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Turning livelihood to rubbish?
The politics of value and valuation in South Africa’s urban waste sector

This chapter is a summary of research into different types of waste interventions in South Africa. The neoliberalisation of the South African state, the widening socio-ecological polarisation and the discursive emphasis on pursuing a more socially inclusive and ecologically benign development trajectory turn the South African case into an emblematic example of urban waste transition. The examination of interventions in the urban metabolic waste stream provides a lens through which to capture some of the key processes, contradictions and transformations. The chapter describes the dynamic institutional, technical, social and political-ecological landscape of waste management in South Africa and how this in turn is shaping the practices by which waste is transformed into economic and social value, who is allowed to claim such benefits, and what makes for successful claims. The empirical work is based on investigations into 1) the technologisation of waste management, 2) the differential impacts of the internationalisation of waste management finance and 3) initiatives that emphasise collaborative governance and community participation and awareness as means of improving waste management.


Urban waste is increasingly garnering attention for multiple reasons. Cities are responsible for producing – and thus managing – a growing proportion of global waste flows, now about 80 per cent of the world's waste (Myers, 2005). Waste produces a variety of negative socio-ecological externalities, and these are exacerbated by the high densities of population and waste in cities. Concerns over the health impacts of proximity to decomposing materials and the plastics that clog waterways have recently been complemented by worries over the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from waste and its management.

But in many cities across the global south, the positive potential of waste has long been recognised. Actors, particularly in the informal sector, harness the value of this waste: waste makes essential contributions to the precarious livelihoods of millions of poor urban dwellers through waste-picking for use, recycling, recuperation and sale, and through practices, markets and production processes associated with urban waste circulation processes (Miraftab, 2004; Samson, 2010a and 2010b). More recently, public policies and discourses in the north and south (often promoted by the state, environmentalists and international donors) are seeking to reframe waste as a resource and to promote a more regular and efficient capturing of value through the construction of metabolic value chains.

It is not surprising, therefore, that urban sustainability and socio-ecological transition policies consider the urban waste metabolic cycle as a key leverage point for securing more ecologically benign, economically viable and socially inclusive waste management technologies, procedures, policies and mechanisms. While attention is paid to reducing or avoiding waste, significant effort has been focused on how to move from waste as useless and dangerous ‘excrement’ or as ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas, 2004 [1966]) to incorporating (part of) the waste cycle within a value chain (Crang et al., 2013; Lepawsky and Billah, 2011). The idea here is to render waste ‘valuable’ in economic terms as well as ecologically more ‘sustainable’, while also generating positive social outcomes.

And yet, as we argue through our examination of recent efforts to intervene in the South African wastescape, it is extremely difficult to address this triad of objectives. Competing interests, dynamic economies and the very real materiality and thus heterogeneity of waste shape the ability of various actors to make either cents or sense of what is and ought to be. Instead of a well-ordered, efficient system of waste management (in the sense of the modern infrastructure ideal as defined by Graham and Marvin (2001)), we see in practice a diverse, highly politicised, multi-scalar set of interventions seeking to push waste management towards an implausible set of countervailing goals.

This chapter is a summary of research into different types of waste interventions in South Africa. In a context of growing global and local inequality and deteriorating socio-ecological conditions, the case of South Africa is particularly instructive. The neoliberalisation of the South African state, the widening socio-ecological polarisation and the discursive emphasis on pursuing a more socially inclusive and ecologically benign development trajectory turn the South African case into an emblematic example of urban waste transition. The examination of interventions in the urban metabolic waste stream provides a lens through which to capture some of the key processes, contradictions and transformations. We chose these interventions as being indicative of wider trends in waste management, particularly in southern cities seeking to harness global finance, create more ‘modern’, uniform and universal (and therefore legible and countable) economies, generate employment opportunities and demonstrate due diligence towards responsible ecological governance. We are ultimately interested in how change happens and how the impact of specific interventions interacts with officially stated objectives of poverty reduction.

The chapter therefore describes the dynamic institutional, technical, social and political ecological landscape of waste management in South Africa and how this in turn is shaping the practices by which waste is transformed into economic and social value, who is allowed to claim such benefits, and what makes for successful claims. We call attention to the competing mandates of government – to manage waste, support social development and increase employment while limiting the cost of both and nurturing a green sustainable transition model – and the ways in which various actors respond to these often countervailing mandates. The empirical work is based on investigations into: 1) the technologisation of waste management; 2) the differential impacts of the internationalisation of waste management finance; and 3) initiatives that emphasise collaborative governance and community participation and awareness as means of improving waste management. Before we examine this triad, we provide a conceptual and theoretical entry into the problem.

An urban political ecology of waste metabolism

We mobilise theoretical and empirical insights from urban political ecology (UPE) (Heynen et al., 2006; Swyngedouw, 1996) while extending and reformulating this perspective through the inclusion of theoretical and empirical insights from the global south (Ernstson et al., 2014; Robinson, 2011; Roy, 2009). Urban scholars have increasingly demonstrated that research on ‘ordinary’ cities is necessary for understanding future urbanisation, particularly as urbanisation is happening most rapidly in cities of the south (Robinson, 2011; Simone, 2011). This demands a reconsideration of the universality of aspects of urban theory, and the development of new theory from new locations. Importantly, this argument is not a rejection of the ability of theory to travel; it is an argument for a more careful and grounded consideration of which aspects of theory can and ought to travel (Ernstson and Sörlin, 2019; Lawhon and Truelove, 2020; Lawhon et al., 2020; Parnell and Oldfield, 2014). Specifically, therefore, we seek to develop a situated urban political ecological analysis that is grounded in the challenges of cities in the global south and that has the potential to inform practice that is based on this context, while still inform wider circulations of theory (Lawhon et al., 2014).

We use this as an entry point for further developing the range of theoretical innovations and interventions in the field of urban political ecology. Urban political ecologies show how socio-material flows (e.g. of water, electricity or waste) produce cities and their ‘hinterlands’ and influence their socio-physical environments. Such studies forefront the ways in which these socio-material flows shape and are shaped by ecological, social, political and economic relations and the associated distribution of use values and exchange values. Viewing waste as a socio-material flow that can be reworked by social actors to extract value through the mobilisation of specific knowledges, technologies and infrastructures provides a lens through which to unpack social, cultural, economic and political relations, winners and losers, and to understand how urbanisation structures society and the environment (Heynen et al., 2006). This chapter combines insights from southern cities with UPE to understand everyday environmental injustices in the context of political economic forces and everyday micropolitics (Ernstson and Sörlin, 2019; Lawhon et al., 2014 and 2020; Loftus, 2012; Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan, 2013). We build on and inform such theoretical frameworks by simultaneously exploring the impact of international capital, decision-making strategies and expectations about modernity, employment and the moral value of work on local contestations over waste beneficiation.

Much of the existing literature on contestations over waste management draws from cases in the global north (for example, Bulkeley et al., 2007). As argued in urban studies more generally, this provides limited grounding through which to study cases where informality and poverty significantly shape waste practices. A large part of the current research on waste in the global south focuses on the practices of informal waste collectors (Gutberlet, 2012; Millar, 2014; Millington and Lawhon, 2019; Mitchell, 2008; Samson 2010a; Schenck and Blaauw, 2011; Thieme, 2013) and broader patterns of neoliberalisation, privatisation and enclosure (Fredericks, 2014; Gidwani, 2015; Gidwani and Reddy, 2011; Gutberlet, 2012; Holifield, 2004; Millington and Lawhon, 2019; Miraftab, 2004; Njeru, 2006; Rosaldo, 2016; Samson, 2015). Our work draws from these analyses in order to develop understandings of the links between policy, technology, poverty, power and waste itself, particularly in light of the changing political economy of waste internationally, regionally and nationally and associated political and technological interventions. This is to say, we argue that the possibilities for making a decent livelihood from waste are shaped by factors as diverse as global carbon finance, the roll-out of kerbside collection of recyclables and the amount of food a household is willing to throw away. As a study of urban political ecology, therefore, we include much more explicit consideration of the material flows – and their social, technical and economic impacts – and frame questions of power within a wider, multi-scalar set of impacts.

Waste interventions: the perverse social ecologies of ‘greening’ waste

Waste management in the global south is a growing concern, although data and trends are difficult to obtain (Idris et al., 2004). While uncontrolled landfilling remains the dominant strategy in many places – for example, estimates in India suggest 90 per cent of household waste goes to uncontrolled sites (Talyan et al., 2008) – in the global north, regulations are reducing the overall use of landfilling, replacing it with recycling as well as more technologically intensive alternatives (Giusti, 2009). In the global south, development agencies often support small-scale activities such as enabling and organising informal recycling or increased governance capacity. International capital, however, has also demonstrated interest in large-scale projects such as waste-for-energy incineration and harnessing the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) for international finance (Plöchl et al., 2008).

South Africa has undergone significant changes since the end of apartheid in 1994, yet poverty remains widespread and inequality has increased (Bhorat and van der Westhuizen, 2010; Sulla and Zikhali, 2018), with continuing deep differences between the rural countryside and the city, and within cities (Sinclair-Smith and Turok, 2012; Swilling, 2006; Turok, 2001). While the economy has grown, much of this is considered ‘jobless’ growth or even ‘job-shedding’. Inequality has provocative consequences for waste: high-income lifestyles produce much waste, and the precarious conditions of the urban poor result in ‘willing’ labourers. While ethically problematic, the juxtaposition of rich and poor creates opportunities such as economically viable, labour-intensive recycling, and extensive recirculation of used goods. The ability to capitalise on the demand for waste, however, is limited for various reasons, including a complex, unclear and inconsistent political and institutional context (Godfrey and Oelofse, 2008).

Nevertheless, the growing dissatisfaction with the economy has led the state – across national, regional and municipal levels – to create campaigns and initiatives encouraging volunteerism and community-led projects more vigorously as well as workfare and entrepreneurial opportunities. Waste work (the labour that goes into transforming waste at different stages of the metabolic value chain) is increasingly being recast as both a speculative process for financial gain and a civic obligation. Legislatively, waste has increasingly been identified in policy documents and practices as a resource from which to generate wealth and create jobs, including in the 2010 New Growth Path and the 2008 National Environmental Management Waste Act (Republic of South Africa, 2008; South Africa, 2010). As a sector that is seen to possess low barriers to entry, waste has been framed as a means of generating low-income jobs throughout the nation. In the remainder of this chapter, we critically evaluate these efforts by the state and multiple other actors to rework the wastescape, highlighting South Africa's capacity to shed light on similar dynamics in other developing countries.

Technology and labour

High rates of unemployment mean that the relationship between technology and labour is critical to contemporary conversations about waste management throughout the global south, and has particular salience in South Africa (Lawhon at al., 2018). Contemporary recycling and waste management facilities are marked by the complex interplay between the manual and the technical in the management of waste (Zapata Campos and Hall, 2013). While ‘technical’ may evoke images of expensive automated systems of waste sorting, manual recycling and waste collection by salary-paid workers within a formalised industry, it also encompasses a series of small-scale technological interventions outside the more formalised industry that intersect with existing infrastructures of waste collection and processing, such as trolleys and bicycles. Waste management in the global south is often a labour-intensive and largely manual operation, given the low cost of labour. Nevertheless, the small margins associated with the industry, as well as pressures to innovate, compel the technological advancement of productivity through technologies such as conveyors, sorting assemblages, sophisticated trucks, compressors and mechanisms for tracking global and local price fluctuations. (For a textured illustration of the diversity of the waste industry, see the online film by Kruger et al., 2019).

In spite of these dynamics, the increasingly sophisticated nature of recycling and waste management in the global north has put pressures on countries of the global south to keep up with trends (see also analyses of the quest for modernity: Ferguson, 1999; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Mitchell, 2002). This is occurring at the same time that waste is increasingly articulated as a ‘commodity frontier’ (Demaria and Schindler, 2016; Moore, 2015; Samson, 2019), one whose profitability is dependent on new technologies of extraction and material remaking. These include the value that can be found in waste objects through recycling, but also through more sophisticated mechanisms of using waste to generate energy through processes such as anaerobic digestion and incineration. As detailed in other work (Lawhon at al., 2018), the possibility of automating waste collection in South Africa is appealing to waste managers and professionals. The low cost of labour coupled with state pressures for job creation, however, limit the development of automated waste management systems. Waste remains a largely manual operation throughout much of the country, partly at the level of collection, and at the level of sorting. Efforts to develop separation-at-source initiatives throughout the country are ongoing. However, they remain complicated by the cost dynamics associated with recycling, especially the high costs of transport and fuel, in part an effect of the apartheid legacies of South Africa's cities with long distances between different segregated areas (Turok, 2001). These dynamics in turn intersect with the fluctuating national and, in particular, international prices of recyclables and can render collection financially unviable.

Given financial costs and continued reliance on manual sorting and collecting, technologies such as incineration, waste-to-energy and landfill gas extraction have played a limited, albeit symbolically important role within waste initiatives in Africa. Nevertheless, energy professionals and other actors are increasingly marketing them as win-win solutions that can reduce the externalities of waste while generating other benefits, especially energy. Such technologies are being promoted in the global south as private capital seeks new outlets given the increasing regulatory control and stringent regulation in the north (Gandy, 2004; Platt, 2004). For example, in the 1970s and early 1980s municipal governments in São Paulo and Buenos Aires had contemplated the expansion of incinerators for household waste. However, at that time social mobilisation and the high cost of this technology prevented its establishment. Waste incineration has now re-emerged in many places around the global south as waste-to-energy plants, and typically involves processes of anaerobic digestion of organic wastes (Demaria and Schindler, 2016; Gutberlet, 2012; Platt, 2004). Unlike incineration more broadly, which involves complex conflicts with local recyclers due to the shared material feedstock, anaerobic digestion mainly involves organic waste and is subsequently somewhat disconnected from the politics surrounding recycling and waste-picking. In South Africa's case, anaerobic digestion investments have largely been led by the private sector, while the state has primarily pitched job creation in the waste sector at the level of collection. These imply very different numbers and types of jobs that can be created, from low-wage collecting and sorting jobs, to higher-skill engineering jobs at the management level.

Small-scale renewable energy generation

Commonly referred to as waste-to-energy, anaerobic digestion and biogas production are positioned as a source of waste minimisation that furthers sustainability through the production of energy and reducing methane emissions. A nascent biogas industry exists in South Africa, largely financed through international development agencies as well as private financing more generally. In 2017, a large-scale anaerobic digestion plant was built in Cape Town, designed to handle roughly 10 per cent of the city's organic waste. Developed by New Horizons Energy, a ‘disruptive waste-to-energy company’ that offers ‘revolutionary waste management and cost-effective green energy’, the project was entirely funded by private financiers and development banks in spite of some late attention from Cape Town's municipal government (Cloete, 2017; New Horizons Energy, n.d.). The stated reason for the plant's applicability to the Western Cape context was the combination of high landfill and gas prices, which rendered anaerobic digestion more cost effective than in other provinces or cities. Without these effective subsidies, the project would have not been viable (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). While efforts to link waste-to-energy projects to global climate finance marked the South African waste sector in periodic moments over the last decade, the collapse of the global carbon price has meant that carbon finance has played a minimal role in environmental projects throughout the country since 2012, despite the fact that both international organisations and the private sector considered them the key in the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018).

Turning the city's organic waste into energy has proved difficult, however, as waste compositions have not matched existing calculations and plans. When discussing the development of the project, a South African energy professional noted that the project needed to be reworked once it was established due to changing compositions of organic waste materials being produced by urban residents; increasing composting rates for wealthy households were matched by decreased amounts of waste materials in increasingly poor households (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). The statistics used to provide the economic rationale to build the plant were not adequate to operate in a new and changing material reality of waste management in the country. The designed and existing operational arrangement in the new plant had to be reconfigured in order for it to remain financially viable for the foreseeable future. While intimately linked to the specificities of Cape Town's social, physical and energy landscape, not least the steep inequality between its households, the city's attempts at turning waste into energy were complicated by the specific materialities of organic waste in the city. Given shifts in the nature of waste itself, its changing quantity and its highly heterogeneous character as a commodity, these efforts intersected with the infrastructures of waste collection and processing to create a situation where existing frameworks were inadequate. These shifts in waste are intimately linked to historically persistent and deepening inequality, and the broadening degree to which consumption patterns and waste practices are connected to class and its racialised geographies.

Anaerobic digestion, as with the broader biogas industry, is dependent on infrastructural and institutional dynamics related to existing grids and accessibility. In South Africa currently, energy producers do not have the right to sell back electricity to the grid except in very specific arrangements or agreements between certain public and private actors. This produces a situation where the governance dynamics yield situations in which renewable energy (via waste or otherwise) is only possible in very particular circumstances. In the case of South Africa, ongoing dynamics at the federal level are working to curtail the nascent renewable energy industry. Waste, in this permutation, again comes in and out of focus depending on the forms into which it is inserted. Its relationality is crucial to its ability to be rendered profitable or productive, but in its materialised form – exhibiting a high degree of heterogeneity, in contrast to water and electricity, for instance – it seems a quite undisciplined and uncooperative commodity that makes profits and the building of an industrial sector for job creation around it difficult. As such, rendering value from waste through the development of energy is by no means an intuitive process, even though it can be presented as such in design sketches and spreadsheets, but rather one that entails complex negotiations with existing inequalities and their materialisations in infrastructure.

Wasting climate finance

The internationalisation of waste financing

The formal adoption of the CDM through the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has reconfigured waste finance at the international scale, aiming to source finance capital in the global north to be invested in plants and technologies in the global south to reduce the global amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Its implications for sustainable development and poverty reduction remain unclear (Olsen, 2007), however, particularly as the international markets for Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) collapsed after 2012, dropping from an initial high at over €20 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e) in June 2008, to €6 in the financial crash in September 2008, to only around €0.30 from 2013 to today (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). The most notorious of these CDM waste-to-landfill projects is the Durban Bisasar Road Landfill project (Bond, 2007; Couth et al., 2011), but nine other projects have been approved by the South African Designated Authority as of April 2017 (SADNA, 2017). Eight were eventually registered with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the institutional linchpin for managing the CDM architecture. Thus, a first observation is that while South Africa initially seemed to look like a perfect country for the rolling-out of CDM projects, as it has a considerably well-developed high-tech industry with know-how and management capacity while still holding low- to middle-income status and dynamics, there has been in retrospect a fairly small output in realised CDM projects in the country.

Urban waste has been considered as an important quilting point in the process of transforming the urban socio-ecological imprint. As a 2010 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report stated, ‘the waste sector is in a unique position to move from being a minor source of global emissions to becoming a major saver of emissions’ (UNEP, 2010). Silver, based on his case study of a contested CDM-initiated waste project in Uganda, concurs that this is also how waste and CDM finance have been portrayed: ‘alongside the potentials bound up in capturing its material value (and in addressing under-funded waste system operations through new circulations of finance) it is likely [international and local actors have argued] that waste infrastructure will become a crucial site of urban carbon governance’ (Silver, 2017: 1481).

From its very inception in the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol, advocates of the CDM portrayed the system as potentially generating financial flows to the developing world, mitigating climate gas emissions and nurturing employment and economic growth. The relationship between urban ecological modernisation policies, financialisation of urban socio-ecological infrastructure and internationally agreed climate mitigation instruments like the CDM has often been acknowledged in the literature. This includes investigations into its chequered history, the complexity of its institutional arrangement, the pseudo-commodification of (part of) the atmosphere and the speculative nature of turning non-human material like CO2 into financialised assets to be traded on an uncertain, volatile and now basically defunct market (Lane and Newell, 2016; Newell, 2012; Stephan and Lane, 2014). In addition, the uneven socio-ecological consequences are also widely acknowledged, while the contribution to greenhouse gas reductions is negligible, as confirmed by leading climate scientists (Anderson, 2012). Nonetheless, despite these critical accounts of the mechanism and the fact that it has basically stopped performing since the price of CERs collapsed after the financial crisis, we maintain that the CDM nonetheless played a critical role in sustaining and nurturing the assetisation and financialisation of nature, while nudging investments in the direction of techno-managerial ecological modernisation (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). In this aspect, South Africa, perhaps in particular because of its high-tech industrial sector, became an important testing ground to roll out CDM; albeit not producing effective greenhouse gas emission ‘sinks’, South Africa served to showcase the realisation of CDM and was useful to produce examples that could be deemed ‘successful’ regardless of whether they fulfilled the grand goals of the scheme. With this double goal, discursive window-dressing and producing concrete examples, the huge landfills found in and outside South Africa's major cities were prime sites.

Landfill gas projects in South Africa were considered an easy option to obtain a large number of tradable carbon credits: ‘From the outset of CDM projects, landfill gas projects may have been viewed as the most viable and easiest to implement, offering a perception of quick access to realising emission reduction credits. An omnipresent description phrase to landfill gas CDM projects has been “low hanging fruit”’ (Strachan et al., 2005).

The production of a tradable permit, however, is a complex, time-consuming, expensive and highly bureaucratic process that involves a wide range of actors, institutions, companies and bureaucracies in many different places and operating at diverse geographical scales. These include local project developers, local governments, the host national authority, the CDM executive board, project operators, private or state funders, the ever-present row of ‘expert’ consultancy companies that generate their own profits from this process through their technical, legal and accounting services, and on top of that a string of spreadsheets, reports and calculations that dot any CDM-related research report (Couth et al., 2011). The CDM is at heart an institutional arrangement that produces a tradable ‘permit to pollute’. The average cost of a project to go through an uncertain validation process is on average between US$20,000 and US$35,000 (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018; Michaelowa and Jotzo, 2005) and generates all manner of profits for participating private actors, consultants and beyond. The price of CERs has to be sufficiently high to merit the risk of initiating a validation process.

The production of CERs as potential new assets resides precisely in their ability to generate capital that would co-produce investment in a process deemed to both save on carbon emissions and support the profitability of the overall investment (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). CERs are therefore a linchpin for legitimising the financial viability of waste-to-value projects. This markedly undermines local and national governmental policies to increase the number of jobs that are hoped to be gained from formalising the waste value chain. CDM works to cut job creation from the supposed economic values that lie in waste. From the viewpoint of a CDM-initiated gas-to-energy project, the economic value of large landfills lies in the biochemical process of methane production that unfolds in the deeper layers of anaerobic waste metabolism, which starts some 2 to 3 metres below the surface. Digging down vertical and horizontal pipes leads the methane gas produced in these deeper layers out of the landfill to be flared, producing heat and water – but also CO2. The heat can, in turn, power a turbine to produce energy and electricity that could be sold to further enhance the financial viability of the project. As methane is officially accounted as twenty-three times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, the flaring of methane thus saves on total carbon emissions (while still producing it). However, what makes this value capture possible, as argued by Gidwani (2013), lies in enclosing and privatising the commons of waste. CDM thus translates the waste commons into the material base that permits the institutional-regulatory construction of CERs as a private asset.

We examined ten South African waste-flaring or waste-to-energy projects that were submitted to the UN authority on CDM, the UNFCCC (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). Of a total of 358 CDM projects submitted to the South African Designated National Authority as of 21 April 2017, only eighty-six had passed the first pole and been registered by the CDM Executive Board in Geneva (SADNA, 2017). Only twelve of the eighty-six had received CERs after verification and validation. Of the ten waste-to-gas projects, one had been rejected and one was no longer operational. Only two had chosen to, and successfully generated electricity. Five projects went through a CER validation process during their first official crediting period and obtained a specified and verified amount of CERs (Bhailall, 2015). Of these, only three projects renewed their application for the second crediting period. All registered projects that issued CERs (except one) had been able to sell most of their CERs, but not always at the anticipated price. There was also notable discrepancy between the ex ante predicted emission savings and the actual amounts eventually certified (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018).

CDM: financially legitimising waste-to-value projects

The CDM insisted on the additionality principle in order to approve a project. This conditionality, combined with assuring the economic viability of the project, nurtured a general tendency among South African projects to inflate the anticipated greenhouse emission avoidance in the project formulation stage. While waste-to-electricity projects based their profitability calculation on the combination of the sale of electricity (whose price and corporate structure is highly monopolised and regulated in the South African context), the economic feasibility of methane flaring depended crucially on the income generated through the offsetting market.

In sum, and confirmed in our interviews (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018), in all cases the promise of generated tradable CERs, with an anticipated price level commensurate with the market conditions and expected trends at the time of preparation of the project, was crucial to get the project off the ground. This is also confirmed in other studies:

As such, the sale of the CERs is often considered to be a critical part of the project design. Without the sale of the CERs the projects are often not economically viable for project developers. ‘You know it is not at all uncommon for a project to become viable and unviable several times while you're going through the development stages just because of the carbon price changing.’

(South African CDM project developer, quoted in Varughese, 2012: 27–8)

All interviewees (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018) confirmed that the initial project financing plans included a significant input from climate finance as the financial planning rested fundamentally on two income streams: the sale of electricity to the state electricity company (accounting for around 70 per cent of anticipated revenue) and carbon finance. It is precisely these anticipated returns that provided the economic rationale for the project's implementation, while the environmental benefits, in particular the ‘avoidance of emitting’ greenhouse gases, sustained the political rationale for supporting the project as part of a supposedly emergent ‘green economy’.

The promise, therefore, of significant transfers of ecological rents from the global north to the global south, articulated within an overall discursive framework of climate mitigation policies that conform to market rule, was a recurrent theme at the project preparation stage. The hugely inflated ex ante calculations of anticipated CERs permitted the production of a rosy financial calculation of the project's economic viability, and therefore assisted greatly in the efforts to privatise, commodify and enclose the commons of waste. Of course, the financial architecture of the project would also assure that the local project would become embedded in global or transnational flows of capital, which, as noted above, had little concern for generating jobs. Of the five projects that had CERs issued, they initially all entered into Emission Reduction Purchase Agreements with international financiers of a variety of kinds (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). Tracing these from landfill to purchaser reveals a network from anaerobic methane production, institutional-legal processes of enclosing methane as a privatisable commodity, socio-technical transformations of methane into H2O, CO2 and, in two cases, electricity, on to national and international climate institutions and investors elsewhere who agreed to purchase the CERs.

While the architecture of the CDM was built around the transfer of capital from the global north to the global south, thereby further nurturing the transnational flows of capital in the financing of local development projects as a means to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, the case of CDM in South Africa speaks to the nexus of capital, technology, policy, consultancy and poverty, including the scalar implications of international carbon finance. This elucidates the impacts of the internationalisation of waste finance, the commodification of carbon and whether the redistribution of climate finance to waste projects primarily enables established elites to benefit from the reframing of waste as a resource. The enclosure of the landfill sites to permit gas extraction and flaring is confronted with significant social protest and contestation as different social groups hold different claims to waste. From the more established literature on ‘informal’ waste-pickers, in particular in South Africa (Samson, 2015 and 2019), we know how more formally established (as through CDM) or informally ‘appropriated’ entitlements to accumulated waste (as in landfills) open up a space of contestation. Waste-pickers, who eke out a precarious albeit crucial livelihood, are negatively affected by enclosing the commons of waste, as they build their livelihoods on sorting through and selectively appropriating discarded items for their own use, for resale and/or entry into a recycling process. Their practice of value generation from waste is blocked by the process of enclosing waste, often manifested in gates, fences and security guards that physically shut off the landfill and turn it into a gated space with triaged access. The promised economic return of such projects in terms of economic growth and employment generation overlooks the value creation and actually existing employment already invested in the landfill.

When drawing on our South African study of CDM projects, it seems clear that at the national level the CDM architecture, because of its international and financialised structure, risks disconnecting from local and national governmental policies that aim to generate jobs in relation to a reconfigured waste value chain. And in spite of the quite meagre results of selling CERs and ‘avoiding’ greenhouse gas emissions through them, these projects have still served the purpose of advancing a techno-managerial and ecological modernisation architecture (Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2018). However, since CDM also leads to direct labour displacement when landfill sites and waste streams are enclosed for private gains, there has been significant social unrest and mobilisation that demonstrate more clearly just how contentious the production of CERs is (Bond, 2007; Ground Work South Africa, 2013).

Community waste management

In recent years, waste has been increasingly recognised as a multi-sectoral issue which can be responded to by diverse actors, including government, business, civil society and individual citizens within a regime of participatory environmental governance (Davies, 2008). Governance often strives to translate that which is politically contestable into the managerial and apolitical (Ernstson and Sörlin, 2013; Swyngedouw, 2009). This has been true for waste in many African cities, evident in Myers’ (2005) analysis of the Sustainable Cities Programme in Africa. In South Africa, following the Waste Act (Republic of South Africa, 2008), cities have made coordinated efforts to reduce waste through ongoing educational and awareness campaigns and community-focused waste and recycling initiatives which seek to establish partnerships for improved waste governance (Stokes, 2020). State efforts to reduce waste, increase recycling and link so-called ‘formal’ waste management with livelihoods have resulted in a proliferation of monthly clean-ups, media campaigns, work opportunity initiatives and community procurement schemes. In a context where risks of automation and surplus labour forces are met with challenges of municipal capacity (Palmer et al., 2017), community waste management efforts are an important tool within the commodification of waste and the devolution of state service provision, particularly in marginalised communities.

Although national clean-up days and recycling weeks long occurred in South Africa, municipalities in recent years have begun to organise monthly clean-up days where political officials come out and join residents to clean up their local areas (Stokes, 2020). At the launch of Johannesburg's ‘A Re Sebetseng’ campaign in August 2017, Mayor Herman Mashaba joined local waste workers, community members and even Miss Earth South Africa to clean up the inner-city neighbourhood of Yeoville. Translating as ‘Let's Work’, A Re Sebetseng invokes environmental hazards, civic duty and community pride in the bid to get residents to do their part, suggesting the city will become cleaner as a result (City of Johannesburg, 2018). Through mixed media announcements and by offering bags and gloves to participating communities, the campaign attempts to encourage public participation in community clean-ups on the third Saturday of each month. A similar campaign has been run in the neighbouring metro of Ekurhuleni, under the banner ‘Clean Neighbourhood Fridays’. These clean-ups have inspired similar initiatives in Rwanda and Nigeria (Umuganda and Environmental Sanitation Day, respectively), where public cleaning was deemed mandatory for able-bodied adult residents on set days.

State efforts are not limited to nurturing voluntary work. Indeed, other community labour arrangements are being incorporated into waste management service provision. In particular, state programmes target waste for job creation through public employment schemes run by all spheres of government. These schemes have a dual purpose of providing social protection for working-age adults while contributing towards necessary public works and services (Stokes, 2020). National public schemes like the Expanded Public Works Programme and Community Works Programme fund temporary and part-time work opportunities for unemployed or underemployed community members, with an increasing emphasis on youth, given their disproportionately high unemployment rates: 38.8 per cent of 16–34-year-olds in the second quarter of 2018 compared to national official unemployment rate of 27.7 per cent (Statistics South Africa, 2018). Municipalities are not supposed to use public works schemes to replace existing work. However, tracking this can be difficult – if a service is insufficiently provided, permanent jobs might not be displaced, but they also might not be created.

In recent efforts to transform waste management services, the mayor of Ekurhuleni launched another programme, Clean City/Keep Ekurhuleni Clean, which was promoted as a mass employment opportunity through the formation of community cleaning brigades. While ambitious, it also encountered significant challenges in operations at the start, leading to the contracting of an external service provider to oversee the programme in the early stages of the pilot. In its second iteration, the programme has been significantly delayed, purportedly due to internal political difficulties and the inability to pay service providers. Despite officially launching and recruiting participants in October 2017, the programme had difficulties getting off the ground, with talk of the project being delayed indefinitely or abandoned altogether (as of end of fieldwork in May 2018; Stokes, 2020).

Alongside local works schemes, waste management services have also been outsourced to community-based small, medium and macro enterprises (SMMEs) and cooperatives, particularly in low-income areas (Stokes, 2020). In 2014, the mayor of Johannesburg launched Jozi@Work, a landmark procurement scheme which offered service contracts for community-based SMMEs and cooperatives. Municipal departments were required to use 20 per cent of their budget for the initiative. However, the programme abruptly stopped following the 2016 municipal elections, amidst claims of clientelism surrounding procurement and capacity agents. Despite this, the programme's legacy is still in question. The current Democratic Alliance-led municipal government promised that an equivalent community uplift programme would replace Jozi@Work in due course. Yet regular protests by ex-Jozi@Work participants resulted in the mayor announcing the insourcing of approximately one-third of eligible Jozi@Work employees. This shift-change means insourced workers will be formally recognised as municipal employees, raising their wages from approximately 2,200 rand to 6,000 rand per month (Dludla, 2018).

In Cape Town, the municipal campaign WasteWise ran from 2001 until 2014, promoting community-led initiatives through partnerships with local government, schools/communities and businesses to establish partnerships (for an evaluation of WasteWise, see Armien-Ally, 2013; Stokes, 2020). While the campaign was originally framed as a response to littering and dumping, a broader environmental imperative led to recycling, cleaning, composting, crafts and gardening projects. The framing used in this programme suggests that win-win solutions can be obtained through empowerment, cooperation, education, recycling, training community facilitators and developing tripartite business models. While community participants recognise the potential of such initiatives, they equally challenge the power relations and outcomes of such partnerships, questioning how expectations of community empowerment and cooperative governance in waste relate to wider socio-political concerns such as crime, poverty, service delivery and a neighbourhood sense of place.

As decentralised infrastructures and devolved governance are promoted across global policy imperatives and institutions like the New Urban Agenda and World Bank, institutional consensus appears to suggest that localising services, political participation and material concerns are the most effective means of addressing residents’ needs and improving livelihoods. While not necessarily incorrect, critiques of this perspective caution against embedded inequalities that can be exacerbated through devolving finance, political capacity and representation. Such instances are highlighted by literature considering splintering urbanism and incremental infrastructures, where agency and empowerment is present, yet reinforce, depoliticise or exacerbate existing inequalities (Graham and Marvin, 2001; Kooy and Bakker, 2008; Silver, 2014). However, in most community-focused waste initiatives, labour is framed as an opportunity to find more secure work in the future, one's responsibility, or simply a civic duty for collective social reproduction (Stokes, 2020). Depoliticised and devalued, community waste efforts do provide immediate economic benefits to some participants in the form of stipends or payment for materials recovered. For many participants, getting to work and contribute towards a state service is a point of pride and dignity. And with increasing numbers of people participating in such programmes, we cannot help but wonder if this is the basis for a civic workforce who can make greater claims on the basis that they contribute towards the functioning of state services.


In line with broader development goals, waste is increasingly being seen as a resource for state actors, community groups and urban citizens throughout the global south. Waste is being reformulated as a way to generate jobs, to harness international development financing and to create more sustainable communities.

This chapter considered how waste is narrated as a resource at the state level in South Africa and the material politics of waste at the community, urban and global scale. We analysed the contemporary waste economy in South Africa in light of broader processes that mark (waste) governance in the global south, in particular the technologisation, formalisation and financialisation of waste materials.

These three ‘lenses’ are clearly intertwined. The labour–technology nexus proves to be intractable as the (capital-intensive) lure of fully automated and ‘green’ technology meets the extreme low cost of labour. The trade-off between labour-substituting technology and the mass availability of cheap labour produces a conundrum that slows down both more technologically efficient waste technologies and the provision of stable and well-paid jobs. Furthermore, as we demonstrated, the move towards ‘green’ technologisation is further nurtured by the climate change agenda. While legitimised on its green credentials, the way in which the CDM articulated with new waste management practices and technologies did indeed nurture a socio-technical shift, but one that intensified conflicts over waste while hardly – if at all – contributing to mitigating climate change.

Given the extraordinary number of people securing a livelihood from working in and with waste, there is increasing emphasis on community-focused waste initiatives. While offering the possibility of securing work, they often lead to a shift in responsibility from the state to civil society, and re-enforce a process of de-politicisation.

Taken together, the socio-ecological metabolic flow of urban waste demonstrates the contradictory and conflicting mechanisms that infuse processes of transforming urban waste circulation in the direction of a more ecological sensible and socially equitable manner. In sum, in this chapter we asked about who benefits from the reframing of waste as a resource and in what ways.


This chapter has been a collaborative effort among the authors, who are listed in alphabetical order. The work is an initial synthesis of various empirical studies in our project ‘Turning livelihoods to rubbish? Assessing the impacts of formalisation and technologisation of waste management on the urban poor’, funded by the UK's ESRC-DFID Poverty and Alleviation Grant (reference number ES/M009408/1). Our website is www.situatedupe.net/tlr.


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