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bongi sithole

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the street surfer: the informal (recycler) and the city

Waste. South Africa has a lot of it, and it has become an increasingly irrepressible problem throughout the country. There is, however, a growing local economy taking the issue into their own hands. Visible figures on the streets, sidewalks and most if not all public spaces within Cape Town, informal recyclers assist the city and environment by reclaiming waste as a means of income. And although they form part of the city’s everyday rhythms, the success of their work has remained largely uncelebrated and marginalised. Marginalized morally, where picking through the city’s trash, raises all concerns about cleanliness, dignity, and safety. But also, spatially, where the areas and situations that make up the street surfer’s daily interactions, quite literally shape the city’s social borders and interpret the boundaries between our formal and informally structured worlds. Therefore, informal recyclers are linked to global environmental concerns as well as our own local social, political and spatial ones; yet they are without vital support.

It is crucial to discuss the city as a space that can produce positive outcomes for these individuals. In placing informal recyclers outside of society and regarding them as ‘other’, we are in danger of further disenfranchising an ever-growing population. The perception of informal recyclers as being without personal standards arguably sets a precedent for the limited, low-quality facilities available to them. Often, what is thought to be a solution, is a one-size-fits-all approach that is unresponsive and designed with the assumption that the people are the problem, and not the conditions under which they live.

This dissertation proposes a type of self-sustaining intervention that support the work of the Woodstock waste picker. Developing a collaborative landscape that not only uses waste as a driver to empower and improve the working conditions of informal recyclers but also encourages the surrounding local communities to see the economic and environmental rewards that could arise when we foster communication with waste pickers that could allow us to further engage in our own individual relationship(s) with waste.

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