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Turning the tide on recycling in SA

By Bertie Lourens 29th August 2019 Recycling

Every South African can help turn the tide on recycling in our country and ensure the preservation of our planet. Here’s how you can do your part.

So do you want the good news, or the bad?

“The good news, of course!” 

Okay, here it is: when it comes to plastic recycling, as a nation, we’re not doing all that bad. According to a study published in June 2018 by Plastics SA, South Africa has an input plastic recycling rate of 43.7%, as compared to that of Europe’s recycling rate, which currently sits at 31.1%. That’s good, right? Indeed. 

But not good enough, and this is where the bad news comes in. Unlike Europe, where the assumed responsibility for recycling lies primarily with the individual, most of our recycling happens informally at the landfill and is a byproduct of poor infrastructure and economics. When it comes to individual households, a Stats SA 2018 South Africa State of Waste Report said, “Western Cape has the highest percentage (20,3%) of urban households that sorted waste for recycling, followed by Gauteng at 12,7%. With only 1,2% of urban households recycling waste, Limpopo is the lowest in the country.”

Hmmm. That sounds frighteningly low considering that plastic could overtake the fish in our oceans by 2050.

The current state of affairs

But let’s not go wagging the finger at SA’s lack of dutiful citizenry just yet. It’s no secret that, when it comes to the provision of adequate waste management services, South Africa is sadly under par and over-capacitated. According to the same Stats SA report, almost half of the country goes without basic waste collection services, never mind a recycling service.

Do you want to know how well your organisation is doing when it comes to waste management, click here and we'll do a free waste audit

If we have the will but lack the means to recycle from home, we should be grateful for the hands that sort through our rubbish bags or stand at the traffic lights and recycle our trash for small change. But this system poses all kinds of serious health risks to the pickers, who face toxic exposure at landfills, and infections from germs and bacteria, while digging through dustbins. Given that, in 2017 alone, a staggering 74% of all plastics arrived at landfill unseparated and unclean, “it is a sad reality that in South Africa, recyclables are still being sourced from landfill at high cost and danger to the waste pickers.”

So what can we do as individuals to turn the tide on SA’s recycling?

1. Separate at source

We can start by acknowledging the enormous contributions that these informal ‘waste pickers’ make to our economy. Though unfortunate that they are so needed in the industry, their job is nonetheless a critical reality in our current world of waste. We can help by making it easier - and cleaner - for them. 

Separate your trash at the source, so they don't have to. (Think: would you want to dig through soiled nappies to get to that tin?) 

Keep in mind that you can separate your household or office waste into five categories: glass, plastic, paper, metal, and biodegradable food waste. Compost your organics where and if you can. Do this, regardless of whether or not recycling services are available in your area.

2. Know your recyclables

  • plastic

Not all plastic is recyclable. A helpful way to know is by looking for the little symbol on the label. Not sure about items such as those single-use plastic shopping bags? Check with your service provider if they can be included.

  • Glass

Remember to take off all corks and lids. And heads up: drinking glasses, light bulbs, crockery and hardware, windscreens, windows, and the glass used on computers and in laboratories, are a recycling no-no.

  • Paper

Most but not all paper products are recyclable. Unfortunately your pizza boxes are not going to escape the landfill. Neither will your used paper plates, kitchen rolls, toilet paper, cement bags, plastic-lined dog food bags or disposable nappies. 

3. Bring the change

Don’t give up if there are no professional recycling companies servicing your area. Have a look on My Waste to see where and if WastePlan is operating close by, or contact us to see how we partner with your residential area or business. You can also bring your recyclables to a local drop-off point if need be. It’s definitely less convenient, but a viable alternative.

4. Reduce, re-use

Of course the best option is to avoid using these products altogether. Steer clear of once-off items like straws and lids; choose reusable shopping bags and cups instead. Make every effort to reduce your carbon footprint. Think ‘generational impact’ when making consumer choices, regardless of how insignificant they may seem.

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Bertie Lourens

Author Bertie Lourens

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