As a result of the high levels of unemployment in South Africa many unskilled people are forced to resort to a variety of income-generating activities in the informal economy. The activity of collecting and selling recyclables presents virtually no barriers to entry, making it a viable option. Very little research focusing on street waste pickers is done, and when done it mostly takes the form of case studies. This article reports the results of the first country-wide research into the barriers that prevent street waste pickers from improving their socioeconomic circumstances. The study used a mixed method approach. Structured interviews were conducted between April 2011 and June 2012 with 914 street waste pickers and 69 buy-back centres in 13 major cities across all nine provinces in South Africa. Low levels of schooling, limited language proficiency, uncertain and low levels of income as well as limited access to basic social needs make it difficult for waste pickers to move upwards in the hierarchy of the informal economy. The unique set of socioeconomic circumstances under which street waste pickers operate in the various cities and towns in South Africa makes the design for any possible policy interventions a complex one. Policy makers will have to take note of the interdependence of the barriers identified in this research. Failing to do so may cause policies that are aimed at supporting street waste pickers to achieve the exact opposite and ironically deprive them of their livelihood.