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Co-operatives as a development mechanism to support job creation and sustainable waste management in South Africa


South Africa, as with most African countries, is facing the reality of limited economic growth, high levels of poverty and increasing unemployment. At the same time, waste generation is growing, especially in urban centres across Africa, posing a great sustainability challenge. However, the waste sector can provide significant opportunities for improving livelihoods, generating jobs and developing enterprises, through the recovery of valuable recyclables. Co-operatives are recognised as a means of formalising the large number of informal waste pickers in developing countries. This paper attempts to identify the challenges facing waste and recycling co-operatives in South Africa. Results suggest that such co-operatives still face numerous challenges relating to infrastructure, operations, and capability. They still operate largely on the fringe of municipal solid waste management, and have not been integrated effectively into such formal collection systems, making it difficult for them to access sufficiently high volumes of recyclables. In addition, some co-operatives are operating as traditional businesses (e.g. following Pty Ltd business models) with the five co-operative members (minimum required membership for registering a co-operative) taking on management roles and instead employing staff to undertake the collection and sorting of recyclables. This is sometimes done through written contracts, but often it is through verbal contracts or no formal contracts at all. Many co-operatives appear to be opportunistic in their registration, targeting short-term co-operative grants and responding to procurement policies that support co-operative development, rather than aiming for long-term sustainability. With a reported 91.8% failure rate of waste recycling co-operatives in South Africa, and the return of many co-operative members back into the informal sector, this business model is not currently creating sustainable businesses or jobs. The results highlight three criteria which are considered crucial to creating a viable co-operative movement in the solid waste management sector in South Africa; access to materials, access to markets, and business development support.

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  1. The expanded definition of unemployment includes those people who are not seeking work but are available to work, i.e. discouraged job-seekers.

  2. Co-operatives are defined as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. They are also recognised as a means to “create and develop income-generating activities and decent, sustainable employment; reduce poverty, develop human resource capacities and knowledge; strengthen competitiveness and sustainability; increase savings and investment; improve social and economic well-being; and contribute to sustainable human development” (the DTI 2012:7; Pezzini and Ambiorix 2006:4).

  3. How long they had known other members in the co-operative, before starting up the co-operative.


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The authors would like to thank the various co-operatives and stakeholders who willingly participated in this study and who freely shared their experience and wisdom with the project team; the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Green Fund (managed by the Development Bank of Southern Africa) and the CSIR who provided funding support for this research; the CSIR staff who assisted with the data collection, interviews, and document review; and the external reviewers, Moniek van Erven and Dr Suzan Oelofse.

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Correspondence to Linda Godfrey.

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Handled by Alexandros Gasparatos, IR3S, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan.

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Godfrey, L., Muswema, A., Strydom, W. et al. Co-operatives as a development mechanism to support job creation and sustainable waste management in South Africa. Sustain Sci 12, 799–812 (2017).

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  • Waste
  • Recycling
  • Co-operative
  • Job creation
  • Small business development
  • South Africa