South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. The majority of the economically active, but unemployed people enter the informal economic sector, as a means to make ends meet. Waste recycling falls into this informal sector. On average South Africa recovers about 52 percent of all recoverable paper and 26 percent of all recoverable plastic per annum. These figures are low when compared with developed countries where up to 90 percent of recoverable paper is recovered. As recycling creates job and income generating opportunities, it thus has a vital role to play in poverty alleviation. The research examines the role of subsistence waste pickers in the recycling industry in South Africa. The research was qualitative and exploratory in nature. Data for this study was gathered through 30 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders in the recycling industry. In total, informal waste pickers provide at least 84 percent of all recyclable materials in Johannesburg through merchants, recyclers and producers of recyclable material in Johannesburg. Informal waste pickers bring considerable socio-economic benefits to countries around the globe, providing work for the unskilled, providing a constant supply of secondary raw materials to the local manufacturing industries and significantly reducing the quantity of waste to landfill sites. However, the research will show that even in the best situations, waste pickers suffer ergonomic problems due to the physically taxing nature of their job, as well as psychological and social disadvantages stemming from their low social status.