Informal Sector and Waste Management in Rustenburg, South Africa

Informal sector forms a considerable part of economies and employment especially in less developed countries. Waste collection and recycling is one of the sectors that offers income for the officially unemployed and migrants in many African countries.

Authors: Maarit Virtanen, Antti Eerola and Päivi Lahti

Characteristics of informal economy in Africa

Although informal economy is often associated with small-scale business, it does actually provide a living for about 60 % of people working outside of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, with transnational trading and remittance networks (Meagher 2017, 18, 21). According to the International Labour Organisation (2013, 3), the gross value added (GVA) contribution of informal enterprises in non-agricultural GVA is approximately 50 % in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, the informal sector is much smaller than in less developed African countries, but it is still represents 16,7 % of total employment (Skinner 2016). In South Africa, about 41 % of those working in the informal sector are trading. This is followed by construction and community and social service. (Skinner 2016.)  Waste collection and recycling has been and still is a significant part of informal sector in many cities and municipalities.

The official unemployment rates are high in many African countries, and they do not include immigrants. The unemployed still need to earn some kind of livelihood, and informal economy is silently accepted in local communities. Illegal immigrants are a small but probably the most problematic part of informal sector, because they live in unauthorized settlements and on illegal businesses or crime. This may raise xenophobia and increase insecurity especially in the poorest townships. (Crush et al. 2015, 1.)

IMAGE 1. An example of informal economy services at a township (Skinner 2016).

Informal economy and waste management in Rustenburg

The informal sector plays a significant role in Rustenburg’s economy and is also a political issue. Municipal authorities strive to keep the informal sector under control and do not want it to grow. However, as both internal and external migration is growing fast, the municipality is not able to keep up with infrastructure and basic services for new arrivals. This results in an increasing informal labour force and unauthorized housing. In Rustenburg, the official unemployment rate is 26,4 % and youth unemployment rate is 34,7 %. Only 8,9 % of inhabitants have a higher education degree. (National Government of South Africa 2016.)

Waste management and household waste collection in Rustenburg is coordinated by the municipality’s Waste Unit. Residents leave their waste bags outside their houses on a certain date for the weekly collection. The waste is then collected and transported to the Waterval landfill site. (Rustenburg Local Municipality 2018.) The collection covers most parts of the city, but not the fast spreading informal settlements. In the poorest townships, the residents do not pay for the services, which increases the pressure on the municipality resources.

The Waterval landfill site was opened in 2016 with the aim of providing modern sorting and recycling services.  However, recycling has been slow to start and most of the reusable waste is still handled and collected by informal waste pickers working both on the streets and at the landfill site. (Virtanen 2017.) The informal pickers sort mainly plastics, metal, cardboard and glass from household waste. Pickers walk long distances collecting and transporting the waste to local buy-back centres. Work is hard, dirty, sometimes even dangerous, and cash compensation is small and varies a lot.  Buy-back centres do not register the collectors and it is difficult to estimate the impact of recycling as employment, but clearly it has an impact. The municipality is working on the registration of informal pickers, but the work has proved challenging. Most pickers are immigrants from neighbouring countries and they do not stay long in one place.

IMAGE 2. Waterval landfill site (Photo: Maarit Virtanen).

Currently informal sector is a significant part of waste management in Rustenburg. Formalising the whole chain of waste management could lead to a more efficient recycling and better working conditions, but implementation is not easy. The Rustenburg Local Municipality plays an important role in providing space and facilities for recycling activities, but it is struggling to provide services for the fast growing population.

About the project

Co-creating Sustainable Cities – Lahti (Finland), Rustenburg (South Africa), Ho (Ghana) Local Government Cooperation – project is a cross-sectorial development project implemented in 2017-2018. The project focus is on developing municipal services through circular economy and urban planning, emphasizing particularly waste management and sanitation through local pilots and initiatives.

The expected outcome of the project is to co-create viable businesses and generate capacity for more efficient municipal services by means of improved recycling, material recovery, nutrient recycling and sanitation coverage. Local stakeholders are encouraged to take action in turning waste into wealth. Co-creating Sustainable Cities project is coordinated by LAMK and funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.


Crush, J., Skinner, C. & Chikanda, A. 2015. Informal Migrant Entrepreneurship and Inclusive Growth in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  Cape Town: Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP)/Bronwen Dachs Müller. [Cited 11.9.2018]. Available at:

International Labour Organisation. 2013. Measuring informality: A statistical manual on the informal sector and informal employment. Geneva: International Labour Office. [Cited 14.9.2018]. Available at:–en/index.htm

Meagher, K. 2017. Cannibalizing the informal economy: Frugal innovation and economic inclusion in Africa. The European Journal of Development Research. Vol. 30(1), 17-33. [Cited 25.8.2018]. Available at:

National Government of South Africa. 2016. Rustenburg Local Municipality. [Cited 13.9.2018] Available at:

Rustenburg Local Municipality. 2018. Services/Waste Management. [Cited 11.9.2018] Available at:

Skinner, C. 2016. Informal Sector Employment: Policy Reflections. REDI 3×3 Conference, 28 November 2016. [Cited 14.9.2018]. Available at:

Virtanen, M. 2017. Co-creating Rustenburg Circular Economy Road Map in South Africa. LAMK Pro. [Cited 14.9.2018]. Available at:

About the authors

Maarit Virtanen is the Project Manager for Co-creating Sustainable Cities project that promotes waste management and circular economy in Rustenburg. Päivi Lahti is a planner in the same project. Antti Eerola studies International Business at LAMK and did a two-month internship in Rustenburg.

Published 19.9.2018

Reference to this publication

Virtanen, M. & Eerola, A. & Lahti, P. 2018. Informal Sector and Waste Management in Rustenburg, South Africa. LAMK Pro. [Electronic magazine]. [Cited and date of citation]. Available at:


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