Growing up in Johannesburg, recycling was always something I associated with school. We learnt about, and were encouraged, to make use of facilities such as the Ronnie Bin (for recycling paper) and Collect-a-Can. These initiatives were often incentivised, awarding a prize to the class who collected the most. Not a bad way to get kids involved in recycling!
On the whole, though, South Africa has been behind the global curve when it comes to large-scale, city-wide recycling. Due to limited facilities and a lack of necessary infrastructure, recycling is not perceived as an easy or effortless thing for consumers to undertake. Most often we need to take our recycling to designated drop-off or buy-back centres, as kerbside collection and municipal recycling are usually not available options.
However, recently, some local municipalities in Cape Town and Johannesburg have implemented kerbside collection, yet the sad truth is that many consumers don’t make use of this service or just can’t be bothered. On a more positive note, there are also many people out there who would like to be recycling if they just knew what to do. That’s where we come in. If you’ve been wanting to recycle but just aren’t sure what could be recycled, what to do with it and how to start, then keep reading our three-part recycling blog!
Why should we be recycling?
Last year, Gauteng landfilled approximately 41 million tonnes of waste and recovered/recycled only 1 million tonnes. To put that in context, Gauteng only recycled about 2% of its waste. While the Western Cape landfilled approximately 1.5 million tonnes of waste and recovered/recycled 300,000 tonnes, which means the Western Cape recycled about 20% of its waste (South African Waste Information Centre, 2017). If we continue to dispose of waste at this rate, we will lose and destroy hectares of land that could otherwise have been protected, preserved or used for a more sustainable purpose.
Another reason to recycle is the environmental impact of production. Often the production of new packaging and plastics requires more natural resources (i.e. energy, water, oils and metals) than recycling existing plastics and paper into something new. So essentially recycling is the more sustainable option.
Although the Western Cape is leagues ahead of Gauteng in terms of recycling, government wants to see all provinces reduce the amount of waste going to landfill by at least 70%, and that’s a big ask if consumers and industry don’t come to the party – that includes you!
What is a landfill?
If you don’t already know, a landfill is a large open hole, usually dug into a hillside or existing valley. Trenches are dug into the bottom of the void for drainage and gas lines and then the whole thing is lined with plastic and gravel. Over time waste is dumped and compacted into the hole and each layer of waste is covered with soil or rubble in order to assist in liquid absorption and to prevent windblown litter.
Most of the liquid seeping through the waste, called leachate, trickles to the bottom of the landfill and goes into the trenches, where it is directed to a leachate dam. Leachate dams contain the liquid, which is either evaporated or is sometimes diluted and discharged to sewers.
The waste also produces methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas and contributes to global climate change. Methane in large quantities can be explosive, which make landfills potentially hazardous. Because of this, methane gas emanating from most landfills is collected and directed to a flare next to the landfill, where it is burnt off. Burning the methane gas converts it to carbon dioxide, a weaker greenhouse gas, and this helps to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The methane from some landfills is now being used to generate electricity, so at least it’s now being used for something functional.
In short, landfills in South Africa are an unfortunate but necessary evil. However, everyone should be aware of and, if possible, visit a landfill site, because seeing how much waste we produce and where it goes will give you a renewed motivation to recycle!
Why it is best to separate at source (sort your waste in your home)?
Separation at source is important for a number of reasons, the primary one being the hygiene aspect. When we separate our plastics, glass and cans, we wash or rinse them and then place them into separate recycling bins. This means that when they are collected and get to the recycling facility they are clean and can be placed into recycling machines immediately. Secondly, if these recyclables are not cleaned prior to disposal they can attract flies and rodents. And thirdly, if recycling facilities have to clean the large amounts of plastic, glass and cans they receive before recycling them, the additional time, energy and cost involved is huge and can make recycling financially unfeasible. So, remember to rinse and sort your plastics, glass, cans and paper before you send them for recycling!
Consumer buying power
Finally, remember that the power lies with you! When you are shopping and you see that one brand has double the amount of packaging than another brand, choose the brand with less packaging. Products, such a tea bags, sweets, biscuits etc. do not need to be individually wrapped. It’s a huge waste of plastic wrapping that generally cannot be recycled and ends up in a landfill or worse in the environment and ocean (keep an eye out for our Ocean Evils blog coming soon). If all collective consumers choose to buy products with less packaging we can send a strong message to manufacturers to design and package their products in a more environmentally friendly way!
A perfect example of this was Woolworths’ recent trials of plastic egg boxes. Enough consumers responded to their trial with negative feedback, questioning the environmental impact of their new plastic packaging, and Woolworths has now removed these egg boxes from their shelves. We can make a difference if we think a little more about the products we buy every day!
Keep a look out for Part 2 of this series, coming soon, which will explain in more detail what can and can’t be recycled.