The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Turning livelihoods to rubbish? Assessing the impacts of formalization and technologization of waste management on the urban poor

Research Partners:

Show map
Principal Investigator: Erik Achille Swyngedouw.  Lead Organisation: University of Manchester (Environment, Education and Development)
Co-Investigators: Mary Lawhon (University of Pretoria); Henrik Ernstson (University of Manchester)

Waste reuse and recycling has become increasingly important to livelihoods, particularly in the Global South. As environmental concerns and awareness of the financial benefits of waste rise, there is growing contestation over who will be allowed to benefit from waste. Formalisation, financialisation, the use of technology to replace labour and shared governance responsibilities are increasing, and this often removes opportunities from the poorest of the poor and typically excludes those who already depend on this resource for their livelihoods, particularly women, youth, and migrants. The research will look at four interventions in South Africa: i) The technologization of waste and opposition from informal recyclers and environmentalists. We do this through an examination of opposition to an incinerator based on the claim that recycling is better for the environment and the poor. ii) The internationalisation of waste finance. We will study a group of actors trying to harness international climate finance to fund this development. iii) Inner city formalization and criminalization of waste collection. The vision of many policy makers and business interests of a 'proper city' often contrasts with the way that informal workers use the city. In trying to establish this vision, informal workers are often excluded from the city, however, many oppose such removals. iv) Cooperative governance for waste management. A government-funded waste awareness campaign seeks to develop partnerships with communities and businesses to improve waste management. However, community participation has challenged the framing of win-win solutions, pushing for greater consideration of social and political concerns. In each case, we seek to understand competing claims over what waste is, who should benefit from its management, and how decisions are made to allocate costs and benefits. We will also examine how changing political and institutional conditions shape different actors' abilities to garner benefits from waste and achieve sustainable pathways out of poverty. This has direct policy implications, as the work will inform policy-makers regarding what types of waste interventions can improve conditions for the urban poor as well as build capacity with waste workers regarding effective strategies for asserting claims to the benefits of waste. Theoretically, we use an urban political ecology framework which draws attention to questions of social justice, inequality, and the connection between political economy and everyday material lives. We situate our research in the context of Southern theory which seeks to understand Southern cities on their own terms, not through theories developed in the Global North. We seek to learn from South Africa because many patterns here are indicative of future possibilities and challenges for other cities in the Global South. Consumption is growing as incomes rise for the middle and upper class, and inequality increases. While problematic in many ways, this polarisation creates opportunities for waste collection. Additionally, South Africa already has progressive regulation, but this results in competing mandates. It suggests that more is needed than simply passing more policies. Finally, South Africa is in many ways at the forefront of technological innovation, but there is a growing trend towards the use of high tech solutions throughout the Global South. For these reasons, there are many lessons which can be learned in South Africa which will have a wider impact. We will will engage with a diverse range of stakeholders, including formal and informal waste practitioners, government officials, and NGOs. We will present our findings in a number of ways, including academic conferences, policy briefings, and workshops with local and regional stakeholders. We will also create a mobile story-telling exhibition to share our findings.

Our impact strategy involves six key outputs, including workshops, policy briefings, case study descriptions for African planning schools and a story-telling exhibition and print media and a website. A Key Stakeholder Workshop (W1) will be held in Johannesburg within 3 months of starting the project, combined with an advisory board meeting including a DFID representative. W1 will include partners from whom we have received principled support (suggesting a readiness for engagement with waste interventions in South Africa) and form a critical step in grounding research questions, methods and outputs in the local context and planning to enhance impacts. Three organizations work closely with informal waste workers: groundWork, South African Waste Pickers Association, and WIEGO. Furthermore, we have established relationships with CSIR, the state-led scientific research organization; GCRO, with experience in quantitative statistics, maps and policy analysis in the Johannesburg city-region; and the Capital Cities Initiative at UP and a lead researcher, Dr Detlev Krige. We have experience working with local governments in Cape Town, Pretoria/Tshwane, and will ensure thatcontacts are established in Durban. These organisations will share experiences on increasing impact. Further, we will have participation from Drs Jon Silver and Shuiab Lwasa, who will be our primary contacts for considering the implications of theresearch for Ghana and Uganda respectively. Early in the third year, after field work and preliminary analysis, a stakeholder workshop will be held in Pretoria, building on contacts during field work. Later that year we will organize a regional workshop (W3) with researchers from cities in Southern Africa to extend the impact of our work. We will draw on the literature as well as established networks through the Capital Cities Initiative, African Centre for Cities (Univ of Cape Town/Ernstson), the African Urban Research Initiative (AURI) and UoM to identify relevant scholars. The project includes an analogue/digital story-telling exhibition based on the research. The exhibition will be mobile and used by us and our partners in the different cities during the last year, including in Manchester and published on the project website. Benefits to non-academic users: Formal and informal waste industry: These actors are influenced by the interventions and will likely gain benefits and/or suffer losses. Our aim is to empower workers through information and skill building regarding policy engagement. Policymakers: Our work informs multiple scales of policy processes and the negotiation of competing mandates. Researchwill help municipalities assess specific interventions and prioritize among options. The analysis will indicate what an enabling policy environment for job creation from waste might entail here and elsewhere. Beneficiaries will be engaged in W1-3. Urban planning teachers and students: We will write up pedagogic case studies for African universities' planning schools to contribute to the need for new teaching materials in facing the rapid and novel dynamics of African urbanization, distributedthrough the Association of African Planning Schools. Civil society: Environmental justice NGOs who have worked with informal wasteworkers will gain understanding of what makes for successful claims and strategies. These beneficiaries will be invited to participate in W2-3. The general public: Wasteworkers frequently experience negative interactions with the public; improving this relationship will make it easier to extract value from waste. We will work with a professional facilitator, a photographer and a media designer to make information available in multiple forms, including a mobile story-telling exhibition. Regional stakeholders: We will expand the impact of our work through engagement with scholars throughout Southern Africa (W3).

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Environment, Education and Development
Fund Start Date: 
November 1st, 2015
Fund End Date: 
February 28th, 2019
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: 
Data type: