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How do ‘world-class cities’ deal with their waste?

The waste crisis in my own suburb in Jozi has abated … for now. Last Friday residents flurried about with their stinky, overloaded bins in obviously excited gratitude as the Transman truck heroically crested at the top of the hill. I rushed to tell my neighbour from across the street to bring her bins out, knowing she would be livid if this brief window of opportunity trundled by. Her regular kerbside scans for the elusive Pikitup gang, accompanied by head-shaking and collusive clucking with her own next-door neighbour, were ample evidence that she was fed up with this world-class, waste-management service.

Waste strikes are psychologically challenging events for me. On the one hand, I watch with dread as the unemptied 240-litre bins begin to bulge and overflow and as the secret neatness of the black bags get exposed and disrupted by the waste pickers and the neighbourhood dogs. On the other hand, a waste strike presents a rare opportunity to confront our wastefulness and consumerism and to realise how much the workers who collect our weekly trash add to our common well-being. They are also a great test for neighbourly love and goodwill: If I leave my bin out will my neighbour secretly sneak her baby’s poo nappies and used kitty litter into the unallocated space in my bin … or not?

The most recent (and continuing) strike by Pikitup workers has however also been intellectually engaging in terms of the different ways in which the appellation “world class” has been bandied about. It is centrally implicated in the wage dispute between Pikitup and their workers. In one of the earlier “Community Notices” published on Pikitup’s website we were informed that the current labour dispute results from “various measures introduced by the current management team to transform Pikitup into a world-class, waste-management organisation”. These include the refusal to allow workers to take a half-day on pay day, breathalyser tests, the introduction of a biometric access control system, and the transportation of employees to and from work using company resources. More than once, when dropping off my recycled material at one garden refuse site, I have been assisted by a Pikitup worker who certainly smelled like happy hour had come early and on the job, so clearly there are two sides to this story. However, the “aggressive transformation and turnaround strategy” Pikitup is now implementing has more than just a whiff of neoliberalism to it. Not wanting to pay the transport costs of workers yet at the same time probably forking out millions for a biometric access control system? Hmmm, I smell a rat.

In the same week that the illegal strike has waged, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) ruled that the City of Johannesburg had to withdraw a commercial detailing the city’s financial, environmental and economic achievements in the context of it being a “World-Class African City”. One of the reasons given by the complainant for this commercial being blatantly untrue, was that Pikitup left rubbish lying around for days, due to fleet shortages. The ASA agreed that on the evidence before it the advert was misleading, although because the commercial made no reference to Pikitup, the complainant’s submission about waste management was irrelevant. But while Pikitup uses the idea of world class to justify a leaner, meaner public service governed by the dictates of the market and the technologies of intimidation, the vision of world class conjured by the complainant is of the absence of waste, its invisibility in our shared spaces. These uses are possibly reinforcing.

The international media seized with glee upon the ASA story, perhaps seeing an opportunity to reconstitute the typical representation of developing country waste management as mismanagement. This also has “world-class” overtones, linked with neoliberal globalisation. As Hisashi Ogawa observes, solid waste management is a serious concern in the urban areas of developing countries, particularly the capital cities. The “poor visual appearance of these cities will have negative impacts on official and tourist visits and foreign investment”, he says. OK! So now we know for whom the “world-class” services are for …

In a brilliant YouTube clip The Grid’s Edward Keenan criticises Toronto’s obsession with being world class, proposing that anyone who brings “world class” into a debate automatically loses. Why? Because in the time that “striving MacDesperate” has kept up with the grown-up cities of the world, what it was aiming for is no longer world class. The first rule of world-class cities is that you don’t obsess about world class, you define the term by what you do. And you don’t build a great city for tourists, you build it for the people who live there.

So let me end by suggesting two areas in which we could define world class by what we do:

We could think differently about the people who physically remove our refuse, who get it up their noses, under their nails and in their hair. Should this be one of the shittiest and lowest paid jobs on offer? Considering how much their service adds to the amenity of our suburbs surely we could regard them with more dignity, respect and gratitude (provided they are not drunk, but hey if you spent the whole day in the company of your own waste wouldn’t you also drink?) Shouldn’t one actually be quite ashamed that someone else has to cart away one’s evil-smelling, possibly hazardous, household trash on a weekly basis?

This brings me to my second area. We should think very carefully about the wastes we are generating and urgently take measures to reduce and recycle. Pikitup has garden refuse sites to which you can take your unsorted recyclable waste, major shopping outlets have bins for hazardous items and compost heaps are as cheap as a dry, sunny spot in your garden or communal property area. If everyone did this, I would venture to suggest that we would not even need weekly collections by our beloved world-class, waste-management service providers and that every two or three weeks would be sufficient. Could you live with this?