I’m obsessive about recycling! I recycle everything I can, even to the point of trying to clean aluminium foil (not that it’s always successful). More and more initiatives are popping up that use recycled material to make everything from benches and school desks, to light-weight bricks, road surfacing and roof insulation. However, current recycling stats for South Africa show that the recovery rates for recycled cans is at 69%, but only 17% for plastic (visit Treevolution for more stats and lots of really good information on recycling). This means that of all the plastic waste that is generated across the country, only 17% of it makes it to a recycling facility. This low figure is due to a combination of factors:
More plastic waste is generated by the average household than any other type of material.
Many parts of the country lack access to recycling facilities.
Certain types of plastic can’t be recycled (more on that later).
A lot of people are put off by the process because, let’s be honest, it is just so much easier to throw everything in the bin and let the rubbish truck collect it every week. But that kind of thinking is exactly why we have oceans full of plastic today, so we don’t really have a choice anymore. But because recycling is so important now, it’s extra important that we get it right, which means we first need to acknowledge that recycling isn’t quite as easy as popping things in the right bin and walking away. We need to take responsibility for all our rubbish, not just the things that are convenient.
What are the challenges of recycling?
The more we do something the better we get at it. Recycling is no different. Collectively humans have been reusing materials for centuries. In the early 20th century, scrap metal was a high value and frequently traded commodity, and as early as the 1600s scraps of cloth were recycled into paper. It’s only recently that recycling has become a waste management technique, rather than a common household practice. Even more importantly, it’s only recently that recycling has become a chore. This is certainly true in South Africa where we have to sort our own waste and very few places have curbside collection, so we have to transport it to depots or buy-back centres. But although recycling has become more of a hassle, people have also become more creative with how to work around the challenges.
So here’s a very quick list of some tricky bits you might not know about, as well as some alternative ways of dealing with your waste.
1. Always rinse your recyclables before disposing of them.
Dirty materials are more difficult to recycle and in some cases it make the item unusable as the dirt contaminates the end product.
2. Small items can fall through machinery at recycling plants
This includes items like bread tags, bottle tops and screw caps.
To prevent this you can collect metal bottle tops in a metal can of the same type (aluminium or steel). You can check this with a magnet – aluminium is not magnetic, but steel is. When the can is about half full, use pliers to crimp the top of the can closed and recycle as normal. You can also do this with small pieces of aluminium foil and pull rings from cold drink cans.
Honestly, I’m not sure if that works with plastic items, because I don’t know how plastics are separated before they are recycled. However, the Sweethearts Foundation collects plastic screw caps (like from a cold drink bottle) and bread tags for recycling to provide wheelchairs for children and adults in need through the Tops and Tags initiative. For every 450 kg of tops or 50 kg of tags the organisation is provided with a wheelchair or money to pay for a wheelchair.
3. Type 7 plastics are non-recyclable
Type 7 plastics are often made from a fusion of different materials, (e.g. plastic and foil) which makes them virtually impossible to separate and therefore much more expensive and energy intensive to recycle. This type of plastic is frustratingly common too. It’s used to make sachets for refills of things like hand soap, for storing foods to be kept on a shelf, like sauces, crisps and pet food, for bags of some frozen foods, and trays for some microwaveable meals. I’m going to throw disposable razor blades and blister packs for tablets in here too. Even though they aren’t listed as a Type 7 plastic, the metal and plastic aren’t separable so they suffer from very much the same problem.
Ecobricks is an organisation which uses plastic bottles packed with other plastics to make bricks for construction projects. Unlike conventional recycling methods, Ecobricks can make use of any type of plastic, including balloons, plastic straws, mascara tubes. A well made Ecobrick can be used to build a house, an item of furniture, or even a pathway. Although the organisation prefers people to use their own Ecobricks, it can take a surprisingly long time to sufficiently pack a bottle so there are also drop off points and organisations who will accept Ecobrick donations to help them with their projects (e.g. Sustainable.co.za and EWT). However, this might require some research on your part as the Ecobrick website is slightly out of date in terms of where these places are.
4. Milk and juice cartons require specialist recycling
Similar to Type 7 plastics, cartons used to store milk, juice, custard, cream etc are not only made of paper. They have a layer of foil and plastic inside them which are a requirement for hygiene purposes. The short version is: if it’s made by TetraPak, it can’t be recycled normally.
Fortunately, TetraPak runs a wide reaching collection service through Mpact recycling which allows TetraPak cartons to be dropped off in normal paper collection bins across the country. There is a good search function on the Mpact website where you can search by location for drop off points
5. Kerbside collection is not a municipal requirement
This is a serious bugbear for me. If there are rubbish trucks in every neighbourhood, why not recycling trucks? It’s illogical and short-sighted, but true. If your neighbourhood doesn’t have kerbside collection for recycling then it doesn’t matter how nicely you sort your rubbish and what colour bag you put it in, it either won’t be collected by the municipality or will go to the landfill with all the other rubbish. You should always check whether your local municipality offers kerbside collection. If they do, they should provide you with the appropriate bags to sort your recycling into (clear bags for glass and cans, orange bags for paper and plastic), but you can buy your own or collect them from municipal offices if necessary.
For areas that don’t have municipal collection services, there are a number of organisations that offer a private service. For a full list of companies across the country see here. Below is a short list of only companies I am familiar with.
- WastePlan offers collection services of recyclables and non-recyclables in Cape Town only, but has offices and sorting factories across South Africa.
- Mpact offers collection services in designated areas of Gauteng only, but has drop off bins across the country.
- EcoMonkey offers collection services as well as designated recycling bins in Johannesburg only.
- OpenSky offers collection as well as designated recycling bin and 60 plastic bags a month in Pretoria, Centurion and Midrand only.
- Pikitup offers collection services in Johannesburg only, servicing different areas on different days of the week.
- Central Waste offers paper and plastic (not polystyrene) collection services in Pietermaritzburg and surrounds only.
- Evergreen Recycling offers collection of office paper and plastic in the greater Durban area only (note they don’t collect from private residences).
You can also visit PolyCo or My Waste to find drop-off centres near you. Alternatively, you can reach out to a local buy back centre (such as PolyCo and Collect-a-Can) to allow unemployed people to collect waste for which the centre will pay them. Some people are able to earn as much as R150 from a scheme such as this, which is often their only form of income.
6. HELP! This item doesn’t have a recycling icon on it!
There is a special circle of hell for packaging designers who don’t include recycling information on their products. Not to worry, it’s not a total disaster.
If it is plastic of any kind it can be Ecobricked. If you aren’t Ecobricking, then the recommended practice is to include it with your general plastic recycling and if it isn’t recyclable it will be removed at the depot or processing plant. If you use a private collection service, they will most likely sort it for you too, but it’s best to check this first.
If you aren’t sure about a paper based product, try soaking a small piece in water over night. If you can’t break it up easily between your fingers the next day then it probably has a plastic coating and it isn’t recyclable, so just throw it away in the rubbish bin (don’t Ecobrick it).
In most cases its safe to assume metal products are recyclable, but always make sure cans and foil are clean.