sustainable Cities International blog

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