This paper takes an ‘economic sociology of law’ approach to investigating government efforts to formalise the work of waste pickers in South Africa—that is, it treats the legal and the economic as fundamentally social phenomena. Waste pickers are informal workers who collect 80-90% of all recycled materials, and form part of an international commodities value chain worth just under £1 billion to the South African economy. Their work also contributes to environmental preservation through the reduction of landfill space and the creation of livelihoods for more than 60,000 South Africans who often work under poor conditions.
 
Formalisation offers waste pickers access to government-backed enterprise development opportunities. But formalisation also reduces waste pickers’ ability to enter and exit the waste management economy, and field research from 2017 shows that waste pickers value that flexibility. So, government formalisation efforts have been largely unsuccessful, which has exposed the limitations of government to regulate and monitor the actions of those within sector. Waste pickers’ resistance to government bureaucracy reveals their ability to retain autonomy through a reliance on informal norms at the local level. These norms facilitate waste pickers to carry out functions crucial to them, society and the wider economy without being formalised. They provide a livelihood for themselves; they contribute to environmental sustainability through landfill space reduction; and they support the globalised economy for recycled materials through the supply of commodities. The paper concludes that a focus on formalisation minimises waste pickers’ substantial contributions to the waste management economy in favour of legal compliance, and potentially ignores the fostering of dialogue that could serve to increase waste picker responsiveness to regulatory mechanisms in the long term.
 
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